Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Narrative Comments, Grades, and Schools

For the past couple of months we've spent some faculty meeting time on the question of "comment forms." For those unfamiliar with this interesting little cultural wrinkle in American independent schools, "comments" (some schools say "reports," and there are probably other local usages with which I'm not familiar) are regularly scheduled narrative reports on student performance that usually accompany and sometimes contain term and year-end grades. Some schools write more of these, some fewer; sometimes they are lengthy and rich in content and observation, and sometimes they are more pro forma, even just pull-downs or pastes from a database.

At any rate, comments tend to be one of the things that set independent schools apart, a service that comes as a perk in return for a hefty tuition payment. Parents, we believe, expect them, and most of our schools go to a fair amount of trouble to make sure that a quality (i.e., well proofread and informative) product goes out the door.

The challenge, of course, is not just to be informative but to provide information that has meaning to parents and guardians and, for lagniappes, might even provide some useful feedback to students. Since most comment forms also include grades of some sort, there is a kind of imbalance between the perceived weight of the grade versus the weight of the narrative. Most parents and students focus first on the grade, then the comment--even putting the grade at the bottom of the page won't prevent eagerly scanning eyes from spotting it.

We'd like to do a better job. There are so many questions to be answered first, however, that our work seems to be on parallel tracks: one "get it done" track that just wants to have a new form "in the can" and then the more philosophical track that wants to figure out not only what the audience for these things really wants but also what we as a school should be trying to say with them.

Are comments supposed to be detailed reportage and analysis of a student's work--word by word, problem by problem--or disquisitions on intellectual character: curiosity, engagement, cooperation, enthusiasm, positive participation?

Ideally, I think they should be both, somehow balanced so as not to bury readers under excessive detail (and too often written in a school's idiosyncratic education-ese) nor snow them with too much character commentary. I'd like to see comments that tell me how my child has been performing when faced with different sorts of challenges, and I'd also like--heck, I actually crave--some evidence that the teacher knows my child as well as his or her work. It would be great if this part were couched in the lofty goals to which we educators aspire for our students; I'm fortunate enough to work at a school whose mission statement includes terms like "reason and engage deeply,""be intellectually curious," "leadership and teamwork," "act effectively," "respect," and "compassion." How wonderful it would be to see these enshrined as topics in the written comments on my children's work that come home three times a year!

Lately I've been reading Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality by Gerald Bracey, and in it he makes a fine case for the not so 21st-century but oh-so critical idea that schools must be above all about teaching students, not subjects. The book itself is about the overuse of test scores to judge education systems, but a logical extension of Bracey's argument is the overuse of grades to judge children. In the context of that reading our conversation about comments--and grades--has taken on a significance that I can't shake off.

The next stage, I suppose, would be a discussion of grades themselves: what their purpose is, how we generate them, how we use them. There is a great argument that can be made for doing away with them altogether, and some schools have done this successfully, but I'm not sure I see that happening at our place any time soon. But the comment discussion is a start, and even if the "get it done" concept prevails and we just rejigger our current form, we will have at least begun a conversation that I think will be hard not to continue as we get deeper into new and exciting work around curriculum and assessment.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Check out Guskey in a bit more detail - It think you can have both grades and meaningful feedback if you base the grades on goals in the course (those goals related to "product" and those related to "process"). Comments help explain what a grade communicates and provide constructive feedback to help students grow close to realizing a graded goal.