Even though it is a regular event, it still manages to unsettle me – no, it’s not my annual appraisal but you’re on the right lines. It is my eldest son’s school progress report. You think I would have become accustomed to the regular dose of reality opening the letter brings, but it still manages to knock the wind out of me. Let me explain…
In case it is many years since you have seen a school report or had to hide one before your parents saw it, progress reports are now very factual. For my son, it is just a series of numbers that tell you what their target is, what level they are currently working at and a score for their attitude to learning. As his mother, I’ve got used to seeing these numbers at the lower end of the scale – it comes with the territory of having a child with ‘additional needs’, but as a learning professional, I find it so hard that there are no accompanying words. No narrative, no explanation and more importantly, no information on why he has been awarded this grade.
Does this sound in any way familiar to the annual appraisal? How many times have you felt that the grade you were awarded was unfair or not reflective of your work? And when you seek information on how the appraiser had reached their decision, you learn that there is a degree of subjectivity involved in deciding if you were a ‘grade four or five’. Of course, they will refer you to the definition given for each level but typically the difference between each of the grades is the switching of a key word. You may notice how a grade one description starts with a ‘rarely’; grade two with an ‘occasionally’; grade three with a ‘regularly’; grade four with a ‘usually’; grade five with a ‘consistently’. Indeed, this is why many companies at the end of each appraisal season, will conduct a sample check on the documents to ensure this ‘subjectivity’ is applied fairly across the board.
No narrative, no explanation and more importantly, no information on why he has been awarded this grade.
So how does this relate to my son’s progress report? Well, both are missing a key ingredient, despite the typical appraisal being focused on behaviours and the school report concentrating on acquisition of knowledge, they are both missing the ‘how’. In the case of the school report they are missing the ‘how’ they have reached that decision but on both, they are missing the ‘how’ do you reach the next level. In the case of my son’s level, is it simply a case of him demonstrating that he has collected a few more facts? I think not. As we all know, knowledge is as much about being able to apply learned skills or information as it is about being able to recall it. In a knowledge test, you must be able to recount the information and apply it to the question you are presented. Even though he may be able to collect a few more facts, he may still not be able to present the information in the way that it is required and so therefore not able to increase his grade.
The purpose of any assessment is to gather information on performance or progress, but I believe that it is what we do with this information that is so much more important. In education, some standardised assessments are simply there to compare the academic achievement of students from different institutions. So how does this help the student? To prevent this from being replicated in the forthcoming appraisal season, when we share their grade, we must remember to provide the individual with the ‘how’. Not only do we need to know ‘how‘ the grade has been reached but also specifically what they need to do to move from a ‘regularly’ to a ‘usually’ for example. What tasks can they undertake? What evidence do they need to collect to demonstrate their activity and understanding?
Finally, but possibly the most important, let us remember the impact an assessment can have on a person. To hear my son repeatedly report he has achieved 10 out of 30 or 40 is heart-breaking; to see his face is much worse but he has accepted that school is not the place where he shines. When you deliver the result of an individual’s appraisal or assessment, think of my son. Just as not everyone is an academic, not everyone will perform in every area of an appraisal. That doesn’t make the individual a poor employee any no more than it makes my son a poor student – but if the how is explained when delivering the message, it makes hearing it a little easier and more importantly, sets the individual back on the right track to shining a little brighter in whatever way they do best.