There is a significant push by some educators to abolish traditional percentage grades. This “ungrading” movement wants teachers to eliminate, or at least minimize, the status of formal grades.
A Winnipeg Free Press story recently described how one Winnipeg high school no longer uses numerical marks for tests, projects, and other assignments. Instead, teachers provide students with written comments and verbal feedback. The reporter was so impressed that she described it as “avant-garde” assessment.
However, there is nothing “avant-garde” about ungrading. It is simply the latest manifestation of the progressive attack on traditional grades. American educational commentator Alfie Kohn has been leading the charge for decades and aspects of his ungrading approach have already been adopted in other Canadian provinces.
According to this scale, an “emerging” student has an initial understanding, a “developing” student has a partial understanding, a “proficient” student has a complete understanding, and an “extending” student has a sophisticated understanding.
To make things even more confusing, some words have more than one possible meaning. For example, the “emerging” descriptor can include “both students at the beginning stages of grade level expectations, as well as those below grade level expectations.” In other words, students who are “emerging” might be failing the course or they might not. It’s all a matter of interpretation.
This is the kind of gobbledygook that parents can look forward to reading on their kids’ report cards if schools adopt this “avant-garde” approach to assessment.
Interestingly, even British Columbia had enough sense to spare Grades 10-12 students from this nonsense; although it begs the question of why their K-9 students are still subjected to it. It also shows why we should be concerned when a Manitoba high school adopts this approach.
In addition, there are several very good reasons to keep percentages on report cards. First, percentage grades are a useful way for teachers to report on various levels of achievement. Percentage grades make it possible to differentiate between good work and excellent work more precisely than vague descriptors such as “emerging” and “developing.”
It is also important to recognize that percentage grades are a form of communication that virtually all parents understand. Even if some students might benefit from a different reporting method, schools need to weigh this against the need to provide parents with understandable information about student achievement. Parents deserve clear information about their kids’ performance and percentage grades fit the bill. As well, percentage grades are used to determine admission to many post-secondary institutions.
Finally, overhauling a school’s entire grading system comes with an enormous opportunity cost. Changing a school’s approach to assessment requires teachers to invest an enormous amount of time and effort. This is time that cannot be spent on more important things—such as designing quality lessons and building relationships with students.
The field of education has been plagued by many “avant-garde” fads over the years. Far too many educators get excited by any approach that looks new or innovative, even when solid evidence for the new policy is lacking.
When it comes to assessment, it is best to stick with what works. Let’s keep percentages on report cards.
Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.