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 In Hashavua Article

How was progress measured when you were in school? How did you know if you were learning? What kind of feedback did you receive and how did you react to it.

My World History teacher at Gunn High School in Palo Alto liked to give pop quizzes to see if we had completed the required reading. These 10 question quizzes, completed on Scantron forms, assessed basic memorization of names and dates. Until that year, I loved Social Studies – learning about other cultures and people fascinated me. Although there were plenty of quizzes and tests in middle school, there were open-ended questions, engaging assignments and written comments that asked us to do more. In my high school history class, I received a grade based on the percentage and that was it. Even though I was only 14, I felt like my learning wasn’t important and that the teachers weren’t able to help me grow as a student.

Thirty five years later, I can reflect on those experiences through the lens of what educational researchers know about intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation, growth vs. fixed mindset, and the increase in mental health problems in our teens. Yavneh, like other schools across the country, is grappling with how to give feedback. Our goals are to bolster intrinsic motivation and a growth mindset, focus on the specific educational objectives, and utilize feedback to be part of the learning process as opposed to the end point. We are expanding narrative progress reports through 3rd grade this year and have stopped using overall grades for assignments and assessments in middle school. Instead, we are provided feedback on each educational objective. This change has lead to students receiving more feedback so that they have a clearer understanding of what they have mastered and what requires more work.

The middle school faculty has already noticed a change in student engagement. In previous years, students mostly focused on the overall grade – their work often ended up crumpled in the bottom of their backpack. Now, without a letter grade to focus on, students are reading the comments and then doing additional work if any part needed improvement (denoted with an N). For example, on a math test, a student might be meeting expectations for “solving inequalities” and “order of operations”, but needs improvement on “finding slope” or “making thinking visible through modeling”. In previous years, a student might have earned an A- on that assessment and not understood that there was still work to do.

Ms. Schwartz’s perspective: At the beginning of this year, the 8th graders were asked to annotate a poem and answer some analysis questions. They have been annotating text for years, and most students got right to it, underlining and highlighting words and phrases. When I assessed their work, instead of giving them points out of 10 like I have in previous years, I assessed each part of their work separately: annotation, analysis, and mechanics. Each one of them, almost without fail, received P (progressing) or N (needs improvement) on their annotation. I explained on each student’s paper that annotation is not just about underlining phrases, it is about having an active conversation, in writing, with the text. The students were surprised when they saw their grades, but when we worked that next period on annotation, they were all scribbling notes in the margins like college students. This new method of assessment not only clearly communicates to the students which skills need further work, but also helps me identify which skills I need to reteach or scaffold further.

Morah Jamie’s perspective: Since beginning to mark up each students’ work based on their mechanics, analysis, and annotation, we’ve been able to give students a much clearer picture of their progression. Telling a student their paper is a B says little; telling a student that their analysis is excellent but their mechanics are lacking gives student a greater idea of what they need to focus on and refine, where to ask for help and where to trust in their skills.

At Yavneh, we speak often about putting our students at the center, and letting each child learn in their own way. This new system of grading is by no means easier for the teachers – it’s a good 30% more time consuming and difficult. But the effort is already yielding incredible results. Within a few classes we have seen students begin to annotate their work at what can only be classified as high school/college level. They are taking more time and putting more effort into their responses. One student in particular, who was dismayed when they received an N (needs improvement) on a long written response, really took the feedback into consideration and returned with a piece that I would have expected from a 9th or 10th grader.

– Cindy