Ridiculous & Meaningless Reports

Back into a school year and I’ve been reflecting on school reports. Consider these two reports based on ones I’ve recently written or received – if you teach in Australia you’ll recognise the general format. Assume before there is some sort of paragraph outlining the course, and afterwards there is a generic comment of the form “must work harder” but written in the sort of education-ese all teachers seem to be expert at:


When receiving reports I believe parents generally have three questions:

1) Did my child pass the subject?

2) How did he or she go?

3) How does he or she compare to the rest of the class?

The short answers to the above questions based on the reports would likely be:

1) Did my child pass the subject? Yes, clearly.

2) How did he or she go?  Quite alright, (probably).

3) How does she or he compare to the rest of the class? Hmmm. Who knows?

The longer answers to the three parental questions would be a bit different:

1) Did my child pass the subject? Don’t parents yet realise that “pass” and “fail” are no longer terms that have any currency in education? Your child demonstrated the necessary understanding to receive a Unit Result of “S” so that should be good enough (BTW, the only “N” in the level was a student who did not even pretend to do anything).

2) How did he or she go? Well, if it was my child I wouldn’t be very happy. I mean, anyone can get an A for a Research Assignment (in fact the lowest mark in the class was a B+ – we give one “everyone can succeed” assignment per semester). And C+ for workbook – that means only about half the work done, in a barely legible scribble. The semester exam grade was pretty good, but still below average for the class.

3) How does she or he compare to the rest of the class? Ranking students is against the philosophy of this school, and is counter -productive to students’ emotional development. Were I to calculate it (which I wouldn’t) your child would actually be18th out of 24, but it would require a court order for me to tell you.

I don’t know a single teacher who enjoys writing reports, and report writing time is notoriously the most stressful time of the year for teachers in schools. But I don’t believe reports are written to convey meaningful information to parents – there is the illusion of information, but reports omit as much as they convey. If reports did convey meaningful information we would experience less instances of parents insisting in Yr 12 that their child is going to be a doctor/lawyer/pharmacist when everyone (well, teachers) knows that the child would make a good checkout assistant at a supermarket. And we would not experience the situation where it falls to some poor special needs teacher in Yr 9 to inform parents that their child is actually functionally illiterate.

What if reports did convey extra information? Consider the examples below:


Now you may think that the average grades are unrealistic, but the point is the two reports, with exactly the same grades, give very different impressions of the level of achievement of the student.

Do schools report like this? Very few.

Could schools report like this? Every single one.

In fact, the sort of information in these reports can be calculated automatically by most reporting software, and many schools would generate the same sort of information for internal use. Schools undoubtedly say that more nuanced information regarding a child can be given at parent-teacher interviews, and this is indeed true. But who reading this could confidently say that parents do receive the full picture of their child’s achievement? What would be an average school’s PT turnout? 50%? 60%?

I would be happy to report in the way outlined above – and I would be happy to receive such reports for any children of my own. But across schools there seems to be a very great reluctance to report this way, and I really don’t know why.


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