Passing on letter grades: Tradition or the alternative?

Teacher Linda Chau and students have varied reaction to the absence of letter grades for some classes at Rosemary Heights Elementary.  - Alex Browne photo
Teacher Linda Chau and students have varied reaction to the absence of letter grades for some classes at Rosemary Heights Elementary.
— image credit: Alex Browne photo

How stakeholders feel about a pilot project exploring alternatives to letter grades on report cards seems to depend on their comfort zone.

If you’re a teacher who’s interested in different ways of assessing students’ learning – like Rosemary Heights Elementary’s Linda Chau – you might be happy with getting away from the As, Bs, and Cs of traditional reporting.

“I was relieved when it started,” Chau, who teaches a Grade 5-6 combined class, told Peace Arch News last week. “I was already doing alternative reporting. Letter grades didn’t always fit in with what I was doing in class.”

But if you’re a parent who grew up with letter grades, and find they’re a crucial yardstick of your child’s academic achievement – or if you’re an ‘A student’ like 10-year-old Paige Evans – you may not be so happy.

“I actually don’t like not having a letter grade,” the Rosemary Heights Grade 5 student said, adding she feels it adds to the “half page of comments” that she and her classmates now receive.

rosemary students

“You know that you need to work harder to get an A – it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have a goal to reach for.”

Classmate Thor McKenzie, 10, agreed.

“When they don’t give me a grade, I don’t feel I know where I am in my class,” Thor said.

But fellow Grade 5 student Mattias Bellan, 11, said he believes the pilot project’s emphasis on each student’s learning process, rather than a letter grade, has been beneficial for him.

“I like that they tell us how to improve,” he said. “They don’t just say there’s your letter grade; that’s what you get.”

Principal Laura Grills said the pilot project – implemented this school year in select schools in Surrey and Maple Ridge – currently involves three Grade 4 and three Grade 5 classes at Rosemary Heights, but with Grade 6 and 7 teachers observing and participating in discussion.

More than simply removing letter grades, she said, the project represents “a whole different approach to things,” in which students, teachers and parents have a three-way communication about the “assessment for learning” of each individual.

While it’s no surprise to Grills that some parents and students focused on A grades are resistant to the no-letter-grade approach, she notes only “a handful” of Rosemary Heights parents have expressed any kind of pushback.

“I’ve heard grumbling at dinner parties – not here – that teachers don’t want to give letter grades because they’re lazy,” she said. “But this is actually far more work for teachers.”

The pilot project was in response to Ministry of Education encouragement to explore different educational approaches.

Grills noted her South Surrey school already has a highly involved parent community, and that teachers welcomed the increased emphasis on communication.

“Schools need to change because jobs have changed,” she said. “We need to build critical thinking and the ability to think outside of the box.”

In that context, Grills said, teachers should be looking at whether students have a conceptual knowledge of what they are learning, rather than simply whether they’re getting right or wrong answers on tests.

More than knowing multiplication tables, for instance, students should also be developing a sense of what multiplication means and what numbers look like, she said.

It’s not likely that letter grades and percentage marks will disappear entirely, Grills added.

“We need to have letter grades, or some form of summative assessment, but that may be only 10 per cent of the assessment. We should focus 90 per cent on learning – what do I have to do to do better, and what do parents have to do to help.”

By the same token, Grills said the project is likely to change the way students are assessed in perpetuity.

“I don’t think my teachers will want to assess students the old ways once they are fully involved in assessment for learning – I don’t think it will ever go back.”

Chau said she believes teachers and parents become more open to the different approach with increasing familiarity.

“Change is always scary,” she said. “Once we get past the terminology – I think a lot of teachers were already doing this; they just didn’t know this was what they were doing.”

Surrey Teachers Association president Jennifer Wadge noted participation is voluntary and that schools are not required to follow a district template for the project.

“Lots of teachers have expressed interest in new ways of reporting that don’t include letter grades, but, obviously, some are not going to participate, and some have concerns about moving away from letter grades – it’s a big shift in teaching,” she said. “As an association, we’re always open to looking at new ways of teaching, planning lessons, developing curricula – and new ways of reporting.”

In addition to Rosemary Heights, participating Surrey elementaries include Green Timbers, David Brankin, George Vanier and Sunrise Ridge.

Surrey schools communications services manager Doug Strachan said the district is allowing participating schools leeway to implement the project differently, and that experiences will be assessed district-wide at the end of the school year.



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