Category Archives: Grading

Feedback a la positivity – examples

A colleague messaged me privately concerning the “positivity trip” I’m on in my posts.  While I don’t care for the word used, I’ll quote the question.

There you go again, Jill.  I’m gonna ask one more time. Aren’t you concerned about positivity and wussification of our students?

That’s not what I’m writing, talking, and thinking about.  I want to be better – intentional – about offering specific, actionable feedback.  The more I use and practice with I like…because…I wonder…, and What if… the more favorable the responses are.

I also wonder if we have a “no news is good news” attitude when marking papers. If we did a little data mining on the most recent set of graded papers or feedback comments, would we see descriptive positive comments? Or, it is habit to mark what is wrong or needs improvement? Do learners look at the whole of the assessment, or do they look for marks and comments? What is the positivity ratio of what they find?

Constantly scanning the world for the negative comes with a great cost. It undercuts our creativity, raises our stress levels, and lowers our motivation and ability to accomplish goals. (Achor, 91 pag.)

So, I’m curious… Is there anything wussifying <ick!> about the following feedback?

Example 1: Algebra I – I can evaluate an expression involving exponents that are integers.

Screen Shot 2013-12-29 at 4.29.52 PM


  • I like that you showed your work and thinking, because I can see that you do understand negative exponents. Questions 9 and 12 show that you have a solid understanding when asked to evaluate a negative exponent.
  • I like that your work in Question 10 is clear enough to show that you correctly evaluated the negative exponent. I wondered if you had trouble with fractions until I read your work in Questions 11 and 12.  Nice corrections, by the way. I like that you can see what you thought initially and what you now think, because it will help you when you review.
  • I wonder if you understand Question 11 even now. What if we meet for a few minutes to discuss your understanding of complex fractions and why a number raised to the zero power equals one?

Example 2: Leading Learners to Level Up formative assessment

Screen Shot 2013-12-28 at 11.22.12 AM


I like that Level 4 challenges learners to convert between different forms of a linear equation, because this will help with symbolic manipulation that is so important in 9th grade physics.

I wonder if the language will confuse learners.  As you can see from my work, I did not answer the question as you intended.  I read intercept form and used the slope-intercept form.  What if we ask for the equation written in two-intercept form? I wonder if the additional language will offer learners clarity.

Example 3: New Ask, Don’t Tell Art of Questioning document for Algebra II.

<Sam> What do you think?


  • I like it, because it is clear why each form has advantages, and that knowing all 3 forms is helpful.  I like it, because it is easy, using the slider bar, to navigate between the three forms.
  • I like that it is easy to see that the value of a is constant no matter the form.  I wonder how learners identify patterns in forms of hypotheses and then check.  I wonder if they will struggle with writing their hypotheses in words.
  • I wonder why the manipulatable points are so large.  I wonder why the user-added font is larger than the font of scale and values of the graphing window.
  •  I like that the value of a changes in fraction increments and that the functions are displayed with fraction coefficients rather than
  • decimals.  I wonder if learners will notice and document the pattern of the fractional coefficients when moving an x-intercept.
  •  I like that a double root is possible.  I wonder if learners will adjust the window to have the y-intercept in the graphing view. I wonder if learners will know to adjust and reset the viewing window.
  • What if the axis of symmetry is added to the graph?  I wonder if it would help or distract.
  • What if the background of the graphing window is graph paper? Would it help the visual process to be able to count?

<Sam> Thanks for the feedback.  Incorporated a few changes..  Font size is what it is.


  • I like the addition of the words: vertex form, factored form, standard form, because it provides clarity.  I wonder – I think – that it will offer learners language to document patterns and hypotheses in words.

What if we practice taking the time to offer positive, descriptive, and growth-oriented feedback? How might we change outlook, efficacy, and attitude? How might we learn to spot patterns of possibility?


Achor, Shawn (2010-09-14). The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work (Kindle Locations 1351-1353). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

#MICON13: Leading Learners to Level Up – or Ask; Don’t Tell

How might we design assessments that teach, support questioning, and motivate learning?  How might we bright spot or highlight what learners know rather than what they do not know? What if we design and transform assessments, non-graded assessments, to offer learners a path to “level up” in their learning?

#MICON13: Leading Learners to Level Up – or Ask; Don’t Tell

“Questions are the way points on the path of wisdom.” ~ Grant Lichtman. This session will focus on the art of questioning as a formative assessment tool. Work on becoming a falconer…leading your learners to level up through questions rather than lectures. Come prepared to develop formative assessment strategies and documents to share with learners to help them calibrate their understanding and decode their struggles. Be prepared to share your assessments with others for feedback and suggestions.

Foundational ideas:

By learning to insert feedback loops into our thought, questioning, and decision-making process, we increase the chance of staying on our desired path. Or, if the path needs to be modified, our midcourse corrections become less dramatic and disruptive. (Lichtman, 49 pag.)

But there are many more subtle barriers to communication as well, and if we cannot, or do not chose to overcome these barriers, we will encounter life decisions and try to solve problems and do a lot of falconing all by ourselves with little, if any, success. Even in the briefest of communications, people develop and share common models that allow them to communicate effectively.  If you don’t share the model, you can’t communicate. If you can’t communicate, you can’t teach, learn, lead, or follow.  (Lichtman, 32 pag.)

If we want to support students in learning, and we believe that learning is a product of thinking, then we need to be clear about what we are trying to support. (Ritchhart, Church, and Morrison, 5 pag.)

In order to engage in high-quality assessment, teachers need to first identify specific learning targets and then to know whether the targets are asking students to demonstrate their knowledge, reasoning skills, performance skills, or ability to create a quality product.   The teacher must also understand what it will take for students to become masters of the learning targets.  It is not enough that the teacher knows where students are headed; the students must also know where they are headed, and both the teacher and the students must be moving in the same direction.  (Conzemius and O’Neill,  66 pag.)

If you are a teacher in a district with conventional report cards, you can still use the two grading principles that honor the commitment to learning: (1) assign grades that reflect student achievement of intended learning outcomes, and (2) adopt grading policies that support and motivate student effort and learning.  You can do this by clearly communicating your ‘standards’ (in the sense of expectations for work quality) to students and grading on that basis. (Brookhart, 23 pag.)

The idea of using formative assessment for practice work and not taking a summative grade until students have had the opportunity to learn the knowledge and skills for which you are holding them accountable can be applied directly to your classroom assessments in a traditional grading context. (Brookhart, 24 pag.)

We want more students to experience the burst of energy that comes from asking questions that lead to making new connections, feel a greater sense of urgency to seek answers to questions on their own, and reap the satisfaction of actually understanding more deeply the subject matter as a result of the questions they asked.  (Rothstein and Santana, 151 pag.)

The excitement of learning, the compelling personal drive to take one more step on the path towards wisdom, comes when we try to solve a problem we want to solve, when we want to solve, when we see a challenge and say yes, I can meet it.  Great teachers lead us just far enough down a path so we can challenge for ourselves. They provide us just enough insight so we can work toward a solution that makes us, makes me want to jump up and shout out the solution to the world, makes me want to step to the next higher level. Great teachers somehow make us want to ask the questions that they want us to answer, overcome the challenge that they, because they are our teacher, believe we need to overcome. (Lichtman, 20 pag.)

Session structure (120 minutes):

15 mins      Introductions – who we are, what if we explore and prototype
15 mins      Ignite (ish) and challenge
30 mins     Ideation and prototype 1
15 mins      Small group feedback with Q&A
20 mins     Prototype 2 refined from feedback
20 mins     Share session
05 mins     Wrap up and conclusions

Examples of works in progress:


Resources cited:

Brookhart, Susan M. Grading and Learning: Practices That Support Student Achievement. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree, 2011. Print

Conzemius, Anne; O’Neill, Jan. The Power of SMART Goals: Using Goals to Improve Student Learning. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree, 2006. Print.

Lichtman, Grant, and Sunzi. The Falconer: What We Wish We Had Learned in School. New York: IUniverse, 2008. Print.

Ritchhart, Ron, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison. Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2011. Print.

Rothstein, Dan, and Luz Santana. Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education, 2011. Print.

PBL Field Guide: Who forms your learning team?

The Professional Learning Communities reflection in Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age challenges the reader to model collaborative learning, learn and share, and develop learning teams. This is right in line with our Learning for Life vision statement, NET•S, and NET•T.

Three of the essential actions called for in our Learning for Life vision statement are

  • Problems that require critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration
    (Problem-based/Project-based learning)
  • Teachers in teams supporting learning and innovation
    (PLC/Critical Friends Circles)
  • Content and Relationships that connect us to the larger world and the world to us  (Global Citizenship)

Bo Adams (@boadams1, It’s About Learning) and I co-direct our Professional Learning Communities (PLCs).  Our school makes a commitment to adult learning and collaboration by affording teachers job-embedded time to work and learn together.  For a glimpse into our PLCs, see Pull Together, Part II from It’s About Learning and Learning as a Team – A Big PLC Brightspot from my blog.

From Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age:

Professional learning can certainly support your shift to project-based instruction, but the fundamental program changes you make will require frequent and intentional collaboration with your colleagues.  [p. 31] 

In Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital AgeCarmel Crane describes her process when getting ready to launch a project with her students.

Before [introducing] the project to students, I presented it to about 10 teachers.  I laid out all the planning details, and they gave me critical feedback.  It was a great opportunity to see things I may have overlooked.

Other teachers could see how we might work together on future projects to reach our shared goals.  [p. 31]

On Friday, the 4th Period Math-Science PLC took another step toward PBL and Lesson Study by participating in the Eggs Over Easy project that our Science 8 team is planning for the Monday-Tuesday prior to our Thanksgiving break.

In the 55-minute period, we assembled our carriers, did the drops, and debriefed the lesson.  There is more video coming about the debriefing session.  Our plan for Monday is to “do the math” and the reflection questions concerning potential and kinetic energy.  But, the lead teacher for Algebra I has already asked how we can support this lesson in our Algebra classes – another step in integrated studies.  Woohoo!

Again from Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age:

A project-based learning collaboration among students is a lot like a professional learning community among teachers.  For both, the learning is relevant and rigorous, and the “students” learn to learn together. [p. 32]

Bo and I co-facilitate Synergy 8, a non-departmentalized, non-graded, transdisciplinary, community-issues-problem-solving course for 8th graders.  A new school policy about student images on faculty blogs prevents me from showing you how closely the work of our Synergy team matches up with our PLC teacher teams.  [If you want to know more about #Synergy, then you can search that category/tag on either of our blogs.]

Paraphrasing Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best practices for enhancing student achievement:  PBL delivered by a high-functioning PLC of teachers can be the “engine of improvement” that drives a school forward.

Once again from Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age:

Anne Davis, an advocate for blogging with elementary students, suggests using your personal blog as a tool for making connections with like-minded colleagues.  A team of two is better than no team at all, but image the compounding effect of a large team, an entire faculty, or an international community of colleagues. [p. 33] 

If you could assemble your “dream-team,” with whom would you collaborate for PBL? How and with whom do you learn, reflect, and share?  How do you create opportunities for your learners to build their “dream-team” to learn, reflect, and share?  How do we leverage technology to engage with our learning teams?

Translating Rubric Scores When You Have To…

I work and learn with several teams using rubrics to promote learning and growth.  We have been working to translate our 4-point rubric scores to the 100-point scale required by our school.

It is that time of year.  We want to report our learners’ progress to their parents, Grade Chairs, and other important members of their learning teams.  While we understand the 4-point rubric score and what it means in terms of a child’s learning and growth, we feel that it is necessary to report their progress in more traditional terms.

We know that a single number can never represent the unique progress and learning of a child.  We include a written comment with this number to provide additional information and evidence of learning.  See the following blog posts for more information about these comments.

But, for now…We must have that single number.

We have worked together to develop a plan.  We started by studying Classroom Assessment & Grading that Work and Transforming Classroom Grading by Robert J. Marzano.  As a team, we have analyzed student work to calibrate our understanding of the rubric and how we score student work.

In Transforming Classroom Grading we read and studied Chapter 5. Assigning Final Topic Scores and Computing Grades and Appendix D: The Power Law Formula.

We investigated the following conversions by scoring student work and then analyzing the following scales to determine which scale most closely aligns with the team’s thinking about a score out of 100 points.

We looked at this data graphically.  We wanted to see how a power function looked on the data.

Looking at Scale 1…
4 translates to 100, 3 translates to 90, 2 translates to 75, and 1 translates to 60.

It appears that a power function would fit the data.

It appears that this power function would over estimate the team’s rubric score of 2 when converted to the 100-point scale.  Would there be another function that might fit better?  Should we adjust the translations?  We tried another type of function.

This is the same data – no adjustment in the translation – but we used a logistic model rather than a power function.  Interesting, huh?

Looking at Scale 2…
4 translates to 100, 3 translates to 90, 2 translates to 75, and 1 translates to 65.

Power Function:
 Logistic Function:

Looking at Scale 3…
4 translates to 100, 3 translates to 88, 2 translates to 73, and 1 translates to 65.

Power Function:

Logistic Function:

Numerically, the logistic function more closely converts our 4-point rubric scores to our agreed upon 100-point scale translation than the power function.

You are welcome to make a copy of our 4-Point Conversion E-PLC  or 4-Point Conversion S-PLT Google spreadsheet and investigate for yourself.

This is where we are today.  We have decided which of these scales works for our teams.  We have calibrated our understanding and use of our rubrics.  We have investigated these conversion tables numerically, graphically, and analytically.  We have agreed to use the same conversion table to represent our learners’ work and progress.

This is a work in progress.  We would love to know how you translate your rubric scores to the 100-point scale.

Being Slow…Mindset…2nd Chances…Learning

On the drive to school yesterday morning AS (age 6) explained to me that she was the slowest in her class.  It was very matter of fact.  “I am the slowest in class, Momma.  I finish last every time. It takes me longer than everyone else.”  With a very heavy heart, I explained that I thought it was okay to be last.  Learning is not a race.  Everyone learns in their own time.  AS persisted “But, Momma, I am always last.  I am slow.”  I asked her why; why did she think she was slow?  “I like to read what I write.  It is fun, but it takes a long time. I like to look at it to figure out the words.”

Rule Three from The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle is SLOW IT DOWN. 

“Why does slowing down work so well? The myelin model offers two reasons.  First, going slow allows you to attend more closely to errors, creating a higher degree of precision with each firing – and when it comes to growing myelin, precision is everything.  As football coach Tom Martinez likes to say ‘It’s not how fast you can do it. It’s how slowly you can do it correctly.’ Second, going slow helps the practitioner to develop something even more important: a working perception of the skill’s internal blueprint – the shape and rhythm of the interlocking skill circuits.”  (p. 85)

 We still take a lot of heat from our colleagues about 2nd chance tests.  It makes many people, teachers and parents, uncomfortable. 

About our version of 2nd chance tests: 

  • Our learners take the test; we mark (not grade) each problem as correct or incorrect, and return the paper to the child without a number-no grade yet. 
  • Their job is to find, correct, and identify errors.  We ask them to categorize an error as either a “simple mistake” or “needs more study”. 
  • We also ask them to complete a table of specification and determine their proficiency on the assessed essential learnings. 
  • After all problems are corrected, students write a reflection about their work. 
  • Armed with the experiences of teamwork, feedback, and self-assessment, students are given a 2nd Chance test and are tested on only the problems missed during the first testing experience. 
  • The final test grade combines the correct work from the first test with the work from the 2nd Chance test. 
  • Yes, it is completely possible to bomb the first test and end up with a 100 in my grade book.  

My assumption is that this discomfort comes from how non-traditional – radical – this concept comes across.  Just because it is different does not make it a bad idea, does it?  The discomfort comes from gut-reaction or theory rather than practice.  Shouldn’t you try it?  What do learners say?

Here’s what some of my learners say.

“If you give your best effort the first time around, you will have learned more in the process and the second time around will be less stressful therefore making the hard work the first time more rewarding. I think that the second chance test is a very valuable learning technique. Even after that unit is complete, it shows you where you need to improve before you start building on those concepts. So far this year, I have seen great improvement in my learning from my previous years in math. This year it has all started clicking, and I am excited about the new units to come.”

“Before we jump into a new chapter, our class usually takes a formative assessment to tell us where we are and what we know before we actually start learning from Mrs. Gough. I take these seriously because I think they really do help. If I can see where I am in the beginning and then where I am in the end, I can see how much I’ve learned and accomplished.”
~ MC

In Mindset, Dr. Carol Dweck writes

“When people believe their basic qualities can be developed, failures may still hurt, but failures don’t define them.   And if abilities can be expanded – if change and growth are possible – then there are still many paths to success.” (p. 39)

More from my learners:

“Taking formative assessments and tests is something that I think is very important. I give my best effort, and work to learn from my mistakes. The second chance test is something that I think helps us actually learn from taking tests and making mistakes, rather than just getting tested on the material. Math has become one of my favorite subjects this year, and I have worked to learn from all my mistakes.

“I think that first chance tests and formative assessments are amazing because I can first understand my level and see what to work on and then really learn the material on the test to do better on the second chance. I do well in groups (except for the occasional random moments), and I love working in groups instead of taking notes the whole time. By helping others, it also helps me understand what I am doing wrong or just what I am supposed to do.”
~ HA

I feel the same as Daniel Coyle in the epilogue of The Talent Code when he writes

“Mostly though, I feel it in a changed attitude toward failure, which doesn’t feel like a setback or the writing on the wall anymore, but like a path forward.”

One more quote from our learners

“Overall, I feel as though I have done a pretty good job so far, but there is no one who can stop me from really stepping it up to an unbelievable level. The rest of the year I am going to fix any flaws I have, and show everyone what I can do when I REALLY put my mind to something.”
~ LM

In case this has been too broad for you, let’s go deep.  Here is one learner’s story from three perspectives.

From my perspective…

“GW came to me feeling that she is not very good at math and that she hasn’t been encouraged to like math.  She seeks an advocate and coach.  I strive to support GW as she becomes empowered to take control of her learning.  She is learning that it is great to struggle to learn; it is worth it to struggle to learn; and through the struggle she finds success.  Success leads to more confidence and more success.”   

From GW’s perspective…

“When I started out in math I had a really hard time and math was a definite challenge for me and my first test grade didn’t make it any easier. I was “in a hole” as my parents would tell me and I had to dig myself out. I started to go to extra help a lot more often and made solid B’s on my midterm and exam grades. What helped me through this process was the support. Support from not only my family but from Mrs. Gough and the faculty that really encouraged me to do my best.”

 From GW’s parents’ perspective…

“GW quietly got way behind in math first semester.  Partly due to an inner voice telling her she did not do well in math and partly a lack of commitment and time management. GW had given up.  Mrs. Gough communicated to us that GW needed to demonstrate the deep practice method on all homework. With our support and encouragement (not hands on help) GW began to do the deep practice on homework and began to “review and preview” every night. Our emphasis was ‘the process’ not the letter grade.

Her great success is directly attributed to the teacher/student relationship that Jill forged. Through encouragement (emails), support (office hours), an emphasis on deep practice and patience, Jill taught GW to try and try again, make the mistake, work through it, and get to the answer. Through perseverance, determination and resilience GW moved from failure and “not being good at math” to more than just passing. For us the 80 on her final exam was an A+ in effort, team work, student/teacher relationship, and determination.”

There are many take-a-ways for me…

If I can see where I am in the beginning and then where I am in the end,
I can see how much I’ve learned and accomplished

 It’s not how fast you can do it. It’s how slowly you can do it correctly.

I have worked to learn from all my mistakes.

There are still many paths to success.

This year it has all started clicking.

I am excited about the new units to come.

There is no one who can stop me from really stepping it up to an unbelievable level.

Try and try again, make the mistake, work through it, and get to the answer. 

So here’s to being slow, making mistakes, and trying again.  It’s about learning content and skills.  It’s about learning persistance and determination.  It’s about learning.  Period!

Time is a variable.

Learning is the constant.


Coyle, Daniel. The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born : It’s Grown, Here’s How. New York: Bantam, 2009. 217.  Print.

Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: the New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, 2006. 39. Print.

Learning from Leveling, Self-Assessment, and Formative Assessment

We have been back at school for 4 days. The first day was dedicated to exam analysis, exam corrections, and peer editing.  The second day we talked briefly about graphing simple exponential function and negative exponents and then worked more on their exams.  After school the usual crew worked in my room to complete their homework.  I was really surprised to be asked “Ms. Gough, what level are these questions?”  In an earlier blog post, Deep Practice, Leveling, and Communication, I wrote about the formative assessment with levels that is my team’s current assessment experiment.  On day 3, we decided to go ahead with a formative assessment on computational fluency with negative exponents and then have students investigate exponential growth with an investigation using M&Ms.  We were hesitant to give this assessment so early, but we thought it might serve as a diagnostic assessment too.

Let me stop here and offer our current thinking about the scoring and levels on this type of formative assessment.  These assessments are not graded.  They are taken individually as if taking a test.  The assessments are self-scored, and then our learners complete a table of specifications to help us all determine their level of proficiency and where they need support.  They are to work together to correct any problems up through level 3 and are encouraged to work on level 4 if they are moderately successful with level 3. 

Level 1 – We try to target the most basic of the prerequisite skills necessary for this learning target.

Level 2 – We try to assess a prerequisite area that might cause our learners to stumble based on our history and experience with learners of this age.

Level 3 – This is the target level.  Can our learners function at the desired level?

Level 4 – This is an enrichment level.  If you are functioning on target, can we challenge you to learn more?  These questions generally come from either the Honors Algebra I or the Algebra II learning targets.

If formative assessment informs the teachers and learner and causes a change in practice or behavior, then this was definitely formative assessment.  The M&Ms were out on the table ready to be tossed and counted.  As I looked through their tables of specifications, I learned that hardly anyone was working confidently at level 3.  So, we took a poll.  Do we postpone the M&M lab to work more on negative exponents?  Rarely do I get 100% agreement, but today I did.  “Yes, please Ms. Gough.  We need to work more on negative exponents.  And, will you teach us about exponents that are fractions?” 

It was great!  DD, my friend and teammate, was there to observe the M&M experiment.  We agreed with our learners that the best decision was to stop and teach more about negative exponents; how often are we asked to teach something?

Here are three examples of my learners work and reflections from this formative assessment. 

Isn’t it interesting that VB still puts a score on her paper, but MC and CL do not?  We can quickly see that VB needs pay attention to a few details and needs to be challenged to move to level 4.  MC needs to read the directions more carefully as well as correct her work and complete the table of specifications correctly.  She understands whole number exponents, but needs a little coaching on how to write her answers.  She may not understand the term evaluate, or she may need to read the directions.  MC also needs help with fractions and arithmetic, but she understands negative exponents.  CL is unclear when the exponent is zero and might need a refresher with fractions.  She needs to pay attention to parentheses and should be encouraged to investigate fractional exponents.

One other thing to notice…CL reported 50% at level 3 and marked that this is the level where the work is most consistently correct.  I just had to ask. Her response “yeah, if you look at my work, I messed up multiplying fractions and the zero exponent.  I got negative exponents. You don’t have to worry about me.”  I spend about the same amount of time with these formative assessments as I did when I gave quizzes, but now my job is more interesting.  It is problem-solving, coaching, and having conversations with my learners.  They have the opportunity to critique their work and report back to me.  I feel like I’m coaching rather than judging.  My learners talk to me about what they can do and what they need.

Does the formative assessment and table of specifications help these learners identify where they are and where we want them to be by the end of the unit?  Will it help us know how to plan and teach?  Does it tell us all where gaps are that need to be filled?  Can we work together to close each gap?

Don’t you love CL’s reflection?  “I think I need more help with Integers and exponents with rational numbers.  With rational numbers, I feel like I had no idea what was going on, and like I hadn’t learned that stuff yet.” 

It is about learning.

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

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  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 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?