Communicating Student Progress: New Tool, Same Thorough Description

In this week’s column, Schechter Manhattan Principal, Gary Pretsfelder, shares exciting updates to the Schechter Manhattan student reports.

Communicating Student Progress: New Tool, Same Thorough Description

By Gary Pretsfelder, Principal

Each year our teachers produce extensive student reports for parents that provide details about their child’s academic, social, emotional and spiritual development. These reports along with the ongoing conversations that parents have with teachers make up the main avenues of communication between school and families at Schechter Manhattan.

For those of you who have received our student reports over the years, you know how detailed and exhaustive they are in describing your child’s work and progress. Schechter Manhattan student reports provide extensive descriptions of each student’s skills, and focus on both strengths and areas that need addressing. Over the years, many parents have commented about how well these teacher-produced reports described their children and how clear of a picture they drew about their child’s experience in school.

Recently, we took a step back to assess the effectiveness of our reporting and evaluate the relevance of our communication tool in order to ensure it is up to date, in line with our teaching and learning, and reflects the developing values and goals of our institution. This year, we have revamped our student progress reports in grades 3-5, based on input we received from parents and staff. Below I describe the changes, the guiding principles behind them, and the ways in which we hope they will sharpen and enhance our communication about student progress with parents. To help you visualize what I describe, click here to view the new grades 3-5 report template.

What is the purpose of our Student Progress Reports? At its core, a progress report is the main tool that the school uses to communicate its approach to learning as well as share a student’s progress over the course of a semester. As a document, it reflects our view of the whole child and how s/he learns. The data that we share emerges out of our holistic approach to assessment that relies on a range and variety of evaluation tools, including, but not limited to, projects, presentations, one-on-one assessments and portfolios. Because, as a school, we do not focus on grades, the progress report emphasizes the importance of careful observation and a clear description of a student’s knowledge of content, process of learning, skills learned, and moments experienced. Each of these is an important source of information that our teachers use to describe their students’ learning and progress.

What issues are we addressing by introducing a new report format? Over the last few years we’ve identified areas of our progress reports that we want to address and refine. First, we want to more clearly highlight our expectations, using greater nuance and sharper language. Second, we want to do a better job of describing the skills that are at the core of learning in our school, and, as importantly, the different stages of skill mastery that a student goes through over time as s/he grows in knowledge and skill. Finally, we are reminded each year about how time consuming it is for teachers to produce such detailed reports, even as they continue to create and plan curriculum, and we want to find new ways to make that process ever more efficient, so that teachers can maximize their planning, teaching, and time interacting with students.

How did we arrive at these changes? We received ongoing input from parents, teachers and administrators about the usability and effectiveness of the report template. The Educational Leadership Team (Shira Jacobson, Curriculum and Programming Coordinator, Ruth Servi, Hebrew and Jewish Studies Coordinator, Deanna Stecker, Coordinator of Learning Support, Benjamin Mann, Head of School, and I) discussed and reviewed the strengths and challenges of the report and identified areas for change. Because we are guided by best practices and value dialogue with our colleagues in education, we reached out to other schools – three Jewish Day Schools and two independent schools — to learn about their report models and the kinds of decisions they made in creating their report templates. Starting with the foundation of our existing model, and agreeing to start small and only make changes to three grades (3-5), we identified a number of changes in structure, theme and detail that we were interested in considering. We created a mock up template which we passed around to the members of the ELT for review and comment. Each participant worked individually, and in small teams, for three months, adding and changing categories of learning, and playing with description and language until we arrived at a version we are pleased with.

What are the main changes to the report template?

Move from a checklist to a rubric – In our effort to be clearer about how a student progresses through stages of a skill, we moved to using a rubric. In this format, each skill is described on a continuum, along which a student can move as s/he grows in learning. This allows us to better describe what is being achieved when a student masters a skill, and also offers the benefits of both clarifying for teachers what they are specifically being asked to assess and articulating for parents what their child is learning. As importantly, it helps everyone better understand what outcomes are expected as the child develops, and lays out a direction for the staff to pursue in identifying next steps for instruction.

Parsing out and defining skills –The categories of Habits of Mind, Heart, Hand and Soul, which we’ve used in reports for a long time, continue to be helpful descriptors of the work we do at Schechter Manhattan. But we’ve learned over time that we can still be more specific and defined in identifying the skills we value in learning. With that in mind, we widened and refined the list of behaviors that we assess.

Reading and Interpreting the rubric – Unlike the former report template, each skill continuum on the new report is broken down into four stages of performance rather than three. Like in the past, these do NOT reflect corresponding grades. Instead, each description defines what mastery of the skill looks like at that phase. The two middle stages represent our expectations for most of our students in grades 3-5 as they are developing this skill. Because we understand that a student is multi-faceted and has different strengths and weaknesses in each subject area, we expect that there will be a range of satisfactory outcomes that a student can present as s/he moves toward mastery.

Reduce the amount of writing and editing required – Sharing of personal narratives and communicating steps of progress for individual students continue to be central to our student reporting. In this new report model, we endeavor to streamline the report writing process, in part, by finding a better balance between clearly communicating skill development and clearly communicating individualized experience. The detailed skill breakdown has already been described above. The narrative writing in this new report version is efficiently placed. The report begins with a written summary of the main themes that emerge for the individual student in which the teacher highlights for the reader what to look out for in the report. Then, after each Habit section clearly defines the relevant skills and the student’s trajectory of progress, the teacher has the opportunity to share an overarching issue related to that set of skills or include a student-specific example. Throughout the report, each academic section is also introduced with a brief description of the big ideas and content covered during that past assessment period. Altogether, the explicit description of skills and the targeted writing narrow the amount of writing and editing required by teachers and administrators.

As of this writing, we are pleased with our new format. But we also recognize that there are adjustments and tweaks still ahead. In the coming weeks, after the reports are sent out and reviewed, we intend to gather feedback from teachers and parents, as well as engage in a review process with the school’s Education Committee, a sub-committee of the Board of Trustees. In addition to the adjustments we will then make to the grade 3-5 version of the report, we plan to consider ways to apply what we learn from this first version to the K-2, 6-8, and specialist reports.

Learning at Schechter Manhattan is always iterative. It is also the approach we take in developing our student progress reports. This active engagement and reflection allow us to continually stretch our thinking, refresh our approach, and improve our practice.

Shabbat Shalom,

Gary Pretsfelder