Parents wary of ditching letter grades

Pilot project rolls out across district to do away with traditional grading for students from Grades 4 to 9

Opinions were strong at a parent information meeting held at Whistler Secondary School on Wednesday (Feb. 15) to discuss a pilot project that will see some Grades 4 to 9 classrooms throughout the Sea to Sky ditch traditional letter grades.

Instead of traditional grades, new methods of assessment will be facilitated by ongoing communication between parents, students and teachers and include detailed feedback based on a set of criteria, continuums and evidence, as well as self-assessments.

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The pilot will see 28 Sea to Sky school district teachers participate in the project, with a final reporting document issued at the end of the school year. While this report will not include grades, parents of students participating in the pilot are welcome to opt out to continue receiving letter grades as well. Letter grades will also continue to be updated in each student’s record at the end of the year, as per Ministry of Education regulations.

“The learning that we do during this pilot will inform our future assessment and reporting practices,” said Peter Jory, Sea to Sky School District director of instruction.

The pilot comes following the ministry’s approval for all districts to work with their communities on assessment change, as well as the school board’s approval of the project. Last year, the B.C. curriculum was also amended to allow for more “flexible” and “personalized” learning.

According to the district, the pilot project is based on 70 years of research that prove letter grades do more harm than good when it comes to learning.

One Myrtle Philip Community School teacher, Lisa Smart, presented some of this research, explaining how students often lose their passion for learning in pursuit of the best possible grade, while comments and feedback are typically viewed as an afterthought when letter grades are involved. Studies have also found that letter grades, while increasing competition among students, reduce the quality of students’ thinking, something Smart said she’s noticed in her own classroom.

“You have kids that will say ‘is this on the test?’ rather than ‘I’m interested in this learning,’” said Smart. “As teachers we really need to give our students a better reason to study than the grade at the end.”

But despite hearing the statistics, many parents at the meeting weren’t convinced that losing letter grades is the right move for their children.

“One of the primary goals of primary and secondary schools is to prepare you for later in life. In professional life and in college, you’re evaluated all day, every day,” said one parent, out of concern this new assessment strategy would be too soft.

Another parent worried about how success would be determined in the first place. “Is there going to be a spelling bee, or 10 questions on math every two weeks? Is there going to be something that has validity to your assessments?” he asked.

Another parent had an issue with how this new evaluation style would fit with ensuring kids are learning the necessary curriculum. “You can’t assess what you don’t know,” he said.

If this pilot project were to be permanently implemented, students would begin receiving letter grades again in Grade 10, for the purposes of scholarships and post-secondary applications.

The pilot project has already begun rolling out. For more information about the project, go to https://sd48seatosky.org.

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