School Improvement Episode 23: Reporting student progress and achievement

From Teacher magazine, I'm Rebecca Vukovic, and you're listening to an episode in our School Improvement Series.

In 2018, St Helena Secondary College in Victoria embarked on a journey to improve the quality and accuracy of teacher judgements on their student reports, in order to better reflect the achievement and progress students were making. To begin, they paused and reflected on their current processes and undertook a review of their past practices. They also consulted with staff, parents, carers and students to gauge their thoughts on what was working and what could be improved. They've since introduced a whole range of changes to the way they write and deliver school reports, which we'll discuss in greater detail later in the episode.

To record today's podcast, I headed out to St Helena's in Melbourne's northeast to sit down with Kate Williams, Acting Assistant Principal of Pedagogy, to hear more about the improvements that have been made to the reports and how it is they got to this point. And just a quick note, of course, schools are busy places – so you will hear some background noise and tapping from time-to-time throughout the episode. Okay, let's jump in. Here's Kate.

Rebecca Vukovic: Kate Williams, thanks for joining Teacher magazine and for having me at the school today.

Kate Williams: You're welcome.

RV: Before we jump into the conversation about how your school improved its reporting processes, could you tell me a little bit about the context of St Helena Secondary College?

KW: Sure, well we're a state secondary college, we're situated in a very wet Eltham North this morning and our student population sits at roughly 1600 students, and we're a co-ed secondary school.

RV: Fantastic, and in 2018 you embarked on a journey to improve the quality and accuracy of teacher judgements on student reports in order to better reflect student achievement. Why did you decide to do this?

KW: I guess our motivation really came from the fact that we were seeing a change in our teaching practice, particularly within the classrooms, and we felt it really wasn't reflected in the reports that parents were getting. So our reports from around 2015/2016 had, they were the classic style of report if you like, so we had our assessment task, with comments about what the students had achieved, we had a percentage and we had areas for improvement. And what we felt was there was really no way to show any indication of progress through to parents. We might have some really high achieving kids or some low achieving kids and all they were getting was one single mark on an assessment task and we felt that it really didn't reflect the growth and the journey that they were undertaking during their studies. So we wanted to reflect that progress.

The other aspect was that as a college we'd really investigated using data and we were really asking our teachers to pre-test and to post-test and to see if there was growth at an individual and a cohort level and again, none of this was reflected in reports to parents. So we really wanted to find a way that if teachers are checking in regularly with students and particularly I should say, it was driven through our PLC process that we have, teams of teachers who work together to look at how the cohort is going to identify through the data where the growth is achieving, we really wanted an opportunity to share that with parents as well.

RV: So at that time, who was really driving the project?

KW: Initially, back at the end of 2016, early 2017, the spearhead was our Associate Principal for Teaching and Learning, who is Anesti Anestis who is now Principal at Bundoora Secondary College. My role as an LT at that time, I was the LT for Data, Assessment and Reporting, and we worked really closely together to kind of conceptualise what these progress tasks would look like, both in the classroom and how we could share that information with parents. We've had a few role changes over the years and I worked really closely with Natalie Manser who was Assistant Principal for Pedagogy for the last few years, particularly from 2018 onwards, in really redefining what these progress tasks are because we've actually continued our journey since 2018 and Progress Tasks now, from a reporting viewpoint, look a bit different to how they used to.

RV: I'd like to go into a bit more detail of where you're at but let's rewind a bit, because your school's case study was published in a report by ACER researchers Dr Hilary Hollingsworth, Jonathan Heard and Dr Paul Weldon. For listeners who'd like to take a closer look, I'll pop a link to it in the transcript of the podcast at In that case study Kate, you said that ‘the format of a report must be clear, easy to decipher and should ideally paint a picture of the learning progression from the start to end of a unit, in a way that's easily understood by parents and the wider community.' What were some of the issues you identified with the way you were currently delivering reports to parents and carers, that perhaps weren't achieving those things you mentioned in the case study?

KW: So the first thing that jumps to mind particularly is that, in what you just said, we were looking at reporting to a unit. And when we look at our old reports from 2015 and 2016, we weren't actually reporting on a unit, we were just reporting on assessment tasks. And students are much more than the sum of just the percentage that they get for their assessment task, they're more than just the sum of their grades. So we really wanted to look at that progress during a unit, rather than just at the end of it. The other thing that we noticed, well, got feedback particularly from our parent body about, was the language that was used in some of these reports. Reports are interesting because they're sort of ‘one servant, two masters'. They have to inform parents about the progress of their child, but at the same time teachers are writing them as a record of the learning progression.

So unfortunately, sometimes in reports we get ‘teacher talk', we get these really generic type comments that only come out at the end of a semester, so they don't have a function really in terms of helping students improve. And often, obviously, it's delivered too late because it's the end of the semester. Parents also wanted to know what the percentage score meant, they wanted to understand sort of, say if my child got 75 per cent, is that a good? Is that a very good? How does that rate or rank amongst the other students? So they wanted a little bit more descriptor about what those marks really meant.

RV: I also wanted to ask you a little bit about Progress Tasks. Could you explain to listeners what a formative Progress Task actually is?

KW: Sure, so a Progress Task is basically a form of formative assessment. So we know we have summative assessment that occurs at the end of a unit and that's usually the assessment task, something that gets that mark, that grade, that we then put on reports. But through the college we had really started to do a lot of work on growth, we had done a lot of work on what a data driven curriculum looks like and we've been doing that since 2015. So we really wanted a way for teachers to stop and intervene on particular key skills or key aspects of knowledge to make sure students have that foundation before they get to the assessment task, because it's too late by the time we get to the end of the unit to come back and intervene on aspects of the course. So Progress Tasks are a really short, formative assessment that looks at one key skill or one key understanding or take away that students need to know in order to achieve success on the assessment task.

RV: And so you had identified the issues that you were trying to address and you had a goal in mind, so I'm wondering then, what happened next?

KW: So because we had already, for a few years we'd been working towards understanding data in all different domains, not just the Maths domain but English and Humanities and Science and we were really asking staff to think about how they measure growth and the PLCs to work as a team to measure growth for the cohort. So what we did was bring in whole school PD where we really had an intensive look at what Progress Tasks are, what quality formative assessment looks like, what it could look be in our classrooms. We also did some small group work, looking at pre- and post-test data and asking teachers to be quite forensic in how they approached their unit in planning that unit. So in 2017 we actually introduced Progress Tasks in all subjects, again really focusing on that one key skill or one key element of knowledge and what we did was we now moved to including it on the report. We put it on the report with a descriptor, so ‘good', ‘excellent', ‘very good' etc.

What we also did on the reports at the same time is we tried to provide a narrative of the learning. So, no more just one element provided at the end of a unit, sorry at the end of the semester, what we did was we nested our Progress Tasks and our assessment tasks together because we wanted parents to see that there was a narrative going on, that they were linked. We also then moved to rather than areas for improvement, we've put in a component called Unit Overall Results and in 2018 that's where the comments went, and teachers made those comments really specific about the learning that had occurred in that unit. And the next steps were all about what those key concepts were and those key skills were, so the student could take that feedback and carry it through.

RV: And you mentioned there that you had staff on board with this. So did they have to undertake any specific professional development at all?

KW: We did quite a lot of professional development here at the college. We utilised our whole staff meetings for PD rather than the administrative type meetings that often occur. We also were very collaborative in how we went through the process. So at the end of 2018, we did a big review on how these Progress Tasks had occurred. There were some teething problems as you can imagine when you bring something new in, you make an improvement to a process, and we actually did a very big review at the end of 2018 to see areas that we could improve. So we did things like surveying parents quite extensively, we did student focus groups, we did a review team as well with the curriculum team and key domain leaders, as well as going back to staff. After that intensive PD throughout the year and after sort of living it, to understand what was going really well and what wasn't possibly going too well, and that resulted in changes that we've made since 2018.

RV: I just want to go back at a little bit to the parent perspective because I'm wondering, how has your written feedback to parents evolved over recent years?

KW: So the written feedback to parents, particularly on the reports, has evolved, hopefully as I said, to reflect the changes going on in the classroom. So we've moved from generic, sort of ‘teacher talk' areas for improvement that are provided at the end of a semester, and we've moved from comments attached to an assessment task that reflect what the student has achieved. And we've moved towards comments now in 2020, the comments have actually moved to sit in the Progress Task feedback itself, so that parents and students are getting that written feedback, ascertaining exactly what the student needs to do but also how they're going to do it. Is it going to be with the teacher in class? Is it a particular page in the workbook that students are going to use?

So our reports in 2019 and in 2020 actually have a lot more written comments on them. Parents are also notified where to look for the assessment feedback, so if a student does an assessment task, we don't write the feedback for that assessment task on the reports but what we do say is we tell parents where they can look for that feedback so they can sit with their child and look through it.

RV: And so what impact does this have on students' overall engagement with their own learning journeys?

KW: So the written reports themselves, I don't think have that much of an impact because that's the narrative between home and school and student. Where the impact though lies with the student learning journeys comes from the intervention. So our Progress Tasks are designed to identify, as I said, one key element and one key skill. And to really see where the student can do that or not. And what we ask staff to do afterwards is to pause the learning, to actually press the stop button and to have 20 minutes, half an hour, whatever is needed in class, to intervene. For those students who haven't quite got that skill yet, we ask the teacher to actually intervene and to sit with them and to make sure that skill is learned or is better understood. And that's also an opportunity then for the students who have got that skill to be extended and to work at a higher level. So hopefully by the time we get to the assessment task, the teachers have been checking in throughout time to make sure that those skills are in place for the summative assessment task.

RV: Fantastic. And I read this in the case study that I mentioned earlier, I read that ‘learning behaviours such as organisation and effort are captured each term in a work habits section that is populated by staff with students also self-assessing'. First of all, are you still doing that in your reports? But also, could you tell me a bit about how that actually works in practice?

KW: We are still doing it in our reports. We think it's really important for students and teachers to reflect on the learning behaviours and also to compare their results. So we've been doing this since 2015, and using our online management system we basically have teachers rating students' effort, organisation, class behaviour and work submission. So, you know, whether they're actually handing their work in on time or not. And we use a rubric to do so, to make sure that the teachers are assigning the same grade between the students equitably.

But what we then do a few weeks out from reports is we open it up for students and we ask students to self-assess as well – they use the same rubric, they have to look at their own learning behaviours and they have to rate themselves. And I have to say usually, there's actually a high correlation between what the teacher says and what the student says. Students are pretty honest when they're appraising themselves. The way that we use that is that when we have our strive interviews or our parent/teacher interviews, we can use that as a talking point as well, about the students' work habits and how they're getting themselves organised and behaving in the classroom.

RV: Fantastic. So we've spoken a lot about what you've done but I'm wondering about the challenges you faced throughout the journey. Could you tell me a little bit about that?

KW: So when we look at the challenge on the journey that we've gone through, one of the hardest things I think has been changing teacher practice. When we've introduced pre- and post-testing, it was quite easy for the Maths department to understand but obviously it takes a bit of work and a bit of understanding for other domains. I'm an English teacher and a History teacher – what does a pre-test look like in English and in History? So we had to do a lot of work, a lot of PD and a lot of work through our PLCs in really trying to understand how to get good data, because obviously we can write a pre-test but if it isn't of high quality then we're not going to know much about the students in our class. Really, one of the challenges was us having to identify as teachers in subjects – what is growth? What does growth look like in my subject?

The other aspect that we found with progress tasks that we really didn't think about at the time was feedback that we got from students. They felt they had to be switched on all the time. When we first introduced Progress Tasks, teachers were sort of getting used to them, some of them were a bit bigger than maybe they should have been, you know, and they felt like tests and those sorts of things for students. And students were really clear and vocal in their feedback to us, when we asked them in the focus groups, that sometimes they're just too big or they felt too cumbersome and the students felt the pressure and a bit of anxiety in having to be switched on. So that was something we definitely needed to address.

The other aspect that is challenging, and this is a challenge I face in my own classroom, it's finding time for that intervention in a crowded curriculum. I'm a Year 12 History and English teacher, there's certain things we have to get through and it's really hard to give yourself permission to stop and to maybe teach that little bit less so you can have the time to come in and intervene. And that's a really hard thing to do – to change your practice in that way.

RV: Really interesting. And I'm wondering Kate, with where you are right now in the journey, what has been some of the feedback from parents, carers, and you mentioned students as well, since you've implemented some of these changes?

KW: So in 2019 we actually surveyed parents again. We wanted to know whether the changes that we'd put in place with progress tasks were having the impact we wanted to and whether parents were better able to understand the narrative in the reports as a result. And the feedback from parents, to be honest, was a bit mixed. You know there is still confusion that lies around some of our reporting components. We are mandated to report the Victorian Curriculum Level and then to provide a descriptor across five levels of what that means, and parents are often confused about how those two go together.

The other part of the feedback is with our management system that we use to produce reports is that unfortunately we can't nest things how we would like to. We actually are a little bit restricted in the layout, we can't control that, and I do think we lose the narrative then of that learning journey. We can't put all of our Progress Tasks with the relative assessment tasks with that unit of results, it ends up being quite mixed across the page so I do think there's an element there where parents don't get to follow that narrative and therefore some of the meaning is lost from the report.

RV: And so based on everything you've learned throughout this whole process, I'm thinking about other schools who perhaps want to start reviewing their own processes when it comes to reporting, do you have any advice for them on where to get started?

KW: It's really important, I think, that schools think about what they want to do. We wanted to reflect on what was happening in the classroom and we wanted to be able to give parents a way of understanding. If their child is coasting, because students can get a really good mark on an assessment task but still not really be engaging within the classwork and that's what our Progress Tasks now flag, we now use a traffic light system to flag that. So that's where we started. We started by looking at – what is it that we want to reflect about what's happening in our classroom? And we started just by evaluating the current situation. Is it meeting our needs?

We thought about what we wanted our assessment practices to be, you know, we had that goal and we used sort of that spiral design (the FISO framework is a really good one to use), we looked at our current situation and we dived deep into it. We wanted to know what the best elements were and what elements we could take. And we did a lot of professional reading. Dylan Wiliam, I'm a massive fan of Daisy Christodoulou who has a book called Making Good Progress.

And I think the most important thing that we did though was we canvassed information from parents, we sought their feedback, we did student focus groups, we did staff, we had information up in the staffroom, we asked staff for feedback about some of the changes and improvements that we were trying to make. We worked extensively with our domain leaders and we really tried to bring everyone on board once we had decided on where we were going. We implemented, we monitored it, and particularly through our PLC process, that's how we monitor how things are tracking now.

RV: Fantastic. Well there's lots of practical advice there. Kate Williams, thank you for sharing your work with Teacher magazine and for having me at your school today.

KW: Thank you for having me.

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Have you considered changing the way you report student progress? Where would you begin? How would you approach it? What are some of the key areas you’d like to change about your existing processes?

Kate Williams says ‘we think it’s really important for students and teachers to reflect on the learning behaviours and also to compare their results’. How often do you have students self-assess their learning? What impact does this have on their engagement in lessons?