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Initially controversial pilot project is intended to rethink academic achievement and better prepare high schoolers for postsecondary education.

A group of Ontario high schoolers will be invited to negotiate their final grades this year as part of an experiment that is challenging the preoccupation with marks and how teachers and students think about academic achievement.

The pilot project at Mayfield Secondary School in Caledon, about an hour northwest of Toronto, will see some Grade 9 students sit down with teachers to negotiate a final mark for the course, but only after reviewing their learning and performance based on the feedback they received.

The experiment at Mayfield did not initially have the full support of all teachers and parents. Many parents and children are heavily focused on the traditional grading system to ensure entry into competitive postsecondary programs, and a new feedback concept didn't sit well. But educators have grown increasingly frustrated that too many students leave high school not fully prepared for university or college, even though they may be labelled as top performers.

"We needed to change what we're doing. The kids aren't learning" said Mayfield's principal, James Kardash. "They don't remember anything after the test. They learn what they need to learn, and then as soon as they've given it back to the teacher and they're given a mark, they forget about it. It's not really learning."

Schools have experimented with eliminating letter grades from report cards in favour of more detailed evaluations and parent-teacher engagement, but that usually happens in the elementary years. High schools are constrained by the need to ensure students have marks for postsecondary applications.

When he first proposed the idea last fall, Mr. Kardash faced some resistance. Some of his teachers were on board, and he said social media in the wider community lit up. Parents, who were raised with the idea that grades determine future success, failed to understand the new concept and believed it to be another education fad.

Mr. Kardash spent time in his feeder elementary schools explaining how it would work, and "there are more and more converts every day," he said.

Grade 9 students in four courses – academic English, academic French, applied math and open business – will have a digital portfolio this fall where they will receive constant feedback from teachers over the course of the semester and apply that by making revisions to an assignment or subsequent papers. Mr. Kardash said he hopes it will drive a greater passion for learning and exploration.

During the mark-negotiation process, the teacher and student should not be far apart, Mr. Kardash explained, because the feedback will have been thorough. "The mark will still be there at the end. But they're so ingrained and driven by the mark that they've lost sight of the learning. I get it, I completely understand it," he said. "But I see we have to evolve."

Parent Brent Swatuk, who has a daughter entering Grade 10 at Mayfield, said he is unsure about the new system, and whether teachers will have the capacity or the time to provide different learning plans to students. "My concern is, do the teachers have the appropriate training to deliver different learning plans?" he said. "We have no way of gauging whether this is good or bad. It seems like a social experiment."

Poleen Grewal, associate director of instruction and equity support services at the Peel District School Board, said Mayfield's pilot puts student learning at the centre. "We know when students are given marks, they are focused just on the marks instead of the feedback provided by the teacher," Ms. Grewal said. "The feedback is so important for students to focus on because this is where further learning for the student happens."

Educational consultant Michael Fullan, who was former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty's long-time education adviser, said the research shows that feedback is one of the "most powerful strategies" to improve learning. He said Mayfield's pilot project could work as long as it aligns with Ministry of Education objectives of the course, and that students and parents understand the learning goals, criteria and how they are being assessed.

"A lot of people think grades loom too large. People move towards getting the good grades come hell or high water, but they don't actually learn as much," Mr. Fullan said. But "if they get feedback while they're doing their work and it's good feedback, then that's a powerful part of learning."

Parent Jennifer Brown said one of her children, who is starting Grade 9 at Mayfield, understands the new system, but is also focused on getting the marks she needs to attend a veterinary program in university. Ms. Brown, an elementary-school teacher, has another daughter in her final Grade 12 year at Mayfield.

Ms. Brown said she's supportive of the pilot project, even if her Grade 9 daughter is nervous about how it will play out in her report card. She said it "disheartens" her when her children come home with a grade, but ignore the feedback from the teacher.

"Even when my kid comes back with an A, that's awesome," Ms. Brown said. "But in our home, we want to know the learning skills that you learned, and the critical-thinking skills that you learned. So for us, that's valued."

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