Sunday, July 20, 2014

Report Cards

Remember report cards? Not our kids' report cards, ours.

My earliest memory of a report card was from first or second grade. It was a few pages long and included rankings (Excellent, Good, Fair, Needs Improvement) on all kinds of academic and developmental achievements. From elementary math and reading skills to listening, punctuality and playing well with others. 

My father was so proud of it, he brought it in to work.

From then on, I was determined to get great report cards. And by and large I did (we'll just skip right over "Advanced Math Theory and Analysis" in twelfth grade and "Technical Theatre" my second year in college).

The thing with report cards back then is that there was an element of surprise. The process (for better or worse; I can actually see it both ways) included some subjectivity on the part of the teachers. The envelope arrived in the mail and there was a definitive "ta-da" (or "uh-oh") moment. The few days between the end of school and the release of the report card was a time of anticipation. Or anxiety. Or both.

My teenage daughter's report card was released while we were on vacation. It didn't matter though. Thanks to our school district's investment in a "gradebook portal," we have access to her marks in real-time. Real-time, like, all the time.

Essentially, this system is used by the school's teachers throughout the school year. They post assignments, as well as test scores and grades on papers and projects, homework and class participation.

The tagline of the technology provider is "inspire student learning."

Unfortunately, the only thing I've seen it inspire is a compulsion to check grades and to look at schoolwork as a purely quantitative — rather than qualitative — experience.

For me, as a parent, it's supposed to be "a great tool to stay active in your child's education and extracurricular activities." With it, I can track my child's "academic progress and assignments, attendance, group membership, schedule, conduct incidents, emergency contacts, and health information."

Better living through science, right? I have to disagree.

Suddenly every class is a math problem. My daughter (like all her peers) can tell you at any given time her exact grade for any given subject. When I say "exact," I mean to the hundredth of a percentage point. It's no longer enough to think you have an A- average. Now, once you've logged in and provided your password, you can definitively say that you have a 91.42. It can be particularly frustrating when you're on the cusp. For example, a B becomes a B+ at 86.51. What if you have an 86.49? Two one-hundredths of a point, people! In the past (the olden days when yours truly was a student), a kindly teacher might have bumped you up for effort. Not anymore. The numbers don't lie and they don't mess around with any of that sentimental nonsense either.

In the never-ending quest for automation, even the teachers' comments have been made soulless. Next to the numerical grade for each class, a comments area includes a one-line summation, such as "A pleasure to have in class" or "Outstanding effort" or "Needs to focus on homework assignments." These, however, are chosen from a finite list of potential comments that correspond to a two-digit code that the teacher fills in. (Apparently, my daughter is "a pleasure to have in class" in pretty much every class. I guess that's better than the alternative, but I'd love a little more detail.)

The immediacy (and lack of relativity) about the system can also be disheartening if not downright disturbing. One failed quiz or mediocre paper can take on disproportionate importance for a period of time (a period of nail-biting, sleepless-night time). For example, my daughter's French teacher rarely collected homework, but happened to one day when the entire class was confused about the assignment. Until the next test, otherwise solid students (and their worried moms) had to see grades in the 30s and 40s on the portal.

The flipside, of course, is that there are still some teachers who are resisting the transition to digital grading. The woman in charge of one of my daughter's electives didn't ever put a grade into the system until the very end. "Don't worry, Mom," my daughter assured me, "I know I'm getting an A." This would have been perfectly acceptable in the past, but like every other mother in our school district, I've been conditioned to expect real-time updates.

I'm all for using technology. I'm all for things that make our overworked (and underpaid) teachers' lives easier. I'm certainly all for systems that keep parents informed. But, I think the portal is a little too impersonal. I think it adds to the stress we all feel already when it comes to grades and takes the focus off of learning. We've traded effective learning for efficiency.

And it isn't always that efficient either.

Our portal, in addition to posting grades, publishes each student's schedule for the next year. This saves paper and postage. In theory, since the whole thing is being done by a computer, there should be fewer schedule issues. Right? In fact, with such perfect technology, the school has mandated that we NOT (under any circumstance) request changes.

So, once we took a look at my daughter's online report card (she was, btw, " a pleasure to have in class"), we checked out her schedule. She got all the classes she wanted and more study halls than expected. Probably because her AP U.S. History and her CP1 Physics are in the same block three days and CP1 Physics and Honors French 4 are in the same block two.

Better living through technology?

Better make that "Better living through cloning."

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