Friday, January 7, 2011

If you want to eliminate letter grades, what do you need to do?

We are in the process forming a committee in our district that will be re-examining report cards at the intermediate (grade 4-7) years, with the initial starting point of the conversation being the elimination of letter grades at the elementary level.  I do feel that letter grades should be eliminated at the elementary level.  I do not feel that you can change assessment practice without changing the reporting practice.  But can you have this conversation without discussing assessment?  Can this conversation be had without involving parents? What kind of information needs to be presented and how would it need to be presented?  How long will it take to change it over?  Is it possible to overcome the emotional/cultural/historical values of letter grades and reporting formats?  So many questions to ponder when looking a major philosophical shift in reporting practices that have existed for decades.

We had a very good first discussion pondering the first steps that need to be taken.  An important part of the discussion was about the fact that there is an emotional attachment to letter grades that needs to be addressed both inside and outside of the school setting.  We can all think of letter grades that have impacted us emotionally in a very strong way.  I remember when I got a C- first term of grade 11 Chemistry (I learned that I might actually have to study).  I was sick to my stomach and preparing myself to go and do my French Military Service in order to avoid a very uncomfortable conversation at home.  The C- that I got in 3rd year genetics was the happiest C- in my life as I managed to pass the course on the first attempt, unlike roughly 50% of my classmates.  These letter grades mean different things to different people depending on the circumstances.  For some they are a driving force, for others they result in crippling anxiety.

Parents are used to letter grades, they understand, or they believe that they understand what the letter grades mean.  They usually only remember getting letter grades, and tend to not be able to recall what their earlier report cards would have looked like.  They remember the conversation that they would have had at home with their parents, and they remember the incentives and/or the consequences of those letter grades.  There is a degree of comfort in the familiarity. Many teachers are used to letter grades as a means of communicating the varying degrees of academic success of the students to their parents.  This means that a significant shift in thinking that will be required should we change our reporting practices.

Assessment practices also came up, with a large emphasis on their importance in changing our reporting practices.  Is it possible to change the culture around the report cards without changing the culture around assessment practices and communication about the assessment?  Can changing the way we report change assessment practices? If we are to come up with a different reporting system, what needs to be considered?  Is it possible to retain a previous reporting system that was based on an entirely different methodology of assessing?

Part of the reasoning behind the elimination of letter grades is that assessment practices do not match up with letter grades.  Formative assessment is supposed to be a significant piece of the puzzle. How are students progressing?  What have they learned from the feedback?  Also, in my opinion, the assessments are not meant to be averaged out.  If you are a true believer of formative assessment, then the September/October assessments are teaching tools, not measuring tools.  A December report card should be reflective of where the student is now and include comments on how they have progressed based on the feedback.  The students should be able to self-assess quite accurately because they have been actively involved in their learning.  They should be credited for learning from their mistakes, not punished for having made them.  The parents should also have an understanding of the assessment strategies, philosophies and purpose so that when assignments come home they know what the feedback means and have an understanding how to support their child's learning.

This means that there is a significant educational/information aspect that needs to be included.  Presentations to parents about the language that will be used and what it means are key.  If parents understand the rationale and terminology, they are more likely to support it.  There will also need to be an important investment into professional development in order to ensure a common understanding of the philosophy behind the new reporting ideology within the school system.  Trust is also going to be an issue.  Trust with the parents as well as trust with the staff.  How is this going to be better for the kids?  How is this going to be better for communicating a child's progress to parents?  How is this going to be more effective for the teacher?

Will focusing on performance standard language and assessment practices be sufficient to make this change?  Any suggestions as to what are the next steps we need to take?


  1. Excellent questions that came out of a great conversation. As the 'lone' classroom teacher in with all you admin types, it was interesting to listen to everyone's questions and conundrums around letter grades. I came away from the meeting with a number of questions myself which I will be sharing with my colleagues. It will be interesting to see how the elementary schools progress. After listening to the elementary admin speak, I'm wondering if we (at the middle school level), should be talking with primary teachers about their assessment. It sure sounds like they're our best resource! Thoughts???

  2. I think you raise a good point point about primary report cards. Chances are that many of the elementary teachers who would join in would have had some experience with the primary report cards. We will make sure that next time you are not the "lone" classroom teacher. I already know of a few who want to be a part of this, as well as some parents.
    This is going to be a very interesting process, and potentially a very exiting one as well. There are going to be many questions that we are going to be posing, and hopefully finding an answer to most of them. Paraphrasing Buzz Lightyear, There are infinite ways we can go about this so - To Infinity and Beyond!

  3. I love that your district if open to the conversation. I teach high school and would love to have students produce a portfolio of their work as a college pre-req, as opposed to getting "grades" - which do not prove they are ready at all. I hope that our district will be open to the conversation in the future (and hopefully universities as well...)

    PS - I also rejoiced when I received a C- in Genetics. I considered that a victory given my professor and the fate of my peers...

  4. Interesting post. When we started having this conversation, we decided that before we could have standards based reporting, we needed standards based grading, before that we needed standards based activities / assessments and before any of that -- we needed standards we could agree to. Eight years later, we are only as far as the standards and somewhere into common assessments using those standards. Good luck on your journey - hope it is a great learning journey! I'd love to follow your work. @milegarg

  5. @milegarg BC has had provincial performance standards for a few years now in reading, writing and numeracy ( There has also been a lot of work on formative assessment in our district and the province as well. The ground work supposedly has been done. I am beginning to think that old systems of reporting are allowing for old systems of assessments. when the curriculum changes you almost have to throw out the old textbooks in order to push the teaching of the new curriculum. I think the same needs to be done with reporting.
    @ lysmekah I think portfolios would be great, the students would have more ownership, the dialogue would be rich and the learning possibilities incalculable.

  6. A great topic, with lots of important questions. I'll be paying close attention to what the answers might be! Here are some more questions I've been thinking on this topic:
    Do your kindergarten students get letter grades or percentages? If not, why not? At the other end, do administrators get letter grades for their evaluations? If not, why not? Now, how is everyone in between so much different?
    Paul Yip

  7. Fantastic post Remi. I'll be very interested to see how things move forward in your district. The assessment piece is key and you've raised issues here that ignite a myriad of other questions! Kudos to you and your team for diving into this. I'll be paying attention to how things move forward!

  8. Wow... how do I get more involved in this conversation!!?? A few weeks back, I looked in the school act to decide if there was a way around letter grades. I basically came away from that thinking... guess not. I love how you have asked a different question that I did. Rather than asking "can we..." you have asked, "HOW can we...".

    I LOVE this and I think you and I share a passion to make this change. Please let me know how I can further be involved in this awesome discussion!

    Congrats, Remi, for your leadership around this topic.

    Love it! BOOM!

  9. Chris- you are right about the Act, letter grades do have to be provided. Sooke and Saanich only give them by request, and according to the people from those districts, very few parents request the grades. They do however put letter grades in the G4 file as required.
    For starters we are even looking at how our current report cards emphasize the grades (half a page to grades and half a page to comments). Some of us are thinking that a beginning point would be to embed the grades within the comments so as to emphasize the comments more.
    There is a lot of communicating that has to happen before we even get there. I was speaking to my PAC about it yesterday and gave a brief explanation of where I would like to go with letter grades and why. There will be some time needed for many people to wrap their heads around this in order for it to work.

  10. Yes the order is pretty clear on this. Some districts as mentioned have gone ahead regardless, leadership vs management! I've heard Rod Allen, superintendent of achievement, suggest at several speaking engagements that maybe it is time to change the orders/act to be more flexible. Perhaps it is an opportune time to discuss with our politicians during parallel leadership races about the need for more flexibility in order to address individual needs of our learners.

  11. really enjoyed reading this dialogue - and encouraged by it too. Lorna Earl was just in an OECD review of assessment practices in Norway. No "reporting/grades" in elementary school - twice a year conferences with learners and their families instead.

    go for it - time for a learning system.

    Linda Kaser
    from Sydney Australia - and NPBS