A child's success in school cannot be fairly measured with letter grades, according to a growing number of elementary educators joining a movement to scrap traditional report cards.
"We have 70 years of research that tells us that letter grades do more harm than good when it comes to student learning," Sea to Sky school district's director of instruction, Peter Jory, told parents and educators at an information meeting held on the issue Feb. 15 at Whistler Secondary School.
The school district has launched a pilot project to run in Grades 4 through 9 until the end of the school year using a grade-less reporting system. Twenty-five teachers have opted to omit letter grades from report cards in favour of more frequent correspondence with parents. The initiative encompasses classes in Myrtle Philip Community School, Spring Creek Community School as well as one class each in Whistler and Pemberton's secondary schools.
The introduction of the pilot project eliminating grades from report cards has met with mixed reaction from parents
"I think that most parents would like to see comments and a grade, not one or the other," said Dr. Dan Wallman after the meeting, adding that testing and assessments are an important learning tool, as they help students, parents and teachers understand how a child is progressing through school.
"Educators, the school board, the district, the teachers and the parents all want the same thing: they want a good quality education for their kids," he said. "They want to be sure that when they come out in four or five years that they can compete with kids from around the world."
Don Schwartz, who has two girls in the school district in Grades 4 and 6, welcomes the change to reporting a student's progress.
"We're very different as a society than we were 50 years ago, so grading the same way really doesn't make sense anymore," he said, adding that having more frequent communication with teachers could be an improvement.
"I think the potential for the feedback on this is going to far surpass anything that we've had before.
"It certainly wouldn't hurt if parents got more involved in their child's education.
"In 12 to 13 years of schooling where we're asking these teachers to do an incredible amount of teaching of our kids, we'd better be involved in this process and understand what's going on."
Instead of letter grades in report cards issued three times a year, teachers participating in the Sea to Sky pilot project will use a variety of methods to demonstrate a student's progress to parents. These include more frequent parent-teacher meetings, websites that present a child's work, student self assessments and learning exhibitions.
"We're giving the teachers the opportunity to choose from those types of tools," explained Jory. "There will be a much higher level of accountability for the whole process of learning. Our teachers are going to be using various kinds of ways to measure learning, give feedback and provide information to parents on an ongoing basis."
Other classrooms in B.C. have adopted the no-grade approach over the last four years, including its widespread practice in the Maple Ridge School District. When Communicating Student Learning was launched in 2013, 40 per cent of Maple Ridge parents didn't support the project. Now that opposition rate is down to 14 per cent.
Four years ago, Surrey's public schools began eliminating letter grades from some elementary classrooms. Since then, more classrooms in B.C.'s largest school district have adopted the practice.
"Any time you have change, you are skeptical of approach but I would suggest parents approach this with an open mind," said Karen Tan, the president of Surrey's District Parent Advisory Council.
"Most parents were very hesitant in the beginning... but I think from a parent's perspective any tool that you have to communicate with teachers is a bonus."
Tan has now experienced both traditional and the grade-less report cards.
"For me I've tried it now and I'm somewhat liking it and so I find that I am sad that it is not happening everywhere.
"...You get a glimpse of what they are doing in class and that is very valuable."
Tan added that parents can always ask for letter grades as schools must keep a record of them, and she encouraged all parents to have a relationship with teachers so they can talk to them any time — not just during reporting out.
"This is about parents and teachers together," said Tan.
Added Doug Strachan, communications manager for the Surrey School District, "...It's been embraced."
"The idea behind communicating student learning, and not going with a report card in the traditional sense is that we can communicate, and the student can communicate, with the parents on an ongoing basis."
The project's success has relied on more frequent involvement from teachers and parents to monitor a student's progress, explained Strachan.
"There's greater engagement and opportunity for pride in the students letting their mom and dad know this is something they did today," he said.
Jory said that teachers often find that students disregard feedback on a report card after fixating on whether they got an A, B or a C.
"We also struggle with the whole idea of how kids associate themselves with the letter grade," he said. "They will stop once they achieve the mark they think they should get — and with our struggling learners, they switch off, they become discouraged. There are studies to show that happens quite quickly."
According to a 2011 study by Robert Marzano and Debra Pickering, "As few as two poor scores or letter grades can significantly damage students' perceptions of their abilities as a learner."
Letter grades will still be kept on file in the Sea to Sky schools participating in the pilot project. These can be provided to parents upon request. A survey is being conducted as the project launches to collect feedback from parents, which will be compared with the results of another questionnaire scheduled for the end of school year.
A district report on the effectiveness of the project is scheduled for June.
To learn more about the research behind the pilot project on communicating student learning, go to sd48seatosky.org.
-with files from Clare Ogilvie