B.C.’s move away from letter grades for students between kindergarten and Grade 9 is producing anxiety, and has been opposed by some parents and teachers.
In lieu of a letter-grade system, the province will use a proficiency scale to assess students up to Grade 9. The proficiency scale model was first piloted in 2016-17, and for the first time this fall all B.C. school districts will implement it on report cards.
The changes reflect larger paradigm shifts in education. But for many people, letting go of the older model is not easy.
Anxiety and discomfort about this major change could be alleviated by unpacking the rationale behind it.
B.C.’s public school education system has been undergoing an overhaul since 2010.
Roots of this transformation lie in the shifting needs of the economy, away from industrialization and towards a more “technologically-rich” world.
The move to proficiency scale assessment is one aspect of this larger transformation. The scale visualizes learning as a continuum, where students progress through the stages of Emerging, Developing, Proficient and Extending.
The centrepiece of B.C.’s new curriculum is a set of core competencies — cross-curricular proficiencies for students in communication, critical thinking and social-emotional awareness and relations. Teachers will use the scale to assess how students are doing in developing these competencies.
The scale operates from a strengths-based perspective that views all students as coming to school with inherent skills. Classroom learning seeks to build upon this.
Proficiency scale assessment regards learning as ongoing, whereas the letter grade and percentages system viewed learning as an event with a definite end.
Letter grades: highlighting students’ deficits
Letter grades and percentages position some students (with As or Bs) as having strengths, while other students (with Cs or Ds) are regarded as not even being on the continuum of learning. Letter grades highlight the deficits of underperforming students, thereby perpetuating a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. They also only give a snapshot of current achievement.
By contrast, scale-style assessment offers a broader outlook because it considers student learning over time. With the new curriculum, scores on tests are not all that matter. Teachers are encouraged to assign equal value to all the learning that happens between tests, including through formative and descriptive feedback that students subsequently reflect upon and implement to further refine their work.
Many educators observe that continuous descriptive feedback is more effective in helping students concretely understand their strengths and shortcomings.
Although letter grades had the appearance of being definitive, they were ambiguous — students received the very visible stamp of a letter grade or percentage, but had little understanding of how that grade came to be.
Process of learning
The most important aspect of the proficiency scale is its focus on the process of learning itself.
For example, a student’s position on the scale in Language Arts is determined by more comprehensive measures that include:
• teacher observations of how well the student understands and can apply concepts;
• conversations with the student in which the student communicates their understanding of a given concept;
• class activities/assignments where the student gets to apply the concept and refine its usage;
• any formal assessments, which may not be tests but rather projects where the student gets to robustly show their learning by integrating various concepts.
B.C.’s scale-based assessment helps students to not only understand facts, but also the processes behind how those facts come to be. By teaching students about the process behind various concepts, the intention is that they will be able to transfer those skills across various areas of schooling, which previously were subject specific.
Particular criticisms, questions
One source of parental anxiety relates to the feeling that the scale is subjective and unclear. To this end, all forms of assessment and reporting are subjective to some degree. Scale-based assessment, through its use of descriptive feedback, hopes to clarify the basis of assessment.
I’ve heard other parents express concern around the flip-flop between how the scale is applied in kindergarten to Grade 9, but not in Grades 10 through 12 or post-secondary institutions.
They wonder: How will children in B.C. fare when, for the first 10 years of their education experience, they were assessed using the proficiency scale, only to have to revert to letter grades for Grades 10 through 12 and post-secondary?
They are also concerned that the proficiency scale may cause students to lose their competitive edge, given that it values independent learning over competition.
Scale-based assessment does not necessarily ignore competition. Instead, it asks students to consider their competitive relationship with themselves first, before considering it with others.
Face-to-face conversations needed
My unique vantage point as both an educator and researcher enables me to see how policies translate in living classrooms and in the public at large. I have a helpful tip for the Ministry and schools, and this relates to communication.
The anxieties of stakeholders largely relate to people not understanding the rationale behind this change or how to interpret it. Some anxiety and criticism about the change is grounded in how entrenched letter grades have been in B.C.’s education system — and indeed, in mainstream western education.
The ministry, school district leaders, principals and educators need to do a better job communicating the intentions of this change. Online information may be helpful, but ongoing old-fashioned face-to-face conversation is also required.
Parents, especially parents of English-language learners, need to directly hear from teachers and administrators via open houses or parent advisory councils because of the fog which surrounds this change.
Lifting this fog and bringing B.C.’s Proficiency Scale out from the shadows and into the sunlight will likely reduce anxieties and increase its acceptance as an effective tool for learning.
Victor Brar is adjunct professor, Faculty of Education, at the University of B.C.