Grades Should Reflect Achievement: Part 8 in an ongoing excerpt series on education from the Frontier Centre

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra


In some school jurisdictions, teachers are not permitted to use letter grades or percentages; instead, they are required to use other schemes such as the four-point categorical scale recommended by assessment guru Ken O’Connor, with the following descriptors: 1) Not yet meeting performance standards, 2) Meeting performance standards with assistance, 3) Meeting performance standards, and 4) Exceeding performance standards.
More significantly, O’Connor recommends that teachers should assess many objectives for every assignment in every subject. Thus, for example, instead of assigning a percentage or letter grade for an essay, teachers would identify a large number of specific objectives and evaluate essays on each of them. For teachers, this would often prove to be overwhelming in complexity, details, and the time required.
In addition, this complexity is not likely to make reporting achievement easier or more accurate for students or their parents because they will need to know the answer to a number of important questions. What knowledge and skills need to be shown by students to improve from one category to the next? How much assistance is being provided? Will sufficient independence be developed by the student to warrant promotion to the next grade? Is the performance minimal or beyond it? How do students and parents know? Obviously, an evaluation system based on standards requires that they be explicit for every subject at every grade level—can these be communicated effectively to students and parents?
Teachers and parents will recognize that any scheme for evaluating and reporting achievement raises important questions; indeed, it is supposed to do that. But it is not obvious that novelty in evaluation and reporting schemes is an advantage, or that complexity and detail make them necessarily superior than more conventional ones. In many situations, percentages and letter grades have the advantage of being familiar and well understood, and can convey students’ achievement with considerable precision. For example, students and parents easily understand that a grade of 50 per cent is usually a pass, and that 95 per cent is outstanding. Fundamentally, percentages and letter grades should not be hastily discarded.
To have a better understanding of our concerns, we need to return to the fundamental reasons for assessing students. In order to be effective, teachers must know how to focus their instruction to meet the diversity of their students’ knowledge and skills. Also, teachers have to evaluate their students’ learning against mandated standards of achievement. Furthermore, they need to communicate the results of their evaluations to the students themselves, to their parents, and to other teachers and administrators, as necessary.
We urge classroom teachers to make sure their grading practices are relatively simple, appropriate to the subject and grade, and understandable by the students and their parents. Teachers should use a variety of assignments and tests in evaluating their students so they have greater confidence in the final grades that students receive. The weightings of the various assignments should be clearly explained to students and parents. We do not think that these requirements are too burdensome for teachers. Teachers should not be overly rigid or, indeed, too flexible in grading their students, and should be cautious in assigning zeros or docking marks for late assignments unless there are good reasons for doing so. Clearly, incomplete work cannot be tolerated indefinitely. But these decisions are fundamentally instructional ones and are best left to teachers, within the framework of a school policy.
Parents, specifically, deserve to receive accurate and readily understandable information on the achievement and progress of their children. They should not receive report cards with information that is difficult for them to interpret. Of course, we are not opposed to teachers providing additional information that places the students’ performances in a broader context. The range of scores and the average achievement of students writing examinations, for example, would be helpful.
Generally, we encourage parents to examine carefully the report cards their children bring home, and if they cannot understand how their children are being graded, they should ask their teachers to explain their grading scheme and justify the marks that their children received. If they remain unsatisfied, then they should take their concerns to the principal, parental advisory committee, and the school board, as necessary. Finally, we urge senior educational administrators to consider the merits of a common and largely conventional grading scheme for use throughout the school district.


Excerpted from What’s Wrong with Our Schools: and How We Can Fix Them by Michael Zwaagstra, Rodney Clifton, and John Long.  Zwaagstra and Clifton are research fellows with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and are, respectively, a high school social studies teacher and a University of Manitoba education professor.