Pilot Projects in British Columbia
By: Chanel Oliver, KEPI Research Assistant
With the proposed changes to BC’s K-12 curriculum, several school districts across the province are participating in pilot projects involving alternative grading and reporting methods. “Surrey and Maple Ridge are leading the way, with other districts watching closely, and the provincial education plan calling for changes that include new tools for reporting and ‘richer’ information for parents” (Sherlock, 2014).While the end goal is to be able to adapt the program to include grades K-12, students involved in the pilot programs are transitioning back to letter grades by grade 10 to allow them to qualify for scholarships and the current post-secondary admission process (Nixon, 2017).
Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows School District
The Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows School District (School District 42) was the first in the province to begin a pilot program to eliminate letter grades, which began six years ago (Nixon, 2017). School District 42 introduced an alternative assessment system for students in Grades 4-7. In place of traditional letter grades, the school board introduced an annual conference “that allows parents and students to talk with teachers about the feedback on report cards” (Nixon, 2017). During the conference meetings, students are asked to report on their growth in the competency areas “those are big skill sets like curiosity, cooperation, organization, motivation or social responsibility,” (Tremonti, 2017, p.1) the student then writes goals for the following term based on the core competencies.
Early adopters such as Alouette Elementary, began using the no-grades approach in 2013 (Tremonti, 2017), and by 2014, 20 of the district’s 21 elementary schools in the district were participating in the pilot program (Sherlock, 2014). The program is still in place today. As part of the program, parents are given the option to ask for letter grades, but at this stage in the program very few do (Nixon, 2017). During the first year, out of the approximately 8,000 elementary students participating, around 40% of parents continued to ask for traditional letter grades (Nixon, 2017). Per David Vandergugten, the Director of Instruction at School District 42, “[however] today, only about 15 families ask for letter grades across the entire district” (Nixon, 2017, p.3). The pilot program, which has been gaining steam since it first launched in 2013, is “largely driven by teacher concerns that letter grades weren’t effective” (Nixon, 2017 p.1). Instead of letter grades, the new system focuses on “detailed feedback throughout the year, rather than simply whether a student earned a B- or an A” (Nixon, 2017, p.1).
Surrey School District
The Surrey School District, which is the largest school district in BC, “won the 2014 CMOLIK Foundation’s prize for enhancement of public education for its grades-free approach” (Nixon, 2017, p.2). The same year, 30 of the 100 elementary schools in the district began to adopt new progress reporting methods for students in Grades 4-7. The change came as part of pilot project that started with just 5 elementary schools at the beginning of 2014 (Sherlock, 2014). “Instead of letter grades for Grades 4 to 7, schools in the pilot project are using other methods to communicate with parents, such as meeting face-to-face, emailing work samples, or using QR codes to link to pictures or videos” (Sherlock, 2014, p.2).
District Principal, Antonio Vendramin said “he fully embraces the move as a way to help children become more self-directed.” “We need learners to be reflective and to really understand themselves,” he said. “I think inherently that letter grades undermine that” (CTV, 2013, p.1).
While letter grades are still given to students from grades 8-12, because they are required as part of the post-secondary admissions process, some high school teachers in the Surrey School District are taking an alternative approach to grading individual assignments. Leah Samson, an English teacher at Fraser Heights Secondary, no longer uses numerical marks to provide feedback on her student’s assignments. “She devotes considerable class time to teaching students how to assess their own learning and give effective peer feedback and also has regular one-on-one meetings with students to discuss their goals and progress” (Millar, 2014, p.3). While she is still required to give students a final letter grade at the end of the semester, “the letters have taken on a whole new meaning to her and her students, once grades are removed, students are learning for themselves rather than learning for their teacher” (Millar, 2014, p.3).
Sea to Sky
The Sea to Sky School District (which includes schools in Squamish, Whistler, Pemberton and several First Nations communities), began their own “grades-free” pilot program in January 2017 (Nixon, 2017). The school district is currently testing gradeless report cards for students in grades 4-9 and transitioning back to traditional report cards in grade 10 to allow students to qualify for scholarships and the post-secondary admissions process (Ogilvie, 2017).
“Part of the argument to move to this system, per Peter Jory (Director of Instruction, Technology and Innovation for the school district), is that “letter grades pigeonhole kids so they feel defined by their marks — poorly performing kids feel defeated while "A" students only work as hard as they need to for the mark and do not engage in meaningful learning” (Ogilvie, 2017, p.2). It is said that the Sea to Sky School District is leading the way when it comes to “embracing the changes that must happen in education to help students meet their own goals” and this pilot program is a step towards that objective (Ogilvie, 2017, p.2). “The end goal is for us to be able to adapt this kindergarten through Grade 12,” Mr. Jory said. “But there’s a recognition on the province’s part that these things are embedded in our culture and we have to move carefully around grades 10 to 12” (Nixon, 2017, p.2).
The Rest of the Province
Similar pilot projects are being put into action in Comox and other areas of Vancouver Island and Coquitlam, the third-largest district in the province, is considering one of their own. (Nixon, 2017). There are currently no plans for similar action in the Vancouver School District, but “associate superintendent Maureen Ciarniello said she expects change will come as the new provincial curriculum is implemented. Vancouver school administrators are watching the changes in Maple Ridge and Surrey closely” (Sherlock, 2014, p.4).
Post-Secondary in BC
As the push to remove letter grades from K-12 education in BC continues, post-secondary institutions will need to consider changes to their current admission processes. It has been said that the University of British Columbia is “slightly ahead among Canadian universities, having recently implemented broad-based admissions, but grades are still a crucial part of that process” (Nixon, 2017, p.2). UBC’s Associate Registrar of Undergraduate Admissions was quoted as saying “It certainly wouldn’t be a case where we go, ‘No grades, we can’t admit you. We’d find a way to make it work, but our admissions have to be evidence based … and grades are very helpful in that regard to assess merit and make decisions. Without them, we’d need to find some other way to do it” (Nixon, 2017, p.2).
Outside of BC
British Columbia is considered to be at the forefront of Canadian provinces in “the push to remove grades from report cards” (Nixon, 2017, p.2). However, direct comparisons between provinces can be difficult given the wide variety of reporting procedures that are in place (Nixon, 2017). According to Floyd Marten, President of the Canadian School Boards Association,
“this is not on our radar as a national issue and we do not have a sense of how many school boards may be doing this” (Nixon, 2017, p.3).
In terms of the existing pilot projects in BC, the specifics vary between school districts, but the common thread is “a shift away from traditional letter-grade assessments in favour of more detailed evaluation and parent-teacher engagement throughout the year, often enabled by new online tools” (Nixon, 2017, p.2). These pilot programs are being launched “amid significant changes to the provincial curriculum. British Columbia introduced amendments last summer emphasizing flexible learning, and the provincial government is conducting a public consultation on the future of report cards” (Nixon, 2017, p.3). While the gradeless approach has been criticized, “the goal isn’t to soothe anxiety or stroke self-esteem; rather, proponents argue that moving from letter grades to anecdotal reporting deepens engagement and the soft skills needed to solve problems in the real world” (Nixon, 2017, p.3). These goals are in line with the new BC curriculum, which focuses on flexible learning and is currently being implemented across the province. These curriculum changes are helping the momentum towards alternative forms of assessment in BC’s K-12 education system (Nixon, 2017). Despite the success of existing pilot projects, the current lack of a post-secondary admissions system that would support these initiatives causes most projects to return to more conventional methods at the grade 10-12 level. Post-secondary institutions will therefore need to make changes to their admission processes to accommodate alternative forms of assessment in order for these changes to be truly successful.
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