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The Future Without Grades

Friday, April 4, 2014

By Erin Millar, journalist and author

Out with the old. (Image © Brad Holt)

Imagine it’s report card day. Your child (who, for the purposes of this thought experiment, is in grade five) fishes a crumpled piece of paper out of her knapsack. But instead of containing letter grades, the paper she hands you is a chronicle of her progress on goals she set herself in consultation with her teacher. 

A QR code draws your attention to one goal in particular: at the beginning of the school year she pledged to improve her leadership skills by getting more involved in her school’s community. You pull out your iPhone and scan the code. A video pops up showing your daughter reading the morning announcements over the school’s PA.


This isn’t merely a fictionalized scenario. Pat Horstead, an assistant superintendent in Surrey, B.C. described the example to me when I spoke to her this week while writing an article for the Globe and Mail about schools doing away with letter grades and numerical marking.

“Having those samples of student work − video, audio of students reading aloud, different versions of writing that show progress − really helps parents know how to be involved in their child’s education,” she told me. Parents I spoke to, like Krista Wolfram, agreed.

For the past two years, I’ve been investigating innovative schools for my forthcoming book The Flexible Brain. When I asked about report cards, I heard about schools all over the world that are moving away from high stakes traditional assessment that ranks and sorts students towards more fluid, personalized approaches that allow children to learn at their own pace. These innovations are in part a response to a growing belief among educators that while letter grades and numerical numbers may describe how well a student can regurgitate knowledge, they don’t capture the competencies and characteristics that students need to succeed in work and lead fulfilling lives. Moreover, getting rid of traditional letter grades has been shown to improve academic achievement.


One of the most interesting researchers looking into how we measure achievement is James Heckman, a Nobel Prize winning economist at the University of Chicago. Heckman began probing assessment after he studied the General Educational Development program, commonly known as the GED. The program offers high school dropouts a way to earn the equivalent to a high school diploma without having to suffer through returning to high school. The GED exam is designed to test whether a student knows everything that they ought to know before graduation. So, this line of reasoning goes, if a student can demonstrate mastery of high school material through the GED, they will be just as prepared to succeed as any traditional graduate.

But that’s not the case. Heckman found that while GED holders were just as intelligent as high school graduates according to IQ tests, they didn’t enjoy the benefits of high school graduates. In fact, when he looked at measures of success like employment, income, divorce rates and drug-use, they didn’t have any advantage over dropouts who didn’t complete a GED, even though they were smarter on paper. Heckman concluded that the stuff we can measure with grades and tests (intelligence or cognitive skills) doesn’t predict later life success. 


So what is a better way to measure the competencies that students really need to succeed? Education researchers everywhere are trying to answer that question. The OECD’s influential Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has started measuring students on more than just literacy and numeracy; just last week PISA released its first ever study of 15-year-olds’ performance on creative problem solving. According to the Times Education Supplement, PISA director Andreas Schleicher  says that PISA is exploring how to measure other intangibles such as whether students can make sound judgements or deal with ambiguity.

Social scientist Maria Langworthy, who is in charge of designing an assessment system for a global project called New Pedagogies for Deep Learning, puts the problem this way: “Kids know the way they take exams is absurd,” she adds, “there is a growing sensibility that the way we do assessment is no longer relevant.” She sees a future assessment system that measures not only if students know stuff, but also whether they can apply it in new contexts. She anticipates that students will be much more involved in assessing their peers’ and their own work. “It’s no longer one teacher driving 30 students. It’s now students driving students.”

SOURCE: Adapted by Colleen Kimmett from New Pedagogies for Deep Learning Assessment Strategy
(Maria Langworthy and Peter Hill)

Assessment today

Next generation assessment

Assessment is top-down and generalized, driven by pressure to measure school and district-wide performance Assessment begins from the bottom-up, and is based on students' individual learning needs and goals  
Students must “perform” on final tests and exams, which overemphasize multiple choice or short response questions that reward ability to memorize facts. Grades offer too little feedback too late, giving parents and students few clues about how to improve Students provide continuous feedback on tasks throughout the year. This keeps them engaged and offers instant insight on what they grasp and what they don't  
Students in each cohort take the same tests at the same time. Skills that aren't amenable to pen-and-pencil tests are largely ignored Assessments are adapted for individual readiness, and interests. “Soft” skills – such as the ability to collaborate, think creatively, and solve problems - are considered  


So what does that actually look like in the classroom? I put that question to English teacher Jessica Pelat, who is phasing out grades in her classes at Fraser Heights Secondary in Surrey. Pelat continually provides feedback in class and online instead of waiting for a report card to tell students how they are doing. “Nothing is ever final. These kids can always improve.”

Pelat’s students maintain portfolios of their work online. “There is accountability because anyone can read it,” she says. “They can look back at their work and see their progress.” Teachers model this reporting by keeping their own learning portfolios. Pelat spends a lot of time in class discussing learning outcomes and giving constructive feedback with her students. Do parents buy in? “As soon as we explained that this change was good for student learning, they were on board. They realized we’re not just going to brush off their kid’s learning with a number.”

But, not all parents are convinced. When the Calgary Board of Education announced last year that they were eliminating letter grades up until grade nine (they’ve since backpedalled and are reviewing their assessment strategy), Robert Hurdman was anxious that he wouldn’t know how his three children were doing in school. “Most parents just want an objective judgment of how their child is doing compared to where they should be at a given level,” he told me by phone. “There is an overwhelming amount of education jargon. Educators fill report cards with language that is very precise and meaningful to them, but it can be impenetrable to parents.”

The problem is that moving from a grading system that everyone understands (even if it is imperfect) to something unknown brings up all sorts of challenges. How will we know how our children compare to their peers? How will colleges and universities assess applicants? 

Colleges and universities in B.C. are beginning to discuss how they may have to adjust application processes if the future holds fewer letter grades. Some institutions, like Vancouver Island University and Kwantlen Polytechnic University, are moving toward more open application processes that take student portfolios into consideration in addition to high-school marks. The B.C. Ministry of Education recently appointed Jan Unwin, previously superintendent at Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows school district – which has done away with using letter grades up to Grade 7 – to explore how to streamline the transition from high school to postsecondary education. “We’re a ways away, but universities are very open to this conversation,” she says.

Erin Millar is a journalist and author with a lifelong interest in education, innovation and creativity. For nearly a decade she has written for leading Canadian and international publications including Reader’s Digest International, Maclean’s, The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, The Times of London and others. Her work has been translated into 20 languages and published in 34 countries.