Assessment, Leadership, Opinion, Promising Practices, Teaching

Down With Letter Grades

Student report cards as commonly written do far more harm than good. We would all be better off without them. Students would be more focussed on learning, parents would be better informed and educators would be more appropriately accountable.

 Letter grades are at the root of the disservice that report cards do because meaningful information about learning cannot be reduced to a letter grade. (Don’t even get me started on the ridiculous idea that anyone’s learning can be assessed to an accuracy of 1%.) Nonetheless, policy requires that teachers produce them, and then parents and students attribute unintended meanings according to their own assumptions. Many believe that letter grades indicate a student’s position in the class relative to the average – “A” being well above average and therefore a matter of pride, whereas anything less than “C” is cause for concern – despite the fact that comparative assessment is contrary to best practice and grading policies across Canada.

 Consider a student who writes a cogent and convincing expository essay but is careless with conventions such as spelling and sentence structure. S/he might be given a “B” due to those shortcomings, and a student whose writing adheres strictly to the conventions but whose thoughts are not as well organized and expressed might also get a “B.” These students are as different as chalk and cheese, but the letter grade make them look similar.

 What should a student do in order to improve his or her letter grade? Just try harder? A letter grade conveys no information at all about current strengths or learning needs, and thus leaves enormous room for both student and parent to make misleading interpretations. Letter grades sort but they don’t report.

 There are clearly superior ways of reporting on student learning. They are well-known and widely – but not commonly – practiced. Student-led reporting based on portfolios of student work, for example, can be a richly informative process. If a formal written report is required, including the intended learning outcomes and providing descriptive feedback based on those outcomes is far more informative than just a letter grade and yet even when such information is provided students and parents tend to skip right over it to get to the letter grade in the mistaken belief that tells the real story.

 There are, of course, logistical challenges to anecdotal reporting and educators need to learn how to use plain language for it to be effective, but when the current approach is clearly inadequate surely it is worth tackling those challenges. So why don’t we? 

 Or perhaps you are making changes to improve report cards, or you are receiving effective report cards. If so, let me know what is working for you.

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Bruce Beairsto

Retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University

Bruce Beairsto is a retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University.

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