German school reports miss their point

Sometimes things don't go the way they should, and not only with students. The German educational system itself also has a lot of catching up to do, including in terms of school reports.

Wie heißt es so schön? „XY hat sich stets bemüht“. Betrachtet man jedoch, wie deutsche Schulzeugnisse aussehen, was sie aussagen und was sie eigentlich aussagen sollten, so kann man von „Mühe“ kaum noch sprechen. Deutsche Schulzeugnisse verfehlen ihren Sinn und im Folgenden erfahrt ihr warum. 

Was ist ein Zeugnis?

According to the Duden, a transcript is a "documentary certificate, {...} which contains an evaluation of the performance of students, usually expressed in grades". I would like to question this meaning if we are really talking about evaluations for students. What students really need is feedback and not a certificate of grades because grades do not provide feedback. They neither describe nor explain. Grades only illustrate achievements in numbers, and that's actually a very good way of measuring achievement! But as a "documentary certificate" that is issued once or twice a year, a transcript misses its point.

Let's look at what a school report should inform about: 

  • Individual overview of the learning behavior and the development of the student in the period covered by the transcript
  • Clear presentation of talents, areas of interest, aptitudes discovered or developed by the student over the period
  • Clear emphasis on very good performance
  • List of problem areas in the case of poor or inadequate performance with problem assessment by the respective teacher 
  • Individual assessment of the work, performance and social behavior of the student by the teacher for each subject. This assessment, in the form of a comment, identifies both strengths and weaknesses and honestly tells the student what he or she needs to work on
  • Grade trends that clearly indicate whether the student has gotten worse or better since the last report card
  • Development of interpersonal skills, for example in group work
  • Overview of the achievements made so far – expressed in grades
Was sollte ein Zeugnis können?

And what do German school reports really show?

  • Overview of the achievements made so far – expressed in grades
  • Sometimes predicted grades
  • Up to grade 10, a small sentence like "Pupil XY has integrated very well into the class community and always worked appropriately".

Improving, working on oneself and identifying weaknesses are primarily at the discretion of each student. Is that really true? In higher grades, this might make sense. However, the foundations for this must already be laid in the middle school through detailed, honest and useful feedback.

School should be more than just a place for passing on knowledge. School should be a place of knowledge development, advancement, advanced training and a place of personal growth. This requires at least one honest school report that provides feedback. Otherwise, the certificate may be doomed to a sad fate: the sheet music sometimes doesn't even make it home, but ends up in the school bag crumpled and torn. And that's not entirely the fault of the students! After all, what else could make paper so valuable? Grades that are written on paper without any comment and put you down? Hardly.

Of course, if you were to integrate all of the above points into a certificate - and that's the minimum, so to speak, because the list could go on - you would have a performance assessment for each student: in 12 subjects, this could cover 20 pages. But that's how it has to be! 20 honest pages, 20 pages to learn honest lessons from! Yes, of course it is a lot of work. But isn't it worth it?
And who now thinks that would be an excessive waste of paper - it's not. Because you don't have to hand over the certificate in paper form anyway. Otherwise, the fate described above will happen to certificates and what good does it do if the document is printed out on nice paper? Nothing. You rarely have to submit an application with an application folder and a copy of your certificate these days – thanks to the climate. And who looks at their certificates themselves after leaving school? Right. In digital form there would of course be data protection problems, but solving them really shouldn't be a problem.

Competence-oriented teaching has been taking place in other areas, such as the pedagogical training of childminders, for a long time. But pupils are not given a competence orientation?

Mit gutem Beispiel vorangehen: UWC

There are actually schools that have swapped the testimony model for the feedback model. As an example of how to do it better, I'll use that of a good friend, Lea, who attends a United World College (UWC) in Armenia. The United World Colleges are 18 very well-respected, international upper-level boarding schools, where young people from over 80 nations and with the most diverse backgrounds complete their final school years together. At the end of the course, the students receive the internationally recognized International Baccalaureate (IB) – the international Abitur. All successful applicants receive a scholarship for the school, which is based on the financial background of the family. The school's goals include international, cultural understanding, sustainability and tolerance. Lea has been attending the UWC for over a year. Before that she went to a normal Bavarian high school. Due to her extraordinarily great political commitment and a successful application, she received a scholarship for the school, which she is now attending until she receives her IB. For Lea, personal and honest feedback has become part of everyday life: As a transcript, every student receives in each subject a very detailed and constructive comment from the teacher, in addition to the grades. In this, strengths and weaknesses are discussed individually. The transcriptis uploaded digitally at the end of each semester. The students then simply log in and can take a look. The best part? If you have any problems, you can contact the relevant teacher immediately.

So why not always like this? In a conversation with her, I really felt left behind when I learned about the extensive testimony they received. Because in comparison, the transcript I received during my school career - even in spite of extraordinarily good performance - only deserve the fate in the school bag...

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