Grade Reporting: To comment or not to comment…that is the question!

Grades – A Measure or a Rank from It’s About Learning along with an impromptu tweetup with @occam98 have prompted me to question the value of the comments I have written to accompany my grades this semester. 

For a little background, I am required to write a comment for every student in October and March. Additional comments are required in September, November, January, February, and April for any student failing or having a significant drop in their grade. 

I have chosen to write a comment for every learner every time I have reported their grade.  My goal was to add context to the single number that is supposed to convey a summary of a child’s learning (achievement?, mastery?) up to the given date.

Only one parent has given me feedback on these comments.  On October 28, 2010 she wrote

“Dear Ms. Gough, Thank you for providing the detailed comments regarding [my child] as a student in your Algebra 1_J course this past grading period. The information shared was insightful.”

The tweet (after my tweetup with @occam98) shown below spurs me to seek feedback.  Am doing the right thing or wasting my time?

I am to report grades again next week.  I’ve been wondering if I should write another comment for each learner, and asking does my comment tell the learner, the learner’s parents, and other interested parties anything?  Is there added value by having the accompanying comment? 

What follows is a case study, the series of grades and comments, for one of my learners.  If you are willing, would you please read through the series and give me feedback?

 September 20 – Grade reported:  P     
(P for passing; we were not ready for a number.)

In Algebra I, we identified eight essential learnings for first semester. As we continue to learn new material during the semester, we will revisit all identified essential learnings to help all students retain and improve these skills and concepts. Details concerning the essential learnings can be found at http://www2.westminster.net/faculty/jgough/AlgI/First_Semester_EL.html.

Our first unit focused on students learning to solve linear equations, linear inequalities, and graphing on the Cartesian coordinate plane. As is our practice, the first test is scored with no partial credit awarded. The student’s job is to find and correct any errors on this test as well as learn from their mistakes. Each student is then offered a second-chance test opportunity to demonstrate that they have learned from the error-correction process as well as to improve their grade. Please remember that our focus is on learning; it is okay for students to struggle with the material on the first test if it helps to focus their effort and improve their understanding.

AS has consistently demonstrated her effort to learn algebra by engaging in the deep-practice method of working and learning from homework.  AS has begun the process of self-assessment of her algebra skills, and she can describe her strengths and her challenges.  In her latest report, she says “I need to work on equations in which the variable is on both sides.” I am very pleased that AS can express needs in mathematical language that focuses our work to help her improve.

October 18 – Grade reported:  81

To date, we have been investigating and working on six of the eight essential learnings for the first semester of Algebra I.  After the midterm exam at the end of October, we will begin our study of solving systems of linear equations and systems of linear inequalities and their applications.  The theme of this semester is solving equations, finding patterns, and using linear functions to solve application problems.  At the end of the semester we will work on pattern-finding and computational fluency as we move from linear functions to irrational numbers and the Pythagorean Theorem.  Details concerning the essential learnings can be found at http://www2.westminster.net/faculty/jgough/AlgI/First_Semester_EL.html.  Students’ self-assessment of where they are for each learning target has become a routine.  Throughout each unit, students assess and reassess their learning.  These assessments are strategically designed to help students identify their current level of understanding and know where to focus their efforts.  We continue to use error analysis and correction to build skills and knowledge. 

In her first journal, AS wrote “To understand Algebra better, I will need to pay more attention to small details and remember to write the formula for the equation each time.  I really enjoy having real-life examples, so keep doing that! I think that every week we should have a quick check in with you to make sure that we understand the material. This can vary from a checklist to a short assessment (not for a grade) with you.”  I hope that I am meeting AS’s needs with regard to real-life examples and assessments.  The formative assessments are one way that we communicate our expectations, and they are a way AS can prepare for our tests with confidence.  AS has done a good job with her self-assessments.  She says “A significant moment for me was when I actually understood how to do equations with negative numbers. I finally realized that a negative sign is the same as a subtraction sign. I also learned that negatives can’t go in the denominator, which cleared up many of my questions.”  As I look through both of AS’s tests, I can see that working with Integers causes many of her errors.  I am pleased that she has identified this problem and is working to improve her work.  AS has a good attitude, and she is willing to help others learn.  I applaud her good effort and work ethic.

November 11 – Grade reported:  81

In Algebra I we have covered five of the eight essential learnings of the semester:  solving equations, understanding slope, writing equations of lines, solving inequalities, and using linear functions to solve application problems. 

At http://www2.westminster.net/faculty/jgough/AlgI/A1_chap03.htm you will see several formative assessments.  Our team designs these formative assessments to offer remediation and enrichment for all students.  The goal is that every student self-assess using these assessments and determine the level at which their work is most consistent.  The target level for Algebra I is level 3.  The level 4 questions are offered to challenge and further the learning of students that work at a slightly accelerated pace.   The level 1 and level 2 questions are provided to help students when they are struggling with an essential learning.  These assessments also give students specific language to express where they need to focus their work.  They are great conversation starters.  Students not performing on target are expected to seek help and improvement with their team and an algebra teacher during Office Hours.  Students performing on target are encouraged, but not required, to challenge themselves to enrich their learning and problem-solving through the struggle to rise to level 4.

AS’s preparation for the initial testing for the second unit shows much better results than for the first unit.  Her original test score is much higher on the second unit test.  I want AS to push herself to do more independent practice to prepare for the second chance test.  I think this additional effort will add to her learning and her confidence.  I am pleased that AS has been coming to Office Hours to check in and work on her homework. 

January 4 – Grade to be reported 88

Do you want more information than the reported 88?

We all know that a single number cannot convey the accomplishments and learning of a child in a class.  It was my hope to provide everyone involved with additional context concerning the reported number.  

Quite frankly, it is time consuming work and if no one cares, if it does not provide additional, important information about learning to all interested parties, then I will use this time for other meaningful work. 

So, I would like to know what you think.  Do these comments provide needed context or just more stuff to read?  Should I write a comment to go with the grade I’m going to report in January, or is my time better spent elsewhere?  Would you take my survey and/or leave a comment?

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7 thoughts on “Grade Reporting: To comment or not to comment…that is the question!”

  1. Jill,
    Your post gets me thinking about the purpose of comments overall. Suppose we were re-inventing the communication process between kids, parents and teachers today. Would we stick with quarterly grades and bi-annual written comments as the only way to communicate with the majority of parents? What is the point of the comment in the first place?

    When I worked as a college counselor, nothing was more gratifying than going into a student’s file, and being able to find thoughtful, detailed comments filled with anecdotes that brought a student’s career at our school to life. However, these comments were like precious diamonds in a field of what mostly seemed like more mundane feedback that might have been better delivered in another medium—a child’s scores on individual assessments, the need to seek out extra help, or the fact that a child rarely takes notes in class. For kids who had only these types of comments, writing the school rec was a herculean task.

    At another previous school, the faculty voted to go down from writing comments 3x/year to writing comments on 1x/year (in the first quarter), with the thought that the new “digital” world would make comments less necessary, particularly at the semester break. Unfortunately, I don’t think we as a faculty really lived up to the ideal of communicating more, since many of us were still stuck in the “parents as adversaries” mindset. The kids and parents revolted when they found out about the change, and I was struck by how much the students themselves valued the comments. At the end of the year, the faculty decided to go back to writing comments 2x/year.

    I’m struck by the thought that there needs to be a place in our recording system to document the learning and growth our students make, in writing. In fact, this benefit alone might be one of the key things that distinguishes independent schools from public schools. At the same time, there are probably better ways out there for us to get across more timely feedback for improvement. Some schools I have been at required interim notices to go out to parents every time a child performed poorly on an assessment (we were also encouraged to send out positive interims when children made breakthroughs, or scored well on assessments).

    My ideal system, I think, might look something like a google doc shared between student parent and child, where everyone could place examples of a child’s learning, ask questions, and offer suggestions—almost a digital learning portfolio, but I know those can be quite troublesome. Then twice a year or so, students and teachers would work together to write up a summative reflection of the student’s progress that would add context to a semester grade.

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    1. John,

      Jill and I probably agree with you about your ideal. We piloted an alpha version of such a system in Synergy 8 this semester. Students wrote learning reflections based on rubric analysis, and they emailed parents, teacher, and grade chairs (and Dir of Studies). We have been talking a lot about using a password protected blog to do something akin to your Google doc portfolio. Thought the blog could support video stories, etc. Jill and I have talked about idea with a few folks. Will do beta version next Synergy.

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  2. Jill:

    I think the comments provide context; however, it takes a very disciplined student and parent to read them fully, understand them, reflect on them, and act on them. It would be my guess that <25% of your audience cares enough to do justice to what you have written.

    I think most parents care about, and will focus on, the comment that is ABOUT their child. The preliminary stuff is nice, but probably not read deeply. Of course, I am probably on dangerous territory in that I am over generalizing.

    What I mean about students taking comments seriously "if it takes them on a journey they are interested in," is this. Students will process all the feedback and act on it if they are motivated to improve–they like math, they like you, they want a good grade, they are obligated to do well because of their parents' views on success, and for a few because they are intrinsically motivated to improve. The challenge for educators is to recognize where each student is and tap into one of the things that motivates them. They are all different.

    I wonder if you ASSESSED students on how well they interpret your feedback, reflect on it in a meaningful way, and develop an action plan for improving. What if you graded them on that process, as well as on the math. They probably need lots of coaching on how to work with your feedback. Is there a rubric or template you could use that "requires" them to read, comment on, and produce an action plan. (like the student you were profiling).

    I know there is a bit of rambling in my comment, but I believe the time you spend writing 50 in-depth comments goes unnoticed or is not appreciated. Turn it over to the students. Maybe you have them write you a comment about….. Their comment gets assessed in terms of…..

    I am glad you are struggling with this and searching for answers.

    Bob

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    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Your thoughts on the preliminary portion of my comments are interesting. Initially, I worried that the comments were too long, and the “math” part of the comment should be dropped. However, my team disagreed. My team decided that the “what we are doing in class” helps answer the question “what did you learn today” for parents. Speaking as a parent, one member of my team said she would love to know that level of detail about her child’s class. It would inform parents, tutors, and the children of the focus of our work. Do they all process it well? Probably not. But, I wonder if it is because it is too much text, too technical, or if they are just “trained” to expect the message that your child is sweet, working hard, and could come to Office Hours more often.

      My survey is still open, but I have to make a decision.
      Comment_survey_results
      Based on the little data, but overwhelming agreement of “I am undecided” if a comment should be written and that my time might be better spent elsewhere, I have a plan. I am going to send only a number. On Jan. 15, 2011, I am going to survey the parents of my students. I think that I will break the survey questions down to ask your questions. I would appreciate it if you, Bo, John, and Sam would help me construct my prompts. I want to know
      1. Was the number enough information? Did the parents miss having the narrative?
      2. If yes the narrative was missed, do they find the content-specific portion important?
      3. If yes the narrative was missed, do they find the about-your-child section important?

      I’d rather collect data and know what they are thinking. Then will you all help me and my team process the data to make a decision about next semester? To me, it is just like the survey our ES sent out. Our parents have only known one way and change is difficult. When do we persist?

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  3. Jill:

    I would be happy to help in any way I can. I think the survey for parents is helpful and will guide you. However, here are some questions….

    1. Who is the comment for? Audience? At what point do comments become more for students and less for parents? As a parent, when Linnea got into JHS, she took much more control of her learning. For here, the comments were something she internalized not us as parents. Don’t know the answer, but this is an important question.

    2. Should you survey the students?

    3. If you write a comment, then what is it’s focus? Like you said is it directed at “how to improve” or is it merely descriptive of what has happened? I think this is somewhat linked to the answer to #1.

    4. If you write a comment, how do you balance openness, honesty, and sensitivity. What if Johnny is not good at math? Can you tell the truth?

    5. As a teacher, if I am going to write extensively, how can I be sure the message is digested, reflected on, and actions taken? What is the protocol to pyrrhus in place so that the comment is used effectively to advance learning?

    In your survey be sure to ask about the career or interest of the parent. Your colleague on your team who likes the “long” decryption is a math person. As a science teacher, I do not read the long “common” (pasted into every comment) narrative. Personally, it doesn’t tell me a whole lot and most teachers do little to nothing to tie the common narrative to the shorter piece about my child. They are often disconnected.

    Let me know how I can be helpful to you.

    Bob

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    1. All really great questions, Bob. Thanks! I’m going to quickly respond to each and then I have a question.

      1. Who is the comment for?
      In the High School, the comment is for the student. The comment is written directly to the child. In the Junior High, the comment, currently, is written for the parent. This is age-appropriate for these children, I think, but I have questions. I want to write my comments to my 8th graders. I get stuck about the adults discussing a child’s learning without directly involving the child. It is their learning after all is said and done. The age-appropriateness is a mystery to me. I don’t think that my 6-year old’s teachers should be writing their comment to AS. Where is change in age that makes it appropriate to write to the child and copy their parents?

      2. Should you survey the students?
      Yes.

      3. If you write a comment, then what is its focus?
      I hope that the focus of the comment has common elements but is differentiated for the learner. (This is hard to do!) I want to give context to the grade without comparing one child’s learning/performance to another child’s. I want to focus on growth. I want to identify bright spots and offer some coaching.

      4. how do you balance openness, honesty, and sensitivity? Can you tell the truth?
      Currently, I provide “Johnny is not good at math” direct, open, and honest feedback using several means other than the comment that goes home in print. I work in concert with the GradeChair to deliver tough messages with sensitivity. I make lots of parent phone calls. I try to make as many bright spot phone calls as tough ones. I try to make them in pairs.

      5. How can I be sure the message is digested, reflected on, and actions taken?
      From a student level, I can watch for evidence of actions taken. I’m not sure about the rest.

      What protocol is your favorite to use to aid in advancing learning through reading?
      From your perspective, did I get close in my attempt to connect the common narrative to the shorter piece about AS, the child in my case study? Am I in the ball park? I really want to know about this example.

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