Opinion: Report Cards in Canada Should Be Clear, Not Confusing

August 12, 2019 Updated: August 13, 2019

Suppose you have two students. One comes home with a mark of 95 percent in science while the other gets 80 percent in the same subject. It’s not hard to figure out which student is probably doing better. Percentage grades are so simple that virtually everyone can understand them. That’s why they appear on many report cards in Canada and around the world.

Now let’s compare the same students under a different reporting system. Instead of a single percentage grade for each subject, students are given a score of 1 to 4 for several different outcomes. In this case, both students receive a mark of 4 in categories such as “analyzes and solves problems through scientific reasoning,” “develops skills for inquiry and communication,” and “explores scientific events and issues in society.”

It isn’t hard to see problems with this type of reporting. For one thing, parents lose the quick snapshot that a single percentage grade provided to them for each subject. In addition, using only four achievement levels leads to a substantial loss of precision on report cards. The student with a 95 percent could easily end up with the same 4’s as the student with 80 percent. This sends the message that both students are doing equally well even though we know this is not the case.

This new reporting system, known as outcomes-based reporting, is becoming increasingly common in Canadian schools. In 2014, the Calgary Board of Education abolished all percentage grades in its K-9 schools. Students now receive marks of 1 to 4 in various outcomes. To make things even more confusing, students also receive “summative indicators of success” in personal development categories such as citizenship and character. Good luck figuring out the differences between descriptions such as “emerging,” “evident,” and “exemplary.”

Not surprisingly, Calgary’s transition to this reporting system has been far from smooth. Not only did parents express strong opposition to the new system, but it also became an election issue during the 2017 school board elections. Several trustees ran on platforms explicitly opposed to the new reporting system and a couple of them got elected. The issue flared up again earlier this year when there was a large number of discrepancies between provincial achievement test results and marks on school report cards.

Under the new system, a mark of 2 or higher is considered acceptable. However, while more than 90 percent grade 9 students in Calgary received marks of 2 or higher in math, only 59 percent of grade 9 students passed the provincial math exam. Parents are right to be concerned about this discrepancy. Not only are the new report cards confusing, they do not convey accurate information about student achievement.

A number of school boards in British Columbia are following a similar path. Beginning in 2013, the Maple Ridge–Pitt Meadows School District abolished traditional letter grades for K-7 students and replaced them with the nebulous categories of: “not yet within expectations,” “meets expectations,” “fully meets expectations,” and “exceeds expectations.” Last year, the Vancouver School Board initiated a pilot project with most of its schools that replaced letter grades with performance categories. Its category levels are “beginning,” “developing,” “applying,” and “extending.”

Interestingly, these new reporting systems use four levels to report outcomes-based achievement, but they have different descriptors for the levels.  One thing these terms have in common is they are all confusing to parents. None of them come anywhere close to the clarity provided by percentages or traditional letter grades.

The reality is that there are good reasons to keep percentages on report cards. While some assignments can be graded on a four-point scale, there is no need to extend this to every assignment. Some assignments are more complex than others and have many possible proficiency levels. Percentage grades make it possible to distinguish between good work and excellent work in a way that cannot be done when teachers are limited to four ambiguous achievement levels.

Another major problem with the new reporting systems is they are closely linked to instructional approaches that de-emphasize subject-matter content. For example, the social studies evaluation categories on the Calgary grade 9 report card are all about process with little about content. Students are graded on whether they “demonstrate skills and processes for inquiry and research” but there is no requirement that these skills be content specific.

Supporters of the new system argue that outcomes-based reporting provides parents with more information than traditional percentage or letter grades. However, information is only useful when it is easily understood. Adding extra numbers and words to a report card has little use if parents can’t understand what they mean. Even if strict adherence to the principles of outcomes-based assessment is technically correct, school boards need to weigh this against the need to provide parents with understandable information about their children’s academic achievement.

Ultimately, report cards must provide good-quality information about student achievement to both students and their parents. In order to do this effectively, report cards should be clear, not confusing. This is why percentages still belong on report cards.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of the newly released book, A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.