By Catia Malaquias
In the last week or two most students will have been given their school reports for the last half-year period.
For parents of children with a disability or diverse learning needs, reading their child’s school report is often difficult – and for students who are aware of the content of their school report, even more so.
Parents frequently comment that their child’s school report, in doing little more than confirming the obvious – that their child is not a typical learner – is a “waste of time”. That is not surprising as most mainstream schools simply require teachers to complete a “standard format” report, assessing achievement goals formulated with typically-developing/functioning same-aged peers in mind. Against that standard, the implications of a student’s disability or diverse learning needs tend to be presented as “deficits” to the “average” and the report is accordingly very negative in conclusions and tone.
Some teachers, appreciating the “harshness” of applying a “standard” school report to a child with diverse learning needs, will invite the parents to meet so that they can communicate more tailored and qualitative feedback than the small standard report “comment” boxes allow.
But with or without a chat, it hurts to look down a long list of boxes marked “very low”, “poor” or “well below average” in reference to your own child – or worse, in reference to yourself, in the case of the student.
Of course a school report shouldn’t lie. It should be factually accurate. But the real question is what should the report be assessing and communicating? In educating a student having regard to their individual potential, needs and goals, a school should assess and report their performance in light of their individual effort and progress towards their individual goals. Reporting solely against an “average typically-developing standard” that by definition does not allow adjustment for disability or diverse learning needs, is not “inclusive” or particularly informative as to effort or progress.
A long list of adverse results in comparison to the “average” learner without much more goes a long way to telling a parent and the student themselves that they do not belong in that learning environment.
Mainstream education systems should be endeavouring to meet the right of every student with disability or diverse learning needs to an inclusive education in accordance with Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Relevantly to student assessment, in its recent General Comment No. 4 (Right to Inclusive Education) the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities stated:
“According to Article 24 paragraph 1(b) education should be directed to the development of the personality, talents and creativity of persons with disabilities as well as their mental, physical and communicational abilities to the fullest potential. The education of persons with disabilities too often focuses on a deficit approach, on their actual or perceived impairment and limiting opportunities to pre-defined and negative assumptions of their potential.” [para 16]
“Quality inclusive education required methods of appraising and monitoring students’ progress that considers the barriers faced by students with disabilities. Traditional systems of assessment, utilising standardised achievement test scores as the sole indicator of success for both students and schools may disadvantage students with disabilities. The emphasis should be on individual progress towards broad goals.” [para 72]
Prioritising effort and progress towards goals is something that many parents naturally do. Parents with both children who are more “typical” learners and those who have a disability or diverse learning needs often become sensitive to praising the academic achievements of their typical learners because of the recognition imbalance it creates – rather, in endeavouring to find a more equitable basis for according praise, they choose to reward each child’s individual effort in light of their potential and the barriers they have faced, as a fairer framework for success and the recognition of each child’s individual progress and achievement.
There is significant research into the educational and social benefits of an assessment system that focuses on effort and the acknowledgment of progress on the continuum or path towards individual goals, rather than focusing on successful completion of “end-game” achievement compared to the ‘average’ student population. The focus on effort and progress towards goals increases the likelihood that a student with learning difficulties will remain engaged and persist in the learning process with their confidence intact. The message to a student of “not yet” (i.e. that “you are on the learning pathway”) is a message of encouragement, engagement and personal growth.
On the other hand, students that are simply and repetitively told that their learning outcomes are “poor”, “below-average” etc, are much more likely to become, not surprisingly, discouraged and disengaged from the learning process and to develop counter-productive “learning-avoidance” behaviours, often as esteem-preservation strategies to distract the attention of others from their academic difficulties.
Positive student engagement with the learning environment, both academically and socially, lies at the heart of an inclusive education system.
Mainstream school reports, but particularly for students with learning disability and other diverse learning needs, must be recast so that they are more informative, fairer and consistent with the framework and principles of an inclusive education system.
The following video by Stanford University Professor Dr Carol Dweck about “The Power of Yet” is an excellent presentation on the academic and social benefits of, and supporting research for, school assessment systems based on individual effort and progression towards individual goals – for all students.