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Geoff Johnson: Phasing out letter grades for K-9 a good thing

It will be up to teachers to explain that the proficiency scale takes into account the fact that learning occurs in different ways for each learner and doesn’t always follow a nice, predictable linear pathway

As a longtime opponent of using letter grades to describe a student’s learning progress, I can only applaud the B.C. Education Ministry’s new policy of replacing letter grades with a more descriptive “proficiency scale” for kindergarten to Grade 9 students.

‘Bout time. The letter-grade system has been around for too long — it was reportedly first used in 1897.

As Victor Brar, a UBC Faculty of Education professor and elementary school teacher, put it in an interview with Global News: “It’s definitely time for a change — letter grades were a vestige of an industrial society.”

This school year, all students from kindergarten to Grade 9 in B.C. public schools will be assessed using the four stages of the proficiency scale — emerging, developing, proficient and extending — rather than letter grades.

Other changes in the policy statement include a minimum of five updates provided throughout the year, including three in writing, and, interestingly, new requirements for students to assess themselves.

Implementing the change, after such a long dependency on letter grades, will provide challenges for some teachers and many parents.

As just one example, the B.C. Grade 6 prescribed learning outcomes for reading are divided into two categories: reading literature and reading for information.

Teachers of reading literature at the Grade 6 level may need to correlate, for each individual student, the four stages of the proficiency scale with the seven expected learning outcomes identified in the performance standards for Grade 6 reading.

It’s not as if teachers haven’t been doing this kind of thing all along — they have but in a less codified way.

Students deemed to be in the “developing” stage are “demonstrating learning in relation to the learning standards with growing consistency.”

Translating to something more specific for parents will require some thoughtfulness, especially when explaining “developing proficiency” to parents who sometimes say “don’t give me all that edubabble — just give me the bottom line — A,B,C,D or F?”

The proficiency scale policy statement hedges its bets somewhat, saying “proficient is not synonymous with perfection. Instead, the student is able to demonstrate their learning consistently or most of the time.”

That’s also a bit vague.

The student reporting policy that came into effect in July requires more clarity than that. It says “communicating student learning requires concise descriptive feedback in clear and accessible language to ensure students and families understand where the student is at in their learning, and areas for further growth.”

So far so good, but some experienced teachers and administrators I spoke to about the new policy expressed the hope that parents will understand that the descriptors behind the four stages of the scale are not precise.

It will be up to teachers to explain that the proficiency scale takes into account the fact that learning occurs in different ways for each learner and doesn’t always follow a nice, predictable linear pathway.

Some school districts, like Mission School District in the Fraser Valley, have been piloting the move away from letter grades.

Assistant superintendent Karen Alvarez of Mission School District, which began the pilot project in 2020, noted that parent acceptance of the change was influenced by teachers who were effective at explaining a student’s progress by outlining not only what the child was learning but how the child demonstrated that learning progress.

As for self-assessment, the big breakthrough at the elementary level, said Alvarez, came with students being able to explain three things: “What am I learning? Why is it important? And how I am doing?”

That’s a far cry from the non-productive letter-grade-driven parent questions such as: “What grade did you get?” often followed by: “So who got the highest grade?”

Robert M. Hutchins, one-time dean of Yale Law School, nicely summed it up when he said: “The object of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives.”

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Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.

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