Let's review the value of school reports

End-of-year school reports are making their way to parents and carers. For many, it's a major contact with the school. Most look forward to the reports, even if their children don't.

But what's their value? Do they actually tell parents anything useful?

Teachers generally hate writing them. They take up a lot of time, and teachers don't believe they are allowed to be as honest as they would like to be. Their reports are censored.

They didn't used to be. Peter Frost (not his real name) teaches in a NSW public high school. "I used to be able to write, for example, that student A had been persistently disruptive, that he didn't follow instructions," he tells me. "Then I was told I couldn't say that. The principal told me not to be negative. But I was trying to be truthful."

Truth wasn't appreciated. His principal told him that if a student was described as disruptive, it reflected badly on the teacher and the school. It was better not to say it. It was better to use neutral words, cleansed of meaning.

"Private schools are worse," he tells me. "Their reports are even more of a public relations exercise."

Another teacher, in the ACT, backs him up. "Reports are not objective documents," she says. "They are 50 per cent subjectivity and 50 per cent propaganda, making the student and the parents feel good."

It'd be a problem if parents relied on a school reports to be informed.

Conscientious schools make sure parents don't. They talk to parents and students throughout the year, made easier by email and mobile phones. If a child isn't learning well, they make sure the parents know about it before report time. Students should also get feedback in the classroom – in real time – critical for continuous improvement.

Yet many parents still seem to want the reports, like it's part of a contractual arrangement that also legitimise everyone's effort.

I find parent-teacher nights and student-led conferences much more valuable. They offer context, detail, an exchange of information.

Good teachers know this and often can't see the point of writing lengthy reports. "We are stressed out by it," one says. "Drafts go through a committee and then come back to us. If there are typos, it reflects badly on the school."

Another says: "It's not just time consuming, it's difficult to tick a box which narrowly defines achievement."

There are no serious studies evaluating Australian school reports. But there is across the Tasman. John Hattie, now director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute, published an evaluation of the New Zealand system in 2003 titled School Reports: Praising with Faint Damns. It found that, while school reports are one of the primary vehicles for relaying information about students' progress to parents, they emphasise what students can do, rather than what students cannot do.

"We found the majority of reports indicated that very few students were badly behaved, and most were above-average achievers, most were making an effort in class, most were a pleasure to teach," he says.

The reports used common phrases to describe different children. "I am sure most parents in Australia welcome reports but find them not that helpful. No wonder they demand more tests, accountability, and teacher-proof information."

Hattie wants school reports to describe students' performance in ways that are specific, to offer strategies and be easy to understand.

He wants schools to invite in a cross-section of parents, give them copies of students' reports and ask them to interpret out loud what they are reading. If they can't, he wants them to outline how they want reports presented. "This simple step may dramatically improve the power of school reports to reflect student performance," he says.

Meaningful reports would help parents who didn't like school growing up. They are often afraid of directly approaching the school to ask questions. If they are not told something, they might not find it out.

States and territories are all moving to "streamline" reports. Some teachers worry that a more standardised format will leave even less room for conveying what's happening. Worse still, they are adopting electronic systems that keep reports as a record that follows each student as they move through different schools. Although the language will be bland, they will be tarred forever with marks between A and E (unless parents opt out, which is an option).

Outcomes of schooling matter, but so does the experience of itself. Schools are places for socialisation and collaboration. Perhaps we need a new category of outcomes that support the integration of subjects.

As principals sign off on reports in the days ahead, it helps to remember that teachers, too, get nervous about them. Sometimes, they are trying to say something without actually saying it. Reports can never convey the whole picture. In my experience, it is always better to keep the communication channels open and find time to talk.

First published in The Canberra Times, SMH and The Age on December 1, 2017

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