The Report Card Dilemma

You’ve embraced a gradeless mindset. Your students are showing progress. It was a struggle at first, but you persevered in your communication of student learning to parents and they now appreciate that your focus has been on learning and not grades. Wahoo! Success!

But it’s June and the Ministry of Education requires a letter grade on the report card.

Your heart sinks to the base of despair.

Unfortunately, there really is no way around it. Until there is a ministerial shift in how learning is reported, we are obligated to provide a mark. It’s a miserable fact.

How do gradeless teachers deal with the report card dilemma?  I usually have an answer or some kind of suggestion to most edu-assessment problems, but I gotta be honest. I don’t have an answer for this one. I’m in this boat with the rest of you gradeless maestros, and the report card dilemma is a tough nut to crack.

The formula dilemma

I’m gradeless and use a learning scale to assess the BC curricular competencies. My scale is similar to the Ministry’s four-point proficiency scale, but has been expanded to a more detailed five-point rubric.

Last year, when I organized the scale into FreshGrade, I also used a simple set of marks to correspond to each of the levels on the scale  The reality of generating a percent or letter grade at the end of the course was not a foreign concept to me, so to be ahead of the eight ball, adding a numerical equivalent to each level would, hopefully, create an ease and efficiency to that task at the end of the course.  Add them up and get a mark.  Job done.

You can see how I am over-complicating things here as you can see.  It’s a really hard transition to gradeless.  The learning scale, while significant and important in its conceptualization, can also trap a teacher into a pseudo-letter grade dilemma as you can see by the “Partially Applying” and “Partially Exceeding.”
Not much better now, but a bit more firm and clear in its grade level disposition. It’s still numbers though.

The dilemma lay in the transition from effective, meaningful language in my gradeless classroom to a letter grade generated from numbers. I’d like to think that there is a thoughtfulness to the learning scale and its development both at the district level (in which part of the scale came from) and the original language I added to it. The scale was never meant to represent the very letter grades or percentages I was trying so desperately to get away from, so how could I represent each column in that way?   It seems to me, now, that those numbers are hypocritical to the important philosophy characterizing gradeless.  I pushed and encouraged the scale to my colleagues, last year, because I believe in growth mindset and that growth mindset cannot be bred in a culture of percentages and letter grades.

So, you could simply use an uncomplicated formula that adds up all the numbers and divides by the number of scores and poof! you have a mark.  It’s easy and convenient.  It also allows gradeless teachers to abide by ministerial rules.  Unfortunately, it is unsettling to do so.

The who cares what the grade is? dilemma

Teachers who haven’t adopted or completely bought into a gradeless system, seem to have a preconceived notion as to what certain grades mean. I’m not sure where and when, exactly, the notion of what a good mark and a poor mark came from besides the obvious pass/fail structure in which if one fails, one ultimately repeats the course, and if one passes the course, they move on to the next grade level. Perhaps, it’s a blue-ribbon mentality that rewards students with accolades like Honour Roll and Principal’s List.  “A’s” and “B’s” seem to give the impression of appropriateness for students, parents and teachers.  I’m not sure I really buy what that’s selling though.  Look at how Honour Roll, for example, in my school, and how it is calculated. A “C+” in one course is fine so long as you get an “A” in another course.  Hmmm.  It seems a bit screwy to think an average of marks reaps a version of success. And what about the justification of a “B” giving an “Honour”? Why should a 73% gift a student with a certain level of distinction or prowess, but a 71% doesn’t? It’s just two percent! It just makes my head hurt.

If you’ve cultured a lovely gradeless, growth mindset over the last several months in your classroom, shouldn’t the final mark be so much more thoughtful than one created by a formula? Absolutely!  Do we tend to overthink the final mark regardless of formula or not thanks to cultures of appropriateness? Definitely. I wonder, if you have embraced a gradeless mindset, why should you stress about the final grade at all? Dare I I say, who cares what the grade is? That’s right. What if we stopped caring about the grade and said to heck with them? Why overthink it?

One reason, I think, we tend to overthink the final mark, is that we worry, unreasonably, about university or college entrance marks, and so, lend too much weight to how the proverbial marks chips fall.  This I know for sure: professors have more important things to do than worry about than what mark Joey got in History 12 or Suzie got in English 12.  University and college are entirely different atmospheres of learning and this resonates with the students who go there. Students who, perhaps, didn’t give two hoots about their high school courses, might show more carefulness at a post-secondary institution because they are now on their career paths, taking courses they want to take and paid for them.  Then, there are some who miss the more friendly atmosphere of high school and buckle under the higher a pressure of a post-secondary civilization.  Regardless of what happens to students at university or college, my point is that “A” and “C” labelled students are all held to the same standard when they are at post-secondary institutions.  Some so called “A” students in high school sink and some “C” students swim.  

We do our best to prepare students for post-secondary, but how much power should we even consider wielding on report cards?  Who says we should hold the authority to what will be the most important educational years in our students’ lives? What if the computer reads that a student has a “C,” but they are desperate to get into a university that requires a minimum of a “C+”? Are we so great and powerful that we hold true to the “C”? I say give them the darn “C+” and let the cards fall where they may. I propose that we let go of the frustration that is deciding on the “A, B, C+…” that goes on the report card.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we should gift failing students with a passing grade. If students do not meet at a minimal level of proficiency in most curricular competencies, they should not pass the course.  I’m pretty confident that I can accurately assess whether a student has reached minimal proficiency on the scale as opposed to below expectations. I am suggesting that we not stress over a “B” or a “C+” or even a “C,” especially when we’ve worked so hard instilling a learning culture.  Make the report card grade an afterthought and maybe even consider negotiating a grade with the students.  Let them wield a bit of the power and feel good about what has to go on the darn report card. Honestly, I think, in the long run, we’ll all wonder why we put so much pressure on ourselves in the first place.

The letter grade rubric dilemma

So if if formulas aren’t the answer and we shouldn’t care about the grade because it goes against the gradeless philosophy, what then? We still need a letter grade on the report card.

What if we used a scale to help generate letter grades to help teachers make the transition from gradeless or standards-based grading to the final letter grade? No formula. I’m talking about a version of a learning scale or rubric that stands alone from the gradebook, but is used in conjunction with a gradeless mindset. Is it possible?

If you are a rubric enthusiast and prefer a standards-based approach to gradeless, then you will, no doubt, appreciate a rubric to help you determine a final grade and it might help you sleep better about having to come up with a letter grade. It also allows for somewhat more transparency if and when you choose to conference with students to determine said letter grade. If students don’t have some clue as to what grades represent, to you, how can they determine what they deserve, right?

Teachers who preach the gradeless gospel and standards-based philosophy (which are not one in the same, but are, sometimes, used in conjunction with each other, like I do), believe in these concepts:

  • Grades don’t accurately represent what a student knows.
  • Grades can hinder learning forward thinking.
  • Grades put unnecessary labels on students.
  • Grades don’t motivate.
  • Students learn better when they receive and are given the chance to improve with timely, authentic, descriptive feedback
  • A standards-based model more accurately assesses learning than grades do. 
  • Standards based learning (like the five-point scale above) allows for the words in the scale to reflect the path of learning. 
  • Feedback, in addition to the learning scale, allows for students to move along the spectrum.
  • Standards-based assessments should never be averaged.

Given the above outlook, I think a suitable scale to generate a letter grade at the culmination of a course, if so chosen to go in that direction, and that meets the needs of students, should, at the very least, be a combination of progress and achievement

Achievement and progress are distinctly different. As Tom Schimmer points out in his book, Grading From the Inside Out (2016), achievement is proficiency in the standards while progress is how much growth has been shown.  He goes on to say that including both in the evaluation process is necessary in order to accurately reflect learning, but growth is “somewhat tricky to report since less proficient students have the most room to grow, but making the most progress doesn’t always equate to reaching the highest level of proficiency.  As well, a highly proficient student may have little opportunity to show much growth since his or her achievement, from the start, was already close to the advanced level” (170).

The business, then, of incorporating achievement and progress in a letter grade determination, means that teachers better be sure that every student has an equal opportunity for growth.  That means providing stretches and challenges for both novices and exemplary students.  So, ultimately, the use of a letter grade determining rubric means embedding achievement and progress in the pedagogy. This might be a tough sell for those who aren’t wholeheartedly riding the gradeless bandwagon yet.

For example, last year, when I explained the gradeless learning scale to my colleagues, the Extending level (at the far right of the scale), was envisioned, by some, as part of “bonus work land,” and extra work for those ahead and wanted ‘extra’ credit. This doesn’t mesh in a standards-based classroom. Additionally, any consideration of less than 100% and calling it “proficient” (Applying in the learning scale) also generated some gasps.  The reality is, the mark we ultimately place on a report card cannot exceed 100% so either we consider 100% as proficient and remove the possibility of stretches and challenges for those we deem as proficient in a skill, or we rethink proficiency and make sure that there is the opportunity for all learners to extend themselves as learners.

For me, it’s a no-brainer to provide opportunities for all learners to exceed their expectations and not settle in to a certain section of the learning scale. It also makes sense to consider that a final assessment (grades or not) should include the journey a student takes as well as the achievement they have worked to earn. This is the very nature of growth mindset and fosters a love of learning instead of goals. It’s hard work for teachers to make sure all learners have the means to advance themselves. It’s even more hard work to give them the necessary skills to level up. I don’t want bored students in my classroom.

Image result for growth mindset quotes

In order to find some kind of peace, I am working on developing a scale that meets my needs and pedagogy, and takes into consideration both achievement (level of proficiency in the curricular competencies) and the amount of progress they’ve made on their learning journey. It isn’t easy to find a happy medium.  Ask Aaron Blackwelder, one of co-creators of the Teachers Going Gradeless website (www.teachersgoinggradeless.com), and he’d concur. Blackwelder has inspired me to rethink how I generate a letter grade at the end of a course, but reminds me of the difficulties in that development.  He says that, in fact, his “Descriptive Grading Criteria” rubric (see below) is not even close to a solution to the letter grades dilemma, nor would he consider it a merger of grade and gradeless philosophies: “I want to be as transparent as I can. That rubric is pretty much developed to satisfy a system that I do not believe in. When I do a report card, I only add the letter and then send home a copy of my report card to parents, which I think is much better.”

Courtesy of Aaron Blackwelder
Example of a feedback driven report card courtesy of Aaron Blackwelder

I really like Aaron Blackwelder’s version of a report card (above) as well as his “Descriptive Grading Criteria.” I could manipulate the criteria to reflect the learning scale and simply examine a student’s body of skills to determine their letter grade. I would have to pay more attention to my tracking to be sure I am authentically tracking progress and not just achievement, but it’s a start.  In terms of the report card, I love the detail as it aligns with my preference to communicate student learning via portfolio, dialog, and descriptive feedback.  

I’m just genuinely fearful of using letter grades to any extent, even as part of teacher-student conversation or a criterion-based rubric, as it may shift the mindset of my students and make the whole point of going gradeless or using standards-based learning scales, hypocritical to the true nature of a grade-free classroom. When asked if he plans to use some kind of rubric to generate a course end letter grade in his gradeless classroom, Washington teacher and champion of the Project 180 blog (www.letschangeeducation.com), Monte Syrie, says: “in keeping with my desire to truly de-emphasize grades, I am just going to focus on the learning, and let the ‘grading’ pieces fall into place at the end. I feel, as soon as I start down the path of defining [letter grades], I am letting grading, not learning, guide the way. Since I am focusing on growth and have tried to develop an approach that supports and honors that, I expect most kids to get an “A.” I am only putting a grade on the report card because I have to.”

Conclusion

I’m not alone in my report card dilemma. And for those of you who were hoping I had a rubric or philosophy that would solve the problem of creating a letter grade in a gradeless classroom at the end of a course, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I’m working on some version that will set my mind at ease. When I think I have something workable, I’ll share it, but I’ll vehemently encourage tweaking it to make it true to you.

I guess, then, if I were to give you, the gradeless teacher, any sage advice, it’s to stay true to your pedagogy, but don’t lose sleep over this letter grades business. Adopt a learning scale if you want, or conference with each student. Maybe bring in a report card like Blackwelder does. At the end of the day, if you have made the amazing choice to teach without letter grades, your students will walk out your classroom with a growth mindset and polished skills that will be critical for them to survive in the 21st century. And you can’t put a letter grade on that.

#mygrowthmindset

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