Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Is it time to eliminate letter grades? What is the purpose of report cards?

This past spring when my parents moved out of their home of the past 30 years we came across many treasures, including old report cards. I found my old grade 1 report card, which was very different than the ones I now read. It made me think about how report cards have changed, and yet stayed the same. It had about 30-40 line items and a each had a ranking of 1-3, including 2+ and 2-. In looking at this, the respective skills in each subject area were fairly well indicated. This was the same for grades 2 and 3. There were also anecdotal comments to complement the ratings. I do not really remember much about these classes nor how I felt about the report cards. I think for parents, particularly parents who are just going through the school system for the first time, it could have been overwhelming.

So where does this story lead me? What purpose do report cards serve? When report cards are opened, what is the first thing that is looked at, comments or grades? What about work habits, where do those rank? Is the purpose of the report cards to tell parents where their children rank? Is it just a summary of the percentages with a few token comments? If the report card is a communication document, what is it communicating, what should it be communicating?

Grade 4 was an entirely different year. I spent September to December in a private catholic school in France. Was it ever different than anything I had experienced, or would experience again. I remember two reporting periods in that time and everything was numerically scored out of a specific total. Math was scored out of 40, handwriting was scored out of 10. Before we were given the 1st report, the principal of the school came into the class, and handed out each report card to us, after reading out the entire report card in front of the class and commenting on the individual marks. After that, we were then seated according to our marks, the "smartest" kids were in the front row, with the kid with the highest marks on the left and moving right. The desk on the left was the closest to the teacher's desk. The next row was the next highest marks and so on, so the kid with the lowest marks was seated in the back row in the desk on the right. I personally loved it because I was one of the top students and I was determined to be front and left. I cannot imagine how the back right student felt with the stigma of being "the dumbest" kid in the class. This was apparently a fairly common practice because some of my family would recall the radiator kids, the ones seated at the back of the room next to the radiator. You would see the parent reaction when they found where their child sat because they knew immediately where he/she ranked in the class.

As I moved into grade 5 and onwards I began to question some of my marks. The report cards had a few vague comments and were not very informative of what I needed to do to improve. By the time I got to high school I had 1 mark per subject and a single line of comment, 2 comments on the rare occasion. Usually my comments were along of the lines "kind and cooperative", with the occasional "talks too much". I am not sure how informative it was my parents to know what I could do to improve, and I knew it was not really useful to me. I was often not sure about how my marks were generated.

I remember during one of my practicums the teacher was talking about the importance of cutting and pasting. This teacher also told me to write three report cards: a successful student, an average student and then a struggling student. I should avoid as many he/she ad his/her as I could so that I did not have to duplicate too much work. If we are to talk about personalized learning, the cutting and pasting does not really work.

When I began my teaching career I followed the same path as I was taught and that I had observed. I became more focussed on my percentages and commenting on which tests they had done well on or poorly on. I was not commenting on specific skills, the areas of support usually included read 20 minutes per night, review multiplication tables and so on. In my last year of middle school the report card became more of a checklist where we would identify specific learning outcomes that we had worked on and whether students were not yet meeting expectations, approaching expectations, meeting or exceeding expectations. When I looked at the report card it made much more sense than just marks with a few comments.

If grades are a distraction, and are not necessary for any entrance requirements, why have them? Why do elementary student need to be graded? It would seem to me that the purpose of a report card is to report a child's progress. The report card should focus on what specific skills have they mastered, improved on or are struggling with. I realize that meetings with parents are far more informative than a written document, but the written document needs to have value. A single page with half dedicated to letter grades and work habits with a few token comments about the different subjects and a couple of sentences about social responsibility does not really cut it.

Report cards need to change to match the assessment practices that are taking place. Grades and formative assessment do not go hand in hand. If we are looking at criterion based evaluation, problem solving in math, performance standards for reading and writing, then why are we using a system that is inherently based on percentages. At my school and with colleagues we are starting to talk about the possibility of eliminating the letter grades from the report cards altogether, no putting in the letter grades to appease the ministry, simply no letter grades. I believe that there is an appetite for this change, and this change needs to happen.

So now begins a new journey...


  1. Remi,

    This was a popular discussion at the recent BCSSA Conference. We have a number of elementary teachers and administrators in Weset Vancouver that are asking the same questions. From these discussions we have learned that while letter grades are required at grades 4- 7 some districts have found a work around. I am quite certain Saanich was one of the examples - they make letter grades available at grades 4 and 5 but do not give them out unless they are asked. They find that few people ask. I am quite certain there was another district doing somethign similar. It was a way to promote good assessment while ensureing compliance with the Ministry's reporting procedures.

  2. Remi,
    I came to ask myself this exact question last week, but for different reasons. This year, with my Grade 4/5 French Immersion class, we are integrating the French, Socials and Science curricula, basing Math on real-life experiences in the school, and teaching the students skills that will, we believe, help them to think critically and problem-solve for the rest of their lives (big project!). We have spent most of the first term front loading with processes, team building and developing critical thinking attitudes, as well as diving into our overall theme "Est-ce que la Colombie-Britannique est vraiment la meilleure place sur Terre?". Our students are excited and motivated. They are working very hard, but the products are not yet polished, and many are beginning to 'get it' in the last few weeks, perhaps days. Having to give them letter grades at this point in their learning journey with us is the most counterproductive act I can think of. I would much rather meet with parents to share how proud I am of their efforts and work, and to pinpoint areas where they will be supported. An anecdotal report card now, and marks in March or June.

  3. Chris:
    Just a question: Should compliance with the BC ministry's reporting procedures be our primary motivation?

    While I agree that we have to work within this system, I also think that there needs to be some more discussion about alternative forms of assessment and reporting.

    I'm not clear that work-arounds for this situation are the right long-term solution. There is always a chance that the BC Ministry will tighten up their reporting requirements to close loopholes like this one.

    I work in an MYP school and we've completely changed our assessment strategy so that students are summatively assessed far less often, and formatively assessed much more often. The flaw I see is that we still attach a number to each assessment. The problem with the number is that it is what the students look for, rather than the feedback on their learning.

  4. Thanks for sharing your story Remi.

    Dragonflies: I can relate. A significant part of September and October is spent teaching kids the skills & attitudes that they will be using for learning during the rest of year (and building on what they brought from last year).

    I had the students do an "end of term" reflection this week which included writing their own report card comments. I wrote personalized comments for each kid in BCeSIS using their reflections and my own observations. Would love to have done away with the LG and the %, especially for the kids who are just starting to make some headway -- counter productive? Yes!

    BTW: I'm teaching grade 8's and grade 11's.

  5. We changed the entire system in our district 15 years ago Take a look at how grading was just one part of what we need to change

  6. Thanks Chris for telling me about Saanich. I like the idea, and it is a way around it, it would just be nice to not have to try to find ways to circumvent the process.

    David, you are absolutely right. The numbers/percentages/letters tend to undermine the messages that are communicated in the report card. It becomes a distraction from what the assessments should be about, helping the students identify goals, look at areas in which they can improve, become stronger self-evaluators and so on.

    Dragonflies and J Martens, it is so true about that first term where you are just getting to know the kids and where they are at, how they work best and so on. By the time you really get to know your kids it is time to write report cards. They are doing this in Ontario starting this year:

    Richard, thanks for the link, much appreciated!