Educators support removal of letter grades

Educators support removal of letter grades

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By Vanessa Broadbent

Oliver Chronicle

Learning is kind of like going on a road trip: not everyone wants to leave at the same time, some people stop for snacks more often and one car may even get a flat tire along the way and end up taking a several-hour-long detour. But in the end, regardless of what time each car arrives, no one has failed.

That’s how Elizabeth Greenwood, a teacher at Oliver Elementary School, describes grading her students.

“Kids are not made out of cookie cutters and we can’t expect every seven year old to be at this spot at the same time all the time,” she said.

Greenwood previously taught second grade, but when school resumes in September she’ll be taking on Grades 4 and 5. Normally, this would mean switching to using letter grades, a process that starts in the fourth grade. However, the B.C. Ministry of Education’s new interim reporting order may change that for students up to the ninth grade.

Before the new school year starts, the board of School District 53 will decide whether they want to implement the order, which is already being piloted in several districts in the province and will tentatively be adopted in the spring.

The order includes removing letter grades for students up to Grade 9. Instead, their progress is marked using indicators and letter grades will only be given when requested from parents.

For students in primary grades, not much will change. Currently, students up to Grade 3 are given one of four options on a performance scale: not yet meeting, approaching, meeting or exceeding. Under the new order, they’ll be marked as emerging, developing, proficient or extending.

The main difference between the two, Greenwood says, is that the new reporting order’s indicators are a “language of success.”

“They’ve changed the language so that instead of ‘you’re not meeting or doing what you need to be doing,’ it’s ‘you’re just not there yet,’ or ‘you are still working on it to get to this place.’”

Along with the indicators, teachers will be providing comments.

“That’s where you get the detail and can elaborate,” Greenwood explains. “Seeing 85 doesn’t tell you much, just that you got 85 per cent of questions right.”

Marcus Toneatto, the school district’s director of learning and inquiry, says the comments will focus on each student’s individual progress instead of comparing them to other students.

“It’s not a sorting system,” he said. “That’s really where letter grades came from – the industrial revolution. It was ‘you’re going to go be a trades person’ or ‘you’re going to shovel coal,’ and the letter grades would determine that.”

The new order is intended to complement the province’s new curriculum which, also unlike industrial revolution era learning, focusses less on content and memorization and more on building critical analysis skills, says Toneatto.

“Now kids have a phone in their pocket which is a super powerful computer – you can almost look up anything in a matter of seconds. So now you need to start to be able to do something with that information and truly understand that and be able to synthesize.”

He says the education system needs to, and is, preparing students for a “different world,” one where an accumulation of knowledge isn’t a highly hireable skill anymore.

“It’s not all about the person who knows things the quickest is going to rise to the top of the pile. You have to have a much deeper understanding and going deeper with your learning and critical thinking.”

This is a constant thought for Greenwood. She says that most of her students will be working jobs that don’t exist today.

“We’re equipping them with strategies rather than all of these memorized facts that they can get on Google … information is everywhere, it’s how we use it that’s the difficult part.”

As a result, teachers have to shift their pedagogy (teaching) methods, while still including the same necessary information. But instead of simply teaching kids a science lesson and then testing what they remember about it, teachers aim to foster a curiosity in science, then demonstrate and encourage creative and critical thinking skills, all while cultivating communication, social responsibility, personal awareness and personal and cultural identity.

These concepts are defined as core competencies and in the new curriculum they’re interwoven throughout every subject. Instead of specific knowledge, they focus on skills students will need after graduation.

But marking a student based on their curiosity or personal awareness doesn’t work as well in a letter grade system.

However, teachers won’t be the only ones contributing to report cards under the new reporting order. Students will also be completing their own self-assessments on their development of the core competencies.

Greenwood says self-assessments will play a large role in students’ adult lives, whether it be learning how to master a recipe or monitor their daily progress in a career, and teaching them at a primary age is vital.

“The majority of my days are dictated by my own self-assessment, so the kids need to learn how to do that and the way you learn is with guidance. Guiding them in self-assessment and eventually allowing them to do it independently is a huge part of where our reporting is going.”

With an emphasis on self-reflection and no letter grades in place, students will no longer be getting failing grades, something that Greenwood says is more destructive than productive.

“So many people say we need to teach kids how to fail or give them the opportunity to fail – why? There’s no reason in your life that you have to fail.

“Kids are exposed to failure, they get it, but I think at this point, especially in elementary, we make kids grow up too fast. I think there are so many opportunities to be exposed to that but they need to be guided through it in a way that’s caring and nurturing and teaching the harsh realities of the world in a supportive environment.”

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Toneatto reasons that taking away an “A” won’t stop students from working to achieve their best. In fact, he thinks it’ll inspire more motivation.

“It’s not about lessening the workload. Brighter students could quite nicely coast if they know how to write a test and have good behaviour in class and get good marks, but not really push themselves or extend themselves. With personalized learning they will have that opportunity to continue to grow, wherever they’re at.”

“I love that component that it is saying learning is never finished,” Greenwood said. “I feel like once kids get a report card and they see letter grades, but they don’t see that it’s a snapshot of where they are right now; they’re not finished.”

At this point, it’s still unclear how students will be graded come September until the district board decides if they want to pilot the interim order for the 2018/2019 school year. Then schools within the district will be given the option as well.

“I don’t think it would be a bad thing if schools decide to go this way because I think this is the direction of education, especially kindergarten to Grade 9, and I think there is some real merit to it and it gives us a year to get feedback.”

While the order includes kindergarten to Grade 9, the district could choose which grades would be included and which schools in the district. However, if the order is implemented province-wide come spring of 2019, it will include all grades up to 9 in British Columbia.

Should the school board join this year, they will be able to respond to the changes.

“The pilot districts this year are getting lots of feedback and feedback from parents. That is what I would expect from our schools: asking parents what they think, especially near the end of the year once they’ve seen this, and then making changes accordingly,” Toneatto said.

“If our schools go this way, I will be completely supportive. And if they decide they want to hold off for a year, that’s okay too.”

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