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Parents split on gradeless report cards

SD48 pilot project gets the go ahead for another year

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For the second year in a row, some Whistler students' report cards will look a little different — they won't have any letter grades on them.

On Wednesday, Aug. 30, the Sea to Sky School District (SD48) voted to continue a pilot program that allows teachers to forgo traditional letter grades in favour of "ongoing, detailed, descriptive information."

Twenty-five teachers in the district volunteered for the pilot, which was restricted to Grades 4 through 9 and ran from February to the end of the school year. Around 500 students were in classes that took part.

How many students will get gradeless report cards this year is still unknown. Teachers need to "opt-in" to take part, and the process is not completed.

All teachers who took part last year have indicated they will take part again.

But while they appear to be generally enthusiastic about gradeless report cards, parents are another story.

An SD48 report on the program found that over half of parents still felt that letter-based report cards are a "critical tool" following half a school year of gradeless ones. Under the current system, parents can still request letter grades, which are required by the ministry of education.

Dr. Denton Hirsh, a local pediatrician with a Grade 5 student at Spring Creek Community School, has been a vocal critic of the school district's decision. "People need to know where their kids sit relative to each other," he said.

Hirsh took exception to the school board's belief, as stated in the report, that "there is a body of work that suggests that letter grades tend to diminish students' interest in learning by placing a focus on completion and other extrinsic aspects rather than their own deeper learning."

He looked at the research they've cited, and he felt it didn't bear that statement out. "There's not a body of literature to suggest that (letter grades) diminish creativity and learning," he said.

Hirsh felt that both models, the traditional graded report card and the new gradeless one, are flawed. Grade inflation is a big problem, even in middle school, he said.

Hirsh said he would like to see a hybrid model in which students are assigned a grade in a percentage form (one that grades students on a curve, so as to combat grade inflation) and continue to receive the comprehensive feedback. At the least, he thought that if the school board wanted to pursue gradeless report cards, they should develop a way to evaluate their efficacy.

"The evidence doesn't exist to support what they're claiming. If they want to pursue it, they should collect the data themselves or wait until someone does," he said.

Other parents, however, are welcoming the new approach to reporting student progress.

"I love it!" said Leanne Turkington, who has two kids at Myrtle Philip Community School.

Turkington said that it's "changed the dialogue" around report cards at her home.

Rather than focus on letter grades, her kids focus on where they can improve, she said. She feels that the assessments give her a good sense of where her kids sit relative to the rest of the class. "The content of the report cards is incredibly rich," she said.

One of her kids has severe dyslexia, she explained. How do you score a child that's severely dyslexic in reading? she asked.

Turkington said that the issue is "super polarizing" among parents.

She feels parents should have more confidence in educators. "I have a huge amount of confidence in our teachers and administrators. They know what they're talking about," she said.

"We won't be leaving Whistler because of the education we're getting," she said.

According to School Superintendent Lisa McCullough, the school district is confident in the research in the report and is gathering information on best practices. This spring, the Ministry of Education will release provincial guidelines for how schools can and can't report student progress.

McCullough also said that grading has never been meant as a way to rank students against each other. Instead, it is a way for students and parents to get a sense of how well they are doing with respect to benchmarks set out by curriculum.

Paul Lorette, director of instruction for SD48, said that the change reflects a desire to encourage a love of learning and independent thinking.

The economy is rapidly changing, and schools need to better adapt to its needs, he said. The skills that are valued, like critical thinking and creativity, are difficult to measure with traditional letter grades. "The focus becomes on the letter grade rather than learning and thinking deeply and critically," he said.

Asked if the grades and comprehensive feedback can be combined effectively, Lorette said that the "child will focus more on the letter grade."

In a survey sent to parents at the end of last year, around 37 per cent of respondents said expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of feedback they were getting.

Lorette said that this year the board is stepping up its game and will be requiring "minimum" expectations when it comes to keeping parents apprised of their kids' progress. A report on the survey results says parents will be provided a minimum of five progress reports.

"The purpose of that is to provide a little more consistency and certainty to parents," he said.

Lorette said he recognizes that there is an ongoing debate about the efficacy of gradeless report cards. But he said that the school district's decisions are based on sound research. Other districts, like SD42 in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows, have adopted the approach to great success, he added.

For Lisa Smart, a veteran educator who used the method at Myrtle Philip last year, the change is welcome.

The new approach enabled her to open channels of communication with parents, allowing her to update them on their progress in a more timely fashion.

She also noticed a "shift" in the kids, who were able to reflect on their learning in a deeper way than she'd seen before. Their focus is on "learning versus outcome," she said.

For Dr. Hirsh, the district's decision to go forward with the project reflects a desire to keep teachers happy. "Satisfaction is not as important as student achievement," he said. "The kids aren't going to learn as much."

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