It’s probably an ambitious call to write an article with this title at this particular stage of Term 4 with student reports just around the corner. That said, there might possibly be no better time to give some air to a discussion about the purpose of ‘reporting’ in a school and why this might be entering – locally, nationally and globally – a new phase of recognising student progress.
Reports have a long history in school, way before any of us were students ourselves; the ‘report card’ has been a cornerstone of school communication with parents since at least the 19th century. It is interesting however to note the eroded value of this document in the age of digital learning management systems and progressive (live) assessment, and new narratives around things called ‘capabilities’ and 21st century skills for jobs of the future. Yes, the schooling landscape is probably more complex than it ever has been, as are the ways we choose to communicate student progress.
I use the word ‘progress’ carefully here. Note I have deliberately avoided reference to ‘achievement’ because in this space I think semantics really matter. Yes, reports do capture student achievement and this is partly because they have to; the Australian Curriculum currently defines subject standards using the language of ‘Achievement Standards’ and all schools are required to report against these.
But, school reports are rarely artefacts constructed for the purpose of compliance.
Most schools embellish student reports with other things; from what I’m told it was around the 1960s that reports began to appear with two main parts – Grades, and Effort – or, in St John’s current language, Learning Skills in the Junior School, Effort in the Middle School, and Learner Profile for SACE subjects in the Senior School. These I think have become necessary because we recognise that there is a bit of inbuilt redundancy if we just report subject grades, especially considering that this means a report is hardly a prospective document looking to the future, rather a retrospective account of things that have already happened.
Reports written on a set of fairly linear scales (A to E, 1 to 4, Excellent through Satisfactory to ‘Needs Improvement’) are also contained within a year level, so they don’t really reflect the notion that a student will almost certainly ‘grow’ in their learning as the years go on. The rate of growth is also significant, especially when we compare this with a student’s innate ability. To use a motoring analogy: our reports should really tell us how far have we travelled, but also how hard were we on the throttle!
So, what is the case for change? Partly this is driven by internal factors unique to St John’s, but this connects with a much wider discussion happening around the world about recognition of student learning, and a general desire to move away from blunt instruments such as league tables or ranking systems such as the ATAR.
There is already an underground shift in Senior Schooling away from traditional recognition systems for post-school pathways, for example VET qualifications, Year 11 University entry, Headstart and Extension studies programmes, and recognised community learning. From ELC to Year 12, St John’s has also invested significant energy in developing signature learning experiences through MiSpace, Shark Tank and Innov8, with more to come in the Environmental learning space. These are key learning experiences which have their own systems of recognition, supported by well-defined learning frameworks which currently sit outside traditional reporting systems. This is another redundancy that seems almost impossible to resolve, and St John’s is currently actively working with AISSA – in response to our current Strategic Plan which articulates this as a key focus – on a three-year journey with the Learning Impact Project. This builds on our work on Innovative Agency and ADLAB projects with Michael Bunce and Charlie Leadbeater to ask these same questions, and to clarify the case and direction for change.
The SACE Board is also heavily involved in this work: the SACE Revitalisation (‘Thrive’) strategic plan is piloting work on a replacement for the ATAR titled the ‘Learner Profile’ which sounds marvellous until the little voice in our head asks: is the SACE really aiming to capture the complexity of an entire human being with a one-page dataset? Do I really want to go to parents with the claim that such a document is a good profile of their ‘entire’ child, and what is our mandate as a school in this space anyway – to try to ‘report’ on absolutely everything, or to actually just report on what the student did while they were in our care?
We also recognise the responsibility we share with families, to nurture and develop the gifts and talents of our students.
Valerie Hannon, the author of THRIVE: the purpose of schools in a changing world (Cambridge University Press) articulates a ‘four dimensional’ education model from the Centre for Curriculum Redesign, proposing that the way we articulate student progress needs to focus on Content, Agency, and ‘Quality of Being’. Don’t worry – I’m not going to unpack these here – but we should pause to wonder if this ‘4D’ model is indeed universal, and what other questions this sort of approach actually poses.
For example, why should we not instead not report on our St John’s school values: Innovation, Creativity, Communication, Empowerment, Achievement? Should we be asking what the ‘profile’ of the ideal St John’s learner actually is, and report on that, or does this invite the risk of a cookie-cutter approach? What’s the danger in treating wellbeing as a reportable outcome? At what point does reporting on generic ‘skills’ or ‘capabilities’ become a hollow exercise, just pandering to a narrative about the economic usefulness of learning in a world of 21st century jobs? Where do we recognise things that we already regard as critical to the development of the St John’s learner: agency, wellbeing, participation and engagement?
Hopefully this shows that there is indeed some ‘danger’ in whatever we choose as a school reporting system, or replacement for the ATAR, when the time comes.
I think this is because so much of what we value as a community of teachers, students and parents is bound to whatever narratives our reports actually invite, and what therefore we have actually prioritised about student learning. I wonder what our students usually take away from their reports; do they regard them as a snapshot from the past, or signposts for the journey yet to come?
I wonder how many of us as parents, and our children as developing individuals, use school reports to take stock of who our children are becoming as learners – their strengths, weaknesses, passions and purpose – and how they have conducted themselves in their learning journey, or do we simply think about how well they were able to maximise the bottom line.
Here are some closing thoughts. We definitely have some work to do in defining desirable ‘learning behaviours’ clearly: the core set of evaluation points that recognise our learners here at St John’s. Our School’s values bind us together as a school community and represent some resonant thinking about what we really want to see in our students’ learning behaviours. We need to be clear about what growth really looks like, given that every teacher, student and parent probably has a view on which behaviours are most important in their subjects, year level, and classroom context.
We need to find out what the wider St John’s community has to say about what they want from school reports, asking what is missing or excessive in the current reporting system, and what the actual purpose is of all of this time and effort spent communicating about learning. We should ask students themselves to participate in the reporting process as co-authors, as their own personal reflections and contributions enrichen the process and tell a deeper story about their learning experiences.
For now however, the message is this: reports are only as useful as the time spent unpacking them.
Read your child’s school reports, discuss with your child what they say, and ask what they suggest we should work on together in the future. School reports are potentially in line for an overhaul at a St Johns, National and Global level, yes, but for now they capture information that will always have value and, as in most things, it is the time and attention we invest in reports that will continue to give them value.
Leader of Learning & Curriculum