Boosting Achievement by Reporting It Better

How teachers report student progress could have far more impact on student achievement than we commonly assume, according to some researchers and educators. In fact, the format and limited content of most “progress reports” typically imply not progress but the lack of it, said Ross Abels of Iowa’s Solon Community School District, who suggests that teachers substitute narrative comments for the usual report-card checklist approach.

A narrative comment expands on the cryptic symbols of the report card to provide extra information on what the student does and does not do well. It can also offer specific suggestions for help, such as home activities or games. And it can frame a student’s progress in realistic and encouraging terms, letting parents know that academic and social development takes place at a different rate for every child.

“Written in a positive and informative manner, comments can address a variety of issues while still maintaining the dignity of the child,” wrote Amy Brualdi in a 1998 digest of research in the online journal Practical Assessment, Research and Evaluation. Especially if a student has had difficulty with a particular subject area or controlling his or her behavior, she said, teachers can avoid shaming them by framing their comments in a context of improvement.

For example, to convey that a student needs help, a teacher might use phrases like “could profit by,” “requires,” “finds it difficult at times to,” “needs reinforcement in,” or “has trouble with,” according to S. Shafer in her 1997 book Writing Effective Report Card Comments (Scholastic). Students are likely to see their report cards, so words like unable, can’t, won’t, always, and never prove counterproductive. A more positive view results when teachers can emphasize the positive through phrases like “improved,” or “shows commitment.”

Calling on varied sources of evidence enriches a narrative comment. Not just test results but examples of student work, formal and informal observations, and student portfolios can provide good evidence for a report card comment.