I recently had a graduating student confide in me that he only had one regret about his education so far. He wished he had focussed less on marks and more on learning. I was sad for him for realizing he’d missed the boat, and also astonished that he realized his straight A report card wasn’t really worth the time he’d spent earning it. Schools aren’t set up for students to take the kind of risk it takes to focus on learning. The almighty letter grade can mean getting in to your university of choice – or not.
Deep learning is messy and wrought with failures and setbacks. High marks don’t always take students on that kind of a journey. In general, if you do the work with mostly the “right” answers and participate well in class, a good mark is coming your way. Just follow the dotted line and you’re golden.
I just can’t like that.
This article from the Globe and Mail, by Elyse Watkins, is interesting and more evidence that we need to change the focus back to learning and away from letter grades. She argues that “we need to prevent this “currency” from being misused as the only worth of a student’s learning”. I couldn’t agree more!
If we want better students, end the 19th-century ‘grading game’
Letter grades, and their value in learning, are being brought into question with increasing frequency. You may recall that I am not a supporter of letter grades in our schools. They are subjective and relatively meaningless. And, worse, they take the focus away from LEARNING and put it on COMPARING. Jordan Tinney, Superintendent/CEO of the largest school district in BC, has written a piece about letter grades – what do letter grades have to do with performance? He asks where, in the real world, are we ever evaluated with a percent and a letter grade. It’s worth a read!
What Do Letter Grades Have to Do With Performance?
Kids need to dream big dreams in order to grow and learn. “A” just doesn’t seem quite big enough to me. What does “A” really mean? I think it means you remembered a lot. I don’t think it necessarily means you grew and learned.
Research into “growth mindset” can help us understand some ways we can raise kids to be hardy, resilient, and persistent. It’s good for human brains!
In her article, Mitigating the Dangers of a Single Story: Creating Large-Scale Writing Assessments Aligned With Sociocultural Theory, Nadia Behizadeh says:
If a child does not perform well on [one timed large-scale assessment essay], there will be a single story told about this student: he/she has below basic skills in writing, or maybe even far below basic skills. Yet this same student may be a brilliant poet or have a hundred pages of a first novel carefully stowed in his/her backpack. However, when a single story of deficiency is repeated again and again to a student, that student develops low writing self-efficacy and a poor self-concept of himself/herself as a writer. . . . [T]he danger of the single story is the negative effect on students when one piece of writing on a decontextualized prompt is used to represent writing ability. (pp. 125-126)
Large scale assessment needs to change – particularly in how it’s used. It really doesn’t tell us about learning.
Exams have evolved over recent years. It wasn’t long ago that every academic grade 12 subject was concluded with BC government-issued exam. Teachers were clear about the “pressure to teach to the exam”. Students were stressed by having to study for an exam that was heavily content based. Little was revealed about deep student learning or their ability to create meaning.
But some teachers continue the tradition of final exams because that’s what’s always been done. Chris Kennedy, Superintendent of Schools in West Van, outlines this well in his blog entry (well worth cruising through his whole blog, by the way).
It’s time to assess assessment! Final exams are one very narrow way to assess student learning.
…. doesn’t necessarily improve cognitive abilities. A new MIT study has found that schools that are very good at improving test scores (labelled “crystallized abilities” in this study) don’t necessarily see the same improvements in abstract or creative thinking (labelled “fluid thinking”).
Improving test scores isn’t a bad thing. Better Math and Reading abilities can do nothing but help our kids.
AND it’s time for us to focus on improving creativity, inductive reasoning, executive function… fluid thinking.
Earlier I said that letter grades don’t say much about learning. Here’s one quick example to get you thinking about that.
A student takes a course and gets the following marks out of 10:
- 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9 and one missing assignment
- And then writes the final exam and gets 95%.
- Assignments = 31/80 Exam = 95/100
Depending on how the teacher thinks about this, the student could get some very different final grades.
- Some teachers would say that 126/180 is 70% “C+”
- Some teachers might put more weight on the exam and come up with a “B”
- Some teachers might note the growth over time and the fact that the student had mastered the content for the exam – therefore 95% “A”
- Some teachers might note the missing assignment and say “incomplete” or “fail”
But what did the student learn?
And it can’t happen soon enough.
I remember when I started as a Principal in the Gulf Islands many years ago. We didn’t give letter grades then – right up to grade 8. We kept a mark book. Parents could have the letter grades if they wanted them. We even gave them the option of a report card with no letter grades and a sealed envelope with the letter grades inside – so the parents had them but the students didn’t compare themselves. Most parents opted to NOT receive letter grades for their kids. They understood how little a percent or letter grade actually means and they felt like they understood their own child’s learning and progress. It also allowed students to develop at different rates without comparing themselves to others with a number.
A few years later it was legislated that we MUST put letter grades on report cards. That was tough. Suddenly report cards became less meaningful for students. All they looked at was the grade with no thought given to how that grade might have been generated. Learning became less about learning and more about achieving – two different things. And families became more focussed on the letter grade than on the learning. I get that. It’s all people know about how to measure learning. Letter grades feel comfortable because we’ve seen them before in our own schooling. But letter grades say almost nothing about learning.
Fast forward to now. The BC Education Plan is sending us in a promising direction of personalization. Letter grades become even LESS meaningful in a personalized education. And some big districts in BC are experimenting with what we were doing years ago. I am so hopeful about this change! Now, how long until we figure out how to do this in the graduation program?
Surrey and Maple Ridge Schools Set to Rub Out Letter Grades