School District 20 – Putting the student first and the letter grade second

The way students are being graded in today’s classroom is changing, going from the letter grade to "assessment for learning".

No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s letter grades.

The way students are being graded in today’s classroom is changing, going from the letter grade — or percentages — that nearly all of us grew up with, to what is called assessment for learning.

Although no report cards have been issued this school year due to the on-going labour dispute, the trend away from grades is already taking shape.

Teachers across the Kootenay Columbia school district are demystifying academics for students through assessment for learning, doing away with the sorting that comes from letter grades and instead letting students know right from the start what they are expected to learn — and then working with them to get there.

In assessment for learning, a teacher will work with a student at the outset to understand what she or he already knows about the topic, as well as to identify any gaps or misconceptions.

Assessment for learning is creating learners, students who are engaged and excited to be taught, said SD20 director of instruction, Bill Ford.

What started as a worldwide movement in the late 1990s began appearing in the region’s classrooms five years ago, he said.

“The sea of red ink with the letter grade is going the way of the dinosaur,” said Ford.

“More teachers are adopting the assessment for learning approach, providing kids necessary feedback about their learning and holding off on giving their letter grade until they are required to at reporting time.”

And they are required in the end. In B.C. legislation there is a requirement for teachers to provide a letter grade on how students demonstrate their learning against certain outcomes, meaning did they learn the material.

Teachers still design a program that allows a student to learn, while the letter grade provides parents with a final record of how they did based on all of the learning outcomes from the term. The letter grade is then based on the body of work the student produces against the learning outcomes.

That is the only expectation required from letter grades, said Ford.

However, the rest of the grading is open. And removing the letter grade until report card time allows the students to learn, instead of adhering to a self-fulfilling prophesy mentality that a letter grade can instill (I can’t learn, I’m no good at math, etc.).

“So if it is about student learning, as a teacher I’m not going to give that letter grade feedback,” said Ford. “What I’m going to do instead is say, ‘Here are some things you did well, but here is an area that you need to work on.’”

Educators who experimented with this technique in the 1990s found that, over time, students stopped asking for the letter grade and started to internalize the feedback and begin to own their learning.

And as teachers demystified the learning, revealed what was expected and created a criteria list, kids started to think of themselves as learners and they demanded criteria around learning.

“Once kids know what that criteria is, there is no reason for anybody in a class to not do well,” Ford said. “The role of the teacher wasn’t about trying to trip them up, the role was to allow them to learn and know what good work was. The role was to teach them and see what they could do.”

And the results were very exciting because the kids started to perform, said Ford. Although it was only anecdotal evidence, it became apparent students were rising to the challenge and saying, ‘I could do this.’

There are a growing number of teachers in SD20 that are moving their practice forward into this area, said Ford. After a local teacher stopped giving letter grades throughout the year, it only took a few weeks before the students stopped asking for them and started to own their learning.

They were more interested in what they had to work on, and they were thrilled knowing what the end product would be.

“She said the quality of learning that was happening in her classroom was exceptional. It looked and felt completely different than it had in the past, compared to traditional methods,” Ford explained.

Assessment for learning is a school district initiative, something they have been working on as professionals for five years. But reporting legislation still presumes they are using letter grades.

“It’s a process,” said Ford. “We’re not hitting anybody over the head and saying, ‘Thou shalt…’ In education, grassroots movements are far more effective — providing research, providing the evidence, allowing early adopters to adopt early, continuing to provide those opportunities for teachers to make changes — and before you know it you have a movement on your hands.”

Currently, in B.C. legislation, next to that letter grade for grade 10, 11, and 12 students, there needs to be a percentage. And in the end, there will be. But up until that point in a growing number of SD20 classrooms there will be engaged learners, students living up to their potential.

“You know, if universities want to sort kids, let them sort kids. That shouldn’t be our job,” Ford stated. “Our job should be solely to look at kids as individual learners and to improve their life chances and move them as far along on that learning continuum as possible, despite whatever disabilities or abilities they walk through the door with. That should be our main job.”

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