How schools report to parents about the learning of their children is becoming increasingly important and challenging in the light of a) new developments and understanding about learning and assessment, b) Ireland's relatively recent cultural diversity, and c) recent legislation and official policy highlighting how schools are accountable to students, parents and the State. The NCCA's Reporting Children's Progress in Primary Schools endorses the role of parents, as partners with schools, in extending children's learning. School reporting practices are central to this role. The nature of these practices is the theme of this NCCA-commissioned study. In terms of assessment policy and practice, we note that reporting is more closely linked with summative than formative assessment.
The principal aim of this study was to examine existing policy and practice of reporting to parents and to offer evidence-based recommendations that could enhance the process. Chapters 1 and 2 set the background for the study and describe the research design, while chapters 3, 4 and 5 present and discuss the results. This Executive Summary presents a summary of the main findings of the case studies and survey and it then goes on to draw out the implications and recommendations for policy and practice in light the findings and recent developments in primary assessment policy (NCCA, 2005; NCCA, 2006; NCCA, 2007).
Policy and practice were investigated using a combination of case study methodology and a large-scale questionnaire survey. Six schools were selected to represent the diversity of school settings. Semi-structured interviews and focus groups were used to probe the perspectives and practices of principals, teachers, parents and children. Fieldwork spanned the summer and autumn terms of 2007. A national online questionnaire survey of a stratified sample of primary schools (412 of 3,292) was conducted in late Autumn 2007 which sought to represent practice more broadly. It resulted in a satisfactory, if less than ideal, response rate of 45%.
0.3 Formal Reporting Policies and Practices
2. All our case study schools have clear procedures in place for reporting to parents although not all have a written policy. The questionnaire survey shows that approximately one in four schools (28%) have a written policy on the use of school reports and approximately two out of three schools (67%) have a written policy on parent-teacher meetings.
3. A school report is prepared for each child in our case study schools and sent to parents annually towards the end of the school year. They tend to follow a standard commercially-produced format and contain a space for a brief comment in relation to every subject of the curriculum, other aspects of learning and schooling, specifically social development, attendance, homework, and general attitude to learning. Teachers say that they draw on a wide range of information in writing their reports, from their own observations in class to results of assessments, including standardised tests, and homework. The thrust of this evidence is confirmed by the survey. Of significance in the survey however is that while 5 out of 6 schools reported that they do send written report cards to parents approximately 1 in 6 schools reported that they do not provide parents with a written report. Furthermore, there was a statistically significant difference between rural and urban schools in provision of report cards. Three out of four rural schools provide a written report card to parents whereas eleven out of twelve urban schools do so. In terms of the type of report card, approximately two out of three schools use a commercially produced report card and the remaining one third use a school produced report card.
4. Teachers and principals are very concerned to represent children's learning positively and honestly in school reports and in meetings with parents. This is captured by the expression of one principal, 'nothing should come as a surprise'. Teachers and principals expressed their concern of the potential negative impact on children of critical reports. They are also wary of writing down their interpretations of children in too much detail, preferring to discuss issues in faceto- face settings. Schools keep school reports for many years after pupils have left the school. Over 2 in 5 schools (43%) store report cards until the child is 21 years of age (consistent with NCCA's 2007 assessment guidelines for schools, p. 80), one third of schools store report cards until the child has left post-primary education and one in five schools keep report cards until the child leaves primary school.
5. All six case-study schools arrange a parent-teacher meeting annually, typically in the middle of the Autumn term. One school schedules this meeting in the summer term after the school report has been sent out and this then provides a focus for the meeting. The standard format is for teachers to be available on a particular afternoon/evening and for parents to be offered a slot of about 15 minutes during which they, usually the mother, has a one-to-one meeting with the child's teacher/or with the learning resource teacher if the child has special educational needs. Some schools are more creative in seeking to accommodate parents making themselves available to meet with parents from 7.30 every morning for several weeks. Teachers report that this practice increases the incidence of fathers' attendance at meetings and it is highly appreciated by parents.
6. The range of languages spoken by parents of newcomer children is perceived by responding principals as providing a significant communication challenge for schools. In responding to this challenge schools rely mainly on two strategies: to ask a parent or other adult from that language community who speaks English to translate (just under a third of schools) and/or to ask a student (of primary age) from that language community who speaks English to translate (1 in 6 schools).
0.4 Other Reporting Mechanisms
7. Schools also use and value a range of other ways of reporting to parents including homework journals/diaries (2 out of 3 schools), tests (e.g. weekly spelling tests) and 2 out of 3 schools report that they use a behaviour reporting system (e.g. star system for discipline). There was a statistically significant difference between rural and urban schools in the use of behaviour reporting system. Two in three urban schools employ such a system, whereas only one in three rural schools do so. One multi-ethnic school's exceptional approaches to involve and communicate with parents about children's learning include bi-weekly newsletters, coffee mornings, food fairs and other inter-cultural events. In addition, all our case study schools define themselves as operating an 'open door' policy in relation to parents, meaning that they are regularly accessible to parents and have frequent conversations with parents informally as they bring and collect children to and from school. The latter was reported as being especially the case for children in the early years of school and for those with special educational needs.
0.5 Reporting on Standardised Assessments
8. While schools do administer a range of tests and assessment procedures, typically reading assessments in infant classes and Drumcondra Achievement Tests in middle and upper levels, schools tend not to forward assessment information in the form of test results to parents. Most schools interpret the results of assessments, particularly standardised assessments, and communicate their interpretations to parents in parent-teacher meetings. The case studies and the survey show that results of standardised tests tend to be given to parents only by appointment. When results are communicated to parents this is typically done by the class teacher in 2 out of 3 schools, by the learning support or resource teacher (1 in 3 schools) and by the principal in 1 in 6 schools.
9. Children deemed to have special educational needs (SEN) experience higher levels of assessment and are reported on in more detail and more frequently than their peers not so specified. Parents of children with special educational needs have more contact with schools about their children's progress.
0.6 Outcomes and Experiences: Learners and Parents
10. Teachers are clear and unanimous about the purpose of the annual parent teacher meeting: it is to inform parents of their children's progress, to communicate their learning strengths and weaknesses, and help in identifying ways of supporting their child's learning at home. While they are sensitive to the need to engage with what parents think is important, our evidence generally suggests that teachers operate this forum as one in which they are in telling and explanation mode and parents are listening. The short time frame for these meetings would seem to focus minds on progress from the teacher's perspective. The impression our evidence gives is that other more informal occasions are assumed to cater for issues that do not pertain directly to children's progress.
11. Teachers report that they find the parent-teacher meeting more significant than the school report in terms of enabling parents understand and support their children's progress. They report that parents share written and verbal reports with their children and that parents discuss their children's school reports among themselves.
12. Teachers and principals perceive that parents are the main audience for the school report and, while reports are kept in school and are accessible to teachers, they do not typically consult them when they get new children/class.
13. For schools a major challenge to effective reporting practice is perceived to be linguistic diversity or more specifically the fact that increasing numbers of parents and children do not have adequate English to participate fully in the reporting procedures. This is confirmed by the questionnaire data where principals reported that parents who do not speak English or who may have difficultly communicating in English represent `a significant communication challenge. While schools in our case study sample vary in the scale of this challenge and in how they are addressing it, a common response is the use of community members as
14. Our evidence points to more variation among parents than among teachers/schools in how they interpret their opportunities to find out about their children's learning and in their general satisfaction with the process of reporting. There is also more variation across parents.
15. While many parents we interviewed expressed positive views about their experience of school reports and meetings, particularly those in one multi-ethnic school, others are less satisfied and do not experience their schools as quite as accessible as the schools describe and perceive themselves to be. Our data suggests a class divide here with parents associated with schools serving middle class catchments being very much more satisfied about their understanding of their children's progress than their counterparts in schools serving lower socioeconomic groups. Many of the latter parents (and some of the former) expressed uncertainty about the meaning of terms on school reports, of test results and generally of curriculum and assessment issues. They are more reluctant to question teachers and seek clarification on issues, seeing themselves as potentially disturbing teachers' work by seeking such help. They are also dissatisfied with the timing and amount of time allocated to parent teacher meetings, feeling that they are too infrequent, too short and not sufficiently flexibly
16. The parents from minority ethnic backgrounds whose first language is not English and who participated in the case studies are especially positive about their experience of the reporting process. (Many of these participants are relative newcomers to the country). However, our evidence suggests that the traveller community may be less satisfied with their experience vis-Ó-vis reporting.
17. While teachers acknowledge, to some extent, the problematic nature of sharing meanings of evaluations of children's learning, parents are more concerned than teachers about the lack of common understandings. The survey results show that schools have some strategies in place to address this issue: some 45% claim to have staff meetings to agree terms used in the school report.
18. School reports and parent-teacher meetings are very significant events for learners, their occurrence engendering a wide range of emotions from anxiety to excitement and from pride to disappointment. No child interviewed was indifferent. Our evidence confirms the deep interest children have in their own learning, many expressing the wish to attend and contribute to the parent-teacher meeting. Most expressed mature views about what they believe is absent from or inadequately detailed in the current reporting structure, namely, sport, drama, music and art. Some pupils expressed an interest in having more information about how to improve their learning.
19. Analysis of the survey data suggests that reporting practices (in the context of current practice in assessment and reporting) do not influence principals' perceptions that schools can impact student learning. Situating reporting practices in the context of the model of parental involvement, school composition and learning, the analysis indicates that principals in schools with large numbers of students as well as more SEN students and language support teachers, with higher intake of students from another ethnicity, were more likely to (i) indicate higher levels of parental involvement (ii) have higher expectations that their school could impact student learning. These relationships were weak but statistically significant.
0.7 Findings and Recommendations
1. A key recommendation emerging from the evidence is that parents need more opportunities to negotiate the meaning of accounts of their children's learning. Terms like 'fair' and 'excellent' and assessment results need to be better interpreted and contextualised for parents so that meanings are opened up and better understood. We recommend that policy makers and school leaders consider the necessary school structures and professional contracts that would enable greater parental participation in assessment and reporting.
2. A key finding was that a small but significant minority of schools do not send written report cards home. As such, parents of children in those schools are missing out on an opportunity to learn about their children's progress in school. We recommend that all schools be required to send a written report card to parents.
3. We recommend that schools should send a mid-year report to parents about their children's learning and that this report would provide the basis for learner and parental conversation and commentary. This would ensure that school reports serve a formative (as well as a summative) purpose.
4. We recommend that Whole School Evaluations explicitly attend to the reporting dimension of school policy and practice.
5. In light of the strategies adopted by schools (asking parents, other adults or primary age children to translate) to communicate with parents who either do not speak English of have difficulty communicating in English, we recommend that guidelines be developed, and where necessary additional resources beyond those currently available be provided, to support schools in such work.
6. With reference to the new emphasis on assessment for learning and on the increased emphasis on assessment and reporting more generally, we recommend that schools have the opportunity to engage in within-school, across-school, and especially within-level/class professional dialogue about evaluations of children's learning. We also recommend that schools have the opportunity to develop exemplars that would support the production of narrative accounts of children┐s learning that are trustworthy. Such initiatives could offer a way of extending shared perspectives about what constitutes 'excellent' etc. achievement in various curricular areas.
7. In the context of policy expectation that schools utilise standardised tests to assess students (DES/Circular 0138/2006) we recommend that further guidance be provided that supports teachers (class, special needs and resource) and principals in communicating the results of such tests in a meaningful manner in the context of other evidence of student learning and achievement.
8. In the light of the demands for assessment data recording and storage, we recommend that robust and reliable record storage systems be developed to support school's ability to record, store and retrieve assessment data for different audiences and purposes.