Alberta’s New Report Card Plan Merits a Failing Grade, Says Expert

School boards to test controversial system this fall
By Justina Reichel
Justina Reichel
Justina Reichel
June 19, 2013 Updated: June 20, 2013

A controversial grading system set to be rolled out in some Alberta schools in the fall demonstrates how policymakers have become insular and out of touch with the public, says an education commentator. 

Last week the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) announced that standard letter and percentage grades on K-9 student report cards will be dropped in favour of the four word categories of “exemplary,” “evident,” “emerging,” and “support required.”

As a part of the pilot project, teachers will also no longer provide written comments on report cards and evaluations will be sent home just twice per year instead of the usual three or four times. 

“A more consistent approach will give parents a better view of student learning across the grades and benefit our system efforts to monitor and respond to student achievement,” said a statement from Chief Superintendent of Schools Naomi Johnson.

“It is important for parents to know that along with plans for a new report card come plans for additional communication between teachers and parents as well.”

However, Michael Zwaagstra, a Manitoba-based teacher, author, and education researcher affiliated with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, says the new grading policy reflects a school board that is too immersed in its own “edu-babble” to see what is best for students. 

“The education system in many cases lives in its own world, and really it doesn’t seem to care what the public thinks,” he told The Epoch Times. 

“To move up in the system you generally have to buy into this philosophy, so the higher up you go in the system the more likely you are to follow these types of ideas.”

Research Questioned

The CBE and other advocates of the new grading system say research supports its effectiveness. But Zwaagstra contends that this research is questionable and small-scale. The new grading system is confusing, vague, and muddies critical communication between parents, students, and teachers, he says.

“There is no body of research showing that the removal of percentage or letter grades in public schools leads to improved student achievement,” he wrote on a recent blog post. 

“While it is true that some students and parents prefer nebulous or non-existent grades, it is equally true that many students and parents prefer a rigorous grading system that enables them to track their academic progress.” 

The controversial “no-zero” policy in Edmonton public schools is a case in point, he says. 

Last year, Edmonton high school physics teacher Lynden Dorval was fired for giving students zeroes for missing assignments instead of simply marking them as “incomplete”—a policy of the school board at the time. The incident attracted international media attention as colleagues, students, and the public rallied in strong support of Dorval. 

An online poll conducted by the Edmonton Journal reported more than 97 percent of the nearly 12,500 respondents opposed the no-zero policy.

“In terms of the general public the opposition is just overwhelming for these types of policies and yet they still get implemented, because in education systems—the education faculties where preferred education professors teach—it’s its own thought world, its own way of doing things, its own philosophy,” says Zwaagstra.

After he was fired, Dorval said he refused to implement the no-zero policy in his classroom because it did not hold students accountable for their actions. He also said the policy was forced on teachers without their input, and he could find no evidence of its success in other schools. 

“The reasoning [behind the no-zero policy] was that it was research-based. I have since learned that no credible research has ever been done to verify the effectiveness of this approach,” Dorval told Financial Bin media company last year. 

In April, the Battle River School Division near Camrose, Alberta, also adopted a no-zero and non-letter grading policy. Instead, students were marked as “beginning,” “developing,” “achieving” or “excelling” and assigned a corresponding number from 1 to 4.

Students and parents marched in protest, and 2,800 people signed a petition opposing the change. However, the system has already been adopted for junior high and elementary students and will be introduced in high schools this fall.

Although similar programs have been adopted in select schools across the country, some Manitoba and Ontario schools have since reversed their decision and rejected them.

Modern vs. Traditional

Zwaagstra says policies such as no-zeros, strict non-letter or percentage grading systems, and lack of punishment for plagiarism or cheating are all examples of fads that stem from “romantic progressive” education policy, a term he coined to describe trendy philosophy that tends to put the students in charge of learning outcomes instead of teachers, and often gets adopted in schools before being thoroughly researched.

This philosophy—based on small focus groups or one-off studies—also tends to snub traditional curriculum and teaching principles that have proven effective for hundreds of years, he says.

“It’s a wholesale shift away from the traditional aspect of learning,” says Zwaagstra, adding that the new style is becoming the dominant practice in Canadian schools. 

“As a result you end up with fuzzy curriculum guides. … You end up with these ridiculous report card grading schemes that also make it harder to accurately measure where students are at. This philosophy infects public education, and it has a pretty big impact on the standards that students are being taught.”

The Calgary Board of Education would not comment further on the new grading system but maintains the system is up for discussion and debate. 

“Though this is a system-wide initiative, schools and parents will be playing a key role in shaping what the new report card will look like,” said the CBE statement.

“The CBE wants to hear from principals, teachers and parents before deciding exactly what the end product will be. That is why the approach to implementation is extremely flexible.”