When she heard that her daughters’ school was doing away with letter grades a little more than a year ago, Sherri Fawdry’s first reaction was skepticism. And then concern.
“I went home and drafted an email to the school. I was actually quite upset,” remembers the mother of two from Pitt Meadows, B.C. “I thought: I don’t like this. I want a report card.”
Her two daughters, Paige, 11, and Tessa, 7, both attend Pitt Meadows Elementary School in the Maple Ridge District School Board, one of the first in Canada to do away with using As, Bs and Cs for students up to and including Grade 7. Instead, starting with a pilot program in 2012 to 2013, the board now uses a new system that brings the student, teacher and parent together to set goals at a meeting early in the school year. That meeting is later repeated to determine whether the student met his or her goals goals.
Initially unconvinced, Fawdry decided to reserve judgment, saving—but not sending—that emotionally charged email. “I knew I needed to go through the new process first, before I made up my mind.”
Canadian Schools Are Moving Away From Letter Grades
Across Canada, an increasing number of school boards are deciding to move away from that great staple of educational assessment—the traditional report card. Part of an overall trend that focuses more on the needs of the learner and less on static forms of evaluation like percentages and grades, it’s a move that aims to engage students in a deeper and more meaningful educational process. But it’s not altogether popular. While some experts say it’s a step forward, parents and teachers across the country maintain that there are plenty of reasons why the letters should stay.
The largest and perhaps most controversial move to date has been the Calgary Board of Education’s plan, announced this past June, to eliminate letter grades from Kindergarten to Grade 9, starting with a pilot program in the 2013 to 2014 school year, followed by full implementation the next fall. Instead of letter or even numeric grades, the Calgary pilot will use phrases ranging from exemplary on the high end to support required on the low. Initial reaction has been mixed, at best. “There was no warning—it seemed to come out of left field,” says Robert Hurdman, a father of three, and vice president of the Calgary Association of Parents and School Councils.
Hurdman’s two sons, Michael, 9, and Jeremy, 7, attend one of the pilot schools, where Hurdman also serves on the school council. He says parents and even some teachers found out about the change through the media—there was no communication or consultation between the board, schools and parents about the new system.
The feedback Hurdman’s heard so far has been negative—parents of older kids worry that, without percentages, students won’t be properly prepared for high school grading. Parents of younger kids say they’re concerned with the elimination of the comments section of the report card, another unpopular move. “We rely on report cards to know what our kids are experiencing and how they’re doing,” Hurdman says. “There’s concern that we’re losing an important method of communication.” Those comments provide important insights not just for parents but for teachers as well, giving context to how their new students progressed over the course of the previous year or years. (The Calgary Board of Education did not make a spokesperson available for an interview over several months leading to press time.)
One of the loudest critics of the Calgary plan has been Peter Cowley, director of school performance studies at the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, a conservative think tank. He feels that these phrases (exemplary, support required) will leave parents scratching their heads. “If it wasn’t so important, it would be laughable,” he says. “All in all, these descriptors provide parents with very little useful information.”
Cowley is co-author of the Fraser Institute’s series of performance reports that rank schools in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, and says that clarity should be the most important priority when teachers communicate to parents about a child’s success (or challenges). He says that it is useful for report cards to provide both the student’s grade, and that grade relative to the rest of the class. “Letter grades tell parents whether their child is progressing and has achieved a level of understanding on the mandated curriculum—and that’s a good thing,” he says.
But many boards have been moving steadily away from that model. In Ontario, for example, the first (and arguably most important) report—the autumn progress report—no longer uses letter grades for younger students. Instead, these evaluate students on a scale of “progressing very well” to “progressing with difficulty.” In addition, while the Grade 1 to 6 report cards across the province still communicate traditional letters (from A+ down to D-, and then R, which means “extensive remediation is required”), it also reserves a great deal of space for teachers to give parents insights and information on things like their child’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as steps for improvement.
The Debate: Are Letter Grades Superficial or Helpful for Kids?
Sandra Mathison, PhD, an education professor at the University of British Columbia, argues that grades, in themselves, are actually rather superficial, and not all that helpful in the learning process. Sometimes, in fact, they can be quite the opposite.
She notes that research has shown that grades serve as what’s called an “external motivator.” In practice, she says, they distract from the most meaningful forms of learning, diverting students’ attention from their truest interests in their pursuit of the grade, sometimes even motivating kids to take an easier path in order to achieve a higher grade when the more difficult one would’ve held more valuable lessons.
“People learn well, and learn lots, when they’re internally motivated—when they’re compelled because of the desire to learn something, to pursue it, rather than doing it for a reward—like a grade,” she observes.
Mathison agrees that it’s still important to evaluate and give feedback on students’ successes and failures. But she argues that grades quickly cease to be effective in their essential role of providing useful information to students and parents.
Instead, a letter grade becomes a label, or even a reward or punishment. Mathison points to the example of medical schools to illustrate her point. While training what are arguably some of our most important professionals, most med schools have moved completely away from assigning letter grades or percentages, instead instituting a pass/fail model.
By doing so, they have decreased stress as well as competition, which, Mathison notes, “might work against them being the best doctors that they can be.” Researchers have looked at the effect this has had on the quality of graduates. “It hasn’t had a detrimental impact at all on the quality of medical care,” she observes. “So why would we presume that kids are better off under some sort of points system?”
How Letter Grades Can Encourage Competition – And Is It a Good Thing?
Of course, a little competition isn’t always a bad thing, observes Derek Harrison, a Grade 4 teacher in the Cogito Alternative Program at Elmer S. Gish Elementary and Junior High School in St. Albert, Alta. Cogito utilizes a traditional approach to instruction and assessment. Students are tested on all core subjects every week, writing between three and five quizzes each Friday; these are graded and returned on Monday.
Harrison points out that many students thrive on competition, using it as motivation to push upward, toward higher learning goals—which could include getting into the medical schools Mathison refers to above.
Harrison adds that grades have long served as the most understood gauge of a student’s aptitude in a certain subject, and that there are few other tools that match letter or number grades in their ability to highlight potential problems. He remembers one student who began the school year putting forth a lackluster performance in math but, through the feedback provided with all those quizzes, worked hard to improve her standing in the class considerably.
“Whether it’s a number or a letter, a grade is something that tells you where you can improve. Those assessments offer pieces of information that kids and parents and take and roll with.”
Yet in Nova Scotia, Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development Ramona Jennex—a former elementary school teacher with 30 years of classroom experience—says that the province has taken strides away from an old-school, simple grade model. Instead, educators there have chosen to engage parents—and students—as much as possible in the process of evaluating goals. Parents and students can meet with teachers together; most schools are flexible on appointment times and some even provide babysitting so that parents with younger children can easily come in.
“There’s been a big move toward very interactive parent-teacher evenings,” Jennex says. “It’s not just about a teacher explaining things to parents. Schools that practice things like student-led conferencing and portfolio presentations use a combination of the child explaining how they’re learning to their parent, and a teacher supporting that.”
The actual report card, then, is just one component of the evaluation. Nova Scotia, she says, is now in the middle of a comprehensive process of evaluating its next move, consulting parents across the province on all aspects of report cards, including letter grades.
Nova Scotia is perhaps part of the way down a road that British Columbia’s Maple Ridge School Board has travelled all the way. There, classrooms in 19 of its 20 schools, up to Grade 7, are embracing what the district’s director of instruction, David Vandergugten, calls a “student-inclusive conferencing model.” He compares traditional report cards to autopsy reports—both of them, he says, come too late to help the person in question.
Vandergugten says that Maple Ridge’s system brings all of the interested parties (teacher, parent and student) together twice a year—in mid-November and then again in March—to discuss goals and, later, whether students achieved them. “Each person—including the student—is an active participant, and the document is filled out during each of these three sessions,” he explains.
Teacher Michael Saul was involved in crafting the board’s approach and teaches Grades 6 and 7 at Highland Park Elementary School in Pitt Meadows, B.C., which was one of the schools that piloted this new evaluation process last year. Saul also earned his doctorate from the Vancouver area’s Simon Fraser University by writing a thesis on the impact that grades have on learning. Saul notes that while the curriculum in Canadian schools has moved steadily away from rote learning (a form of memorization) and toward “heuristic” learning—requiring creativity and higher-level thinking—evaluation regimens have not kept pace.
“The jury’s back in, and using letter grades has a negative impact on creativity”
“Letter grades are inappropriate for anything that requires higher-level thinking,” he says. “I’ve seen the great body of psychological research, and I say quite categorically to people: The jury’s back in, and using letter grades has a negative impact on creativity.”
Some would argue that school isn’t all about creativity—that life requires students to learn basic literacy and numeracy skills (which requires memorization), that failure is an integral part of learning, and that this move away from letter grades is simply an attempt to protect kids’ self-esteem at the expense of the resilience they will need later on in life.
But Saul maintains that both his research and his experience as a classroom teacher have shown him that a reward/punishment, positive/negative reinforcement system—like grades—actually limits learning; students will work only hard and long enough to earn their desired letter, but no more. “If you pay me $25 to wash the siding of your house, I’m not going to clean up your garden, too,” he notes. “I’m not going to work beyond the reward.”
Replacing Report Cards with More Parent-Student-Teacher Meetings
In practice, the Maple Ridge School Board (unlike the Calgary Board of Education) worked hard to keep parents informed, educated and involved in the planning and implementation process. And the new program’s parent-student-teacher meetings held during the first year were very successful, Saul says, in large part because the format compels kids to take ownership of their learning. Students must arrive prepared with a list of goals, and to participate in their own assessment. Meetings last 30 minutes, rather than the 15 minutes the board previously held. Apart from the specific skills of math, writing and reading, discussion centres around a student’s “core competencies,” including communication and critical thinking. “It’s a long, involved discussion. It’s not just a report that gets sent out every three months and put into a stack somewhere.”
In the end, Fawdry—whose daughters were involved in the Maple Ridge Board’s pilot year—decided not to send her critical email. She notes that the new system works better for Tessa than Paige, who thrives on competition and responds well to a more traditional grading system. Despite her initial reservations, Fawdry has found the overall experience was very positive.
Halfway through the year, she discovered through one of the conferences that Paige was struggling in some areas. Together with the teacher, Fawdry and her daughter determined the problem was that Paige was in too many extracurricular activities, and subsequently cut back on them. A team leader with a number of employees working under her, Fawdry observes that the process is akin to a job performance evaluation. “I can definitely see its merit—for goal-setting, lifelong learning and, down the road, the students entering the workforce,” she says. “And the kids feel that everyone is invested in their academic success.”
Contributing editor and professional wanderer Tim Johnson gets an A+ for his exemplary work on this piece.