As it turned out, not a whole lot. On a traditional Department of Education report card that uses performance levels (1–4), nearly everything parents can learn about their children is in relation to a set of standards in each subject. Students who don’t yet meet the standards are graded not as “approaching” or “working toward” standards, but as “below” or “well below.”
Teachers know their students are more than just a set of grades. And when they are given the time and support, teachers appreciate the opportunity to demonstrate more of what they observe about their students. That’s why, in some elementary schools, alternative progress reports have become valuable replacements for traditional report cards.
“If a child is struggling but really working hard and has made a lot of accomplishments, we don’t feel comfortable giving that child a ‘failing’ grade,” says Teddy Fernandez, a physical education teacher and the chapter leader at the Neighborhood School in the East Village.
The Neighborhood School is one of a network of progressive schools in Manhattan’s District 1 that have long eschewed the standard DOE report card in favor of extended narrative reports.
“We don’t feel like a letter grade or a checklist is as informative as a narrative,” says Fernandez. “Our narratives focus on the development of the child in the class, their strengths and where they need to go.”
For John Allgood, a kindergarten teacher and the chapter leader at the Urban Assembly School for Arts and Letters in Brooklyn, the goal of the narrative report is “to give parents a snapshot of how we see their child and their child’s life in school.”
“I do think standards-based report cards can promote a deficit model. It’s like the mesas out in Arizona: either you’re on or you’re off,” he says. “We need to be thinking of a child as someone who’s working hard to be successful. After writing a narrative, I come away feeling like I know the child better myself.”
At the Earth School in the East Village, special education teacher and Chapter Leader Jia Lee says teachers who write narratives strive for a “diplomatic, neutral tone” in their writing.
“You’ll never see words that are loaded to insinuate something judgment-wise. It’s straight-up observation to foster a conversation between us and families and students,” she says.
Unlike a traditional single-page report card, however, narrative reports can be as long as five pages. To ensure that they are meaningful reports and not an undue paperwork burden for teachers, schools that take on nontraditional report cards must do a lot of thoughtful planning to ensure that teachers are given the time and the tools to prepare them. At the Neighborhood School, for instance, teachers devote a full day — along with some of their professional learning time on Mondays — to write their narratives twice a year.
“It is a time commitment,” acknowledges Lee, who estimates she spends one to two hours on each report.
Teachers who aren’t ready to make the leap to narrative reports may want to explore student portfolios as a way of supplementing the DOE’s standard report card. A portfolio might consist of all the assessments a teacher has used to give that student a traditional standards-based grade — end-of-unit writing pieces, math assessments, reading running-record levels — but the inclusion of students’ actual work gives parents a fuller picture of how their grades were established. Portfolios, too, can be time-consuming to assemble and require schools to consider carefully how and when teachers will prepare them.
“We keep our portfolios until students leave our school, and it allows us to really see the development of the child,” says Fernandez.
Portfolios also allow room for students themselves to contribute to the grading process. Students can select work they’re most proud of to include in their portfolios, for instance, and write reflections on their own work.
In whatever form they take, both portfolios and narrative reports allow teachers to think outside the box — literally.
“Most report cards give you the option to check off a box, and that’s not always reflective of what children can do or say or represent,” says Elizabeth Uraga, a 1st- and 2nd-grade teacher and the chapter leader at Ella Baker School on the Upper East Side. “We talk about there being a variety of learners, but there’s not a variety of report cards. As a teacher, I want to be able to convey more of who a child is.”