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School district in B.C. tries grade-free report cards

The district wants to focus on detailed feedback rather than formal marks to give students a better idea of how they’re doing.

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A school district north of Vancouver is launching a pilot project to scrap letter grades from report cards for some of its students, joining other boards in the province that have moved away from a marking system that is increasingly falling out of favour.

Instead, School District No. 48 (Sea to Sky) will focus on detailed feedback to give students a better idea of how they're doing, said the district's director of instruction, Peter Jory. He said letter grades can cause students to "check out" without engaging with a teacher's assessments.

"Over all in B.C., there's a move toward the importance of meta-cognition – the ability to self-assess, set goals and engage students in ownership of their learning," Mr. Jory said. "Students need to leave our system being able to speak to who they are."

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The pilot will involve students in grades 4 through 9 whose teachers have enrolled their classes.

The Sea to Sky school district includes about 5,000 students from kindergarten to Grade 12 across Squamish, Whistler, Pemberton and several First Nations communities. Students whose classes are enrolled in the pilot will transition back into a graded system by Grade 10 to allow them to qualify for scholarships and postsecondary admissions.

"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."

Once the participants are confirmed, the school district will discuss what the student assessments will look like with parents and teachers.

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Charles Ungerleider, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia's faculty of education, said he's familiar with the tendency among students to check out after seeing a letter grade – especially if the grade isn't too good.

"Those conversations [about how students are graded] are important … the arbiter of this will ultimately be parents," said Mr. Ungerleider, author of Failing Our Kids: How We Are Ruining Our Public Schools.

"I'm not a big fan of grades," he said. "They're simply shorthand for a more detailed appraisal – and that's the important part, not the symbolic representation in a grade."

However, he said school districts should move with caution.

"Too often in education we leap to a solution before defining the problem adequately."

The Sea to Sky pilot project follows similar changes in Surrey, Comox, Maple Ridge and some areas of Vancouver Island. Coquitlam's school district has been exploring the possibility of doing the same.

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Maple Ridge launched its own program to scrap letter grades about six years ago. The board introduced an annual conference that allows parents and students to talk with teachers about the feedback on report cards; while parents still have the option to ask for letter grades, few do.

"In Year 1, we had about 40 per cent of families asking for letter grades from our [approximately] 8,000 elementary students," said David Vandergugten, director of instruction at the Maple Ridge school district. "But today, only about 15 families ask for letter grades across the entire district."

The Sea to Sky program is 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.

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