The story of

Participant 15


As part of the S3P, we analyzed 17 anonymized portfolios from the Surrey School District to see what they could tell us about student achievement. In the video above, we discuss how one of these portfolios illustrated to us one of the reasons a static letter grade, for many subject areas, may be a misleading interpretation of student achievement.

Participant 15’s portfolio included two pieces under the umbrella of English: a poem and a narrative essay, both created for the same course. The narrative essay, while having vivid imagery and descriptive content, contains grammatical errors (as much early career writing does). The poem, however, is well written, filled with intense imagery and strong, powerfully expressed emotions. It is a display of strong student achievement.


This is not an isolated case. Many disciplines in the K-12 system such as science, math, or social studies, are made up of different sub-disciplines. Like the English example above, which discusses both poetry and essay writing (two topics which in university tend to be separated), a student’s performance may, and often does, vary between them. A student may exceed in creative writing or poetry but only end up with a “C+” in English overall because the course was weighted with greater emphasis on
essay writing and not poetry. 


 

Grades are unable to identify a student’s true ability because they aggregate all performances in a class, into a single performance metric. Further, since standardized assessments don’t typically weigh poetry composition equally to essay writing, it is highly unlikely that a provincial-level assessment instrument would capture this ability at all.

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The result is that, when a university is reviewing the students transcript for admission, there is no way to know that this potential student is a budding poet. Although the student’s abilities are lacking in terms of the mechanical aspects of their writing, these skills can be taught and improved upon at the post-secondary level. Passion and creativity are much more difficult to teach, which the student clearly demonstrated in their writing. This highlights why cramming the ranging abilities of students into a single letter grade is not only a disservice to the student but a potential loss of talent for a university that cannot see the full picture.

It is easy to imagine similar circumstances within other disciplines, such as Social Studies.  Perhaps a student excels at writing intricate reports about WWII with the valuable resources they were able to find through careful research, but has trouble writing a multiple-choice exam in the same Social Studies course.

Measuring student ability, then, cannot happen across one plane.  The problem is that when we look at that grade, we have no way of distinguishing which of abilities it represents, and to what extent. When all we see is a single grade for each course, we are unable to identify a student’s individual strengths and weaknesses within that subject area. Furthermore, when we take something as complex as student achievement and reduce it to a single data point, we are telling students something about the value of their ability. Students are far more than this single data point, and this should be reflected in how we evaluate and how we admit.