The Current

Why some B.C. schools say letter grade report cards fail students

What if there were no more "A" students? Some schools in B.C. are already experimenting with going letter-grade free. The Current looks into what goes on the report card instead and what's behind the move.
Is it time to ditch letter grades on elementary school report cards? (Cathy Yeulet/istock)

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Letter grades have rewarded, frustrated, even defined students for generations but some schools in B.C. think they are a thing of the past.

Recently in a school district north of Vancouver, a new pilot project is scrapping letter grades— from Grades 4 through 9.

The relatively new teaching philosophy suggests grades aren't a necessary part of elementary school education, and might actually impede kids from reaching their potential.

In 2013, Alouette Elementary — a school in Maple Ridge, B.C. — was an early adopter of the no-grades approach.

Julie Cornell, a teacher at the school, tells The Current's guest host Kelly Crowe that at the time a committee was formed to look at how to change the reporting process in an effort to be more efficient and effective.

"Teachers were spending hours and hours and hours working on report cards and they weren't feeling a big impact when they actually gave those report cards to the family," she says.

"[Letter grades] was never a goal from the beginning. It was where we ended up."

Cornell says that removing letter grades doesn't mean students aren't being assessed, there's just a new method of reporting that's been implemented.

The process of the report card involves both the parents and student in a meeting to discuss progress called a "conference." 
School boards in B.C. aren't the only ones grappling with throwing out letter grades. In 2014, the Calgary School Board brought in changes to their report cards for kindergarten to Grade 9. (iStock)

"So the official paper report card is a part of that conversation," Cornell tells Crowe.

"We have a students report on their growth in the competencies areas — those are big skill sets like curiosity, cooperation, organization, motivation or social responsibility." 

Cornell says that it's the student's responsibility to provide evidence in each of the areas.

"We make notes of our conversation with parents. We write down how the student is doing, any successes, any challenges. And then the student writes a goal — or goals — in that conference and that forms the plan for the next term."

High school teacher Michael Zwaagstra, who is also a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, supports letter grades as a vital part of the evaluating process.

"I would consider letter grades like the second best of the options," he tells Crowe.

"I actually prefer percentage grades. But whether it's percentage or letter grades there are different levels of performance, there's different levels of mastery of the subject area."

Zwaagstra believes meetings with parents or adding additional information to report cards is reasonable but only as a complementary factor to letter grades — not to replace grades that indicate levels of proficiency.

"The fact of life is that there are different levels of performance, and letter grades and percentage grades are simple, accurate ways of identifying where is the student at and parents understand what that information is."

Zwaagstra suggests by ditching letter grades all together, "you're losing that quick snapshot that most parents, and frankly many students want to see."

"When they look at a report card they want to see where am I at?" Zwaagstra says.

"There is a significant difference between someone who's sitting at an 89 in a course or subject and someone who is sitting at a 65."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post — including an overview on educational evaluation.

This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith and Sam Colbert.