Don’t Eliminate Percentage Grades from Report Cards

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra

Parents concerned about declining academic standards in public schools have another reason to worry. Traditional percentage grades may soon be a thing of the past if provincial officials and school division administrators have their way.

A recent newspaper story recently revealed that River East Transcona School Division plans to eliminate percentage grades for all middle years students starting this fall. In response, more than 400 parents joined a group called Concerned Parents of River East Transcona to express their opposition to this change.

Unfortunately, River East Transcona is not the only school division moving to eliminate percentage grades. Similar assessment schemes are being piloted in schools throughout the province.

There are a number of reasons why school divisions choose to go in this direction. One of these is the belief among some experts that percentage grades are not an “authentic” form of assessment. They assert that since provincial curricula are designed according to targeted learning outcomes, a single percentage grade does not accurately inform parents and students about progress in relation to these outcomes. As a result, there is a need to design a new system for assessing achievement and reporting results.

In place of percentage grades is a four-point scale with descriptors for each learning outcome such as: 1) Not yet meeting outcomes, 2) Meeting outcomes with assistance, 3) Meeting outcomes, and 4) Exceeding outcomes. Thus, instead of a single percentage grade by each subject, students see a long list of 1’s, 2’s, 3’s, or 4’s by a group of learning outcomes.

Not surprisingly, many students and their parents have difficulty comprehending report cards with long lists of outcomes for each subject with the numbers 1 to 4 recorded beside them. Not only do parents and students experience difficulty understanding the difference between a 1 and a 2, or a 2 and a 3 for each of the objectives, but teachers and parents find it hard to encourage students to improve their grades by a specific amount. For example, in schools with this scheme, parents cannot even assure their children that their grades will improve if they work a little harder since there are so few achievement levels measured.

A common response from those who support this new assessment method is that parents oppose this system because they are not sufficiently informed. This response is an insult to the many parents who honestly desire the best for their children and know from common sense that removing percentage grades from report cards leads to a loss of precision in the reporting process. The problem is that too many education gurus who push this new assessment methodology are divorced from the real world in which everyone else lives.

Another reason given for eliminating percentage grades is the need to protect the self-esteem of students. Education gurus claim that giving a mark of 25 percent to students damages their self-esteem and makes it less likely for them think they are capable of doing better. However, the reality is that failure is part of life and learning how to deal with it is an important part of everyone’s development. Besides, it does not take long before students figure out that a list of 1’s on the new report cards is the approximate equivalent of 25 percent on a regular report card.

Supporters of this new system are quick to claim “all the research” proves percentage grades are an inferior form of reporting progress to parents. This is simply not true. There are many different types of education research but much of it is highly subjective and anecdotal. Of course, there is systematic inquiry and research in education, but often the results are not strong enough to identify exactly what teachers should or should not do in their classrooms. Thus, school administrators cannot simply hide behind the research argument when implementing a new report card system.

Parents need information on the achievement and progress of their children that is as accurate as possible, reasonably precise, and readily understandable. For this reason alone, they do not deserve the imprecise and confusing information that characterizes some report cards. Grades must communicate, not obfuscate, students’ genuine degree of achievement and progress. Percentages are an easily understandable and accurate form of communicating achievement to students and parents and should remain on report cards.