Grades are a powerful gatekeeper within our educational system, yet little is known about the consistency of grades across classes, schools, and districts or how grades are constructed, interpreted, and used. In this article, the authors examine grading policies and practices across Canada, looking specifically at current grading policies, what drives teachers’ grading decisions, and the influence of provincial large-scale testing.
There is no denying that grades have a significant impact on the lives of students. From boosting self-confidence, admittance to university and college programs, and gaining access to funding, to potential negative outcomes including bullying, lowered self-esteem, and limited career choices, grades not only represent learning but are connected to important social consequences. For some students, the difference between 84 percent and 85 percent on a final grade could mean getting into their desired university and chosen career path; for another, grades could mean the chance to immigrate to Canada, or not. Grades have been, and continue to be, a powerful gatekeeper within our educational system, and across educational systems globally. And yet, little is known about the consistency of grades across classes, schools, and districts or how grades are constructed, interpreted, and used.
Experts point to the inherent subjectivity in grades, and the ample room for error and difference across teachers. In efforts to reduce this subjectivity, provinces, school districts, and schools implement grading policies to promote more consistent grading practices. Policy-based grading encourages alignment between what is taught (i.e. curriculum expectations) and what is assessed. Policy-based grading also provides teachers with explicit criteria to help them distinguish an A from a B or a Level 3 from a Level 2. In this article, we explore grading policies and practices, and their potential perils, across Canada. Drawing on recently published research, we look specifically at what current grading policies are signalling to teachers, what drives teachers’ grading decisions, and how provincial large-scale testing influences students’ grades.
Grading practices across Canada
Grading is a longstanding tradition in education, dating back to the imperial exams administered in ancient China. These methods became more formalized for students in 1792, when grading was established by William Farish, a tutor at Cambridge University, as a quantitative method for efficiently teaching and tracking students. Grades have become the primary method for summarizing and communicating student achievement.
Grading is the process of collecting and evaluating evidence of student achievement, performance, and learning skills. As any teacher knows, grading is a complex practice that often requires negotiating evidence in relation to curriculum expectations and students’ unique learning progressions. As grades are used to make public statements to students, parents, and principals about achievement, and often used for higher-stakes consequences including access to specialized programs and learning supports or admission to university or college programs, grading is an important professional practice with significant implications. Teachers across Canada are expected to follow provincial policies when determining student grades, a practice known as “policy-based grading.”1 However, due to the decentralized nature of educational policies in Canada, research suggests that significant variability in grading practices exist from one jurisdiction to the next.2 This variability is in part due to different priorities within policies across regions and in how policies are interpreted and used by teachers and administrators at classroom and school levels. In examining policies across Canada, we found several important similarities and differences in grading policies:3
- Grading policies consistently emphasize that the primary purpose of grading is to monitor, report, and communicate student achievement.
- Grading scales are similar across Canada, with percentages being used in secondary classrooms and letter grades in elementary classrooms.
- Grades consistently report on achievement evidence (evidence on learning of curricular standards), with non-achievement evidence (learning skills and habits) reported separately.
- Reporting practices tend to be fairly consistent with the general guidelines and templates generated from ministries of education.
- Large-scale assessments contribute variable amounts to secondary students’ final grades across the country, with contributions ranging from 10-50 percent in calculations for the final grade.
- Significant variation in terminology is evident in grading policies across Canada related to the terms: formative, summative, Assessment of Learning (AOL), Assessment for Learning (AFL), and Assessment as Learning (AAL),4 5which could contribute to different cultures of assessment within schools.
What goes into a grade?
Measurement experts suggest that grades should only reflect student achievement of learning expectations. However, when assigning grades, teachers typically include both achievement (e.g. exams, quizzes, class presentations) and non-achievement factors (e.g. attendance, effort, independence), or what is often called “learning skills.” For example, a study by Resh6 found that teachers weighed effort nearly as much (17 percent) as student performance (18 percent). Other researchers have shown that teachers sometimes assign greater weight to non-achievement evidence in their grade construction.7 The effect of including both achievement and non-achievement factors in a single score is that you cannot distinguish what the student knows about the content from the student’s learning skills and behaviour. The result is that grades then provide less valid information for remediation, acceptance for programs, or accurate self-perceptions. Further, research has demonstrated that teachers adopt different weightings of achievement and non-achievement factors based on the contexts and use of grades. For example, teachers’ consideration of student effort appears to be correlated with student ability and behaviour, particularly for low-ability students: teachers give better grades to low-ability students and borderline cases (i.e. students at risk of failing) if they are well-behaved and put effort into their work.
In deciding what to prioritize when determining grades and when faced with grading dilemmas, teachers tend to return to the question, “What would be most fair for the individual student and for the class as a whole?” In one of our recent studies that involved talking with Ontario teachers about their grading practices and challenges, we found that teachers consistently aim to provide “fair” grades to their students; however, “fairness” held different meanings depending upon the teacher and the grading context. What might be fair in one situation might not be fair in another, or to different stakeholders. Often, fairness meant balancing what was best for an individual student in relation to what was consistent and fair for all students in the class.
Through our analysis, fairness was viewed as the overarching value that helps teachers navigate grading tensions that arise in relation to four common themes: 1) context and classroom management, 2) learning values: grades as academic enablers, 3) policy and external pressures, and 4) consequences of grade use. For example, teachers reported that “bumping up” a grade to allow a student to be admitted into their desired university or college program was fairer than increasing a grade if there were no immediate consequences.
The influence of large-scale testing
Provincial and territorial large-scale assessment programs tend to have “high-stakes” consequences for students, but not teachers or administrators across Canada.8 For example, a quick scan of these programs suggests they account for a significant percentage of a secondary students’ final grade. Indeed, between 10 and 50 percent of a students’ final grade in certain provinces is based on student performance on provincial large-scale assessment programs in the form of exit examinations.9 In some cases, a passing grade on these large-scale assessments also serves as a requirement for graduation or admittance to post-secondary institutions, as is the case in Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick. Thus, it is fair to assert that large-scale assessments exert a pronounced influence on teachers’ own grading practices in that educators across Canada – particularly those in secondary schools – will want to have general alignment between their classroom grades and students’ achievement on large-scale assessments. In some respects, the relationship between large-scale assessments and classroom grades may be used as a proxy for concurrent validity. In this way, a high correspondence between the results of a particular test (in this case provincial large-scale assessment program) and an established measurement for the same or similar learning expectations (in this case teachers’ grades in the same tested subject domain) strengthens the perceived accuracy of both. The agreement or lack thereof between large-scale and classroom assessment is bound to create tensions and discussion on the utility and rigour of each method of assessment.
The results of large-scale assessments also provide an important accountability and/or gatekeeping function across Canadian school systems. Given that these measures are routinely given priority status as more “reliable” and “valid” indicators of student achievement, teachers and administrators may adopt and promote inappropriate test preparation practices, such as teaching to the test, in order to have more favourable student, classroom, and school results. The latter presents an interesting dichotomy with respect to the previous point related to concurrent validity, in that teaching to the test artificially inflates students’ large-scale assessment scores and inadvertently may present teachers’ grading practices as less accurate or rigorous. Perhaps more disconcerting is that teaching to the test inflates student performance at the expense of authentic forms of learning that allow for transfer of knowledge and skills.
Ultimately, large-scale assessment programs across Canada present opportunities and challenges for existing grading policies and practices, leading to intended and unintended consequences. Understanding the evolving nature and impact of these large-scale assessment programs on teacher’s pedagogical approaches and grading practices requires sustained longitudinal studies. Certainly, the literature abounds with international jurisdictions that have largely succumbed to a testing-focused education model that has undermined teachers’ classroom assessment literacy. Ironically, those systems tend to fare quite poorly on international measures of student achievement such as the Programme in International Student Assessment (PISA), which assesses reading, mathematics, and science literacy every three years across more than 70 educational jurisdictions around the world.
What all this means is that grades – despite their influence, power and potential consequences – are complex indicators of student learning (both achievement and non-achievement) with variability in policies and practices across Canada. While such variability is not necessarily a negative quality, as it could enable more fair treatment and valid reporting in relation to unique student learning progressions and classroom contexts, it does challenge our ability to consistently compare students when making selection, admission, and ranking decisions. Grading is one of the most high-stakes classroom assessment practices, sitting at the critical intersection of teaching, learning, and assessment and representing the most public professional statement made by teachers about student learning. The more aware teachers are of the complexity of grades, the more likely grading can be ensured to be a valid, reliable and, most importantly, fair practice beneficial to student learning.
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First published in Education Canada, March 2019
1 B. Noonan,“Interpretation Panels and Collaborative Research,” Brock University 12 (2002): 89-100.
2 M. Simon, S. Chitpin, and R. Yahya, “Pre-service Teachers’ Thinking About Student Assessment Issues,” International Journal of Education 2. no. 2 (2010): 1-20.
3 C. DeLuca, H. Braund, A. Valiquette, and L. Cheng, “Grading Policies and Practices in Canada: A landscape study,” Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy 184 (2017): 4-22.
4 AOL refers to Asessment of Learning, AFL Asessment for Learning, and AAL Assessment as Learning.
5 B. Noonan,“Interpretation Panels.”
6 N. Resh, “Justice in Grades Allocation: Teachers’ perspective,” Social Psychology of Education 12 (2009): 315–325.
7 Y. Sun and L. Cheng, “Teachers’ Grading Practices: Meanings and values assigned,” Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice 21, no. 3 (2014): 326–343.
8 L. Volante and S. Ben Jaafar, “Educational Assessment in Canada,” Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice 15, no. 2 (2008): 201-210.
9 D. Klinger, C. DeLuca, and T. Miller, (2008). “The Evolving Culture of Large-scale Assessments in Canadian Education,” Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy 76 (2008): 1-34.