Advocates of a pilot project in Surrey School District elementary schools – designed to explore different ways for teachers to report a child’s academic progress – make a good case that there are constructive alternatives to the traditional report-card approach.
But we won’t give them a pass on the most contentious aspect of the project – setting aside the time-tested letter grade.
While the Utopian zeal to find a better way is commendable, this comes perilously close to throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.
What’s wrong with keeping letter grades, alongside the more conscientious summaries?
Anyone who has been through our school system as a student and/or parent will recognize that the bald letter grade misses the finer points of an individual’s progress. Too often excellent work, heartening development and delightful expression is flattened, minimized, even suppressed by rigid alphabetic tyranny.
Even attempts to shade the picture with pluses and minuses are inadequate substitutes for thorough evaluation.
Tests and exams are not a fail-safe measure of what a student actually knows and understands, and offer scant recognition of individual’s learning strengths and weaknesses.
And it’s frightening to contemplate how many positions of responsibility, in our 21st century world, are occupied by people who gained their qualifications by dint of cramming, regurgitating the opinions of others without developing any facility for critical thinking, and taking tests that have long since been all but forgotten.
And yet, given the realities of that world – and the place we are preparing for our children in it – it seems unfair to deprive them of a key tool for progress.
Even given the shortcomings of a traditional letter grade, it has endured because we need a short form of evaluation, as well as more comprehensive forms.
It’s the reason that hotels and restaurants and movies receive star ratings – in the real world, few take time to read and balance all reviews.
We worry, as well, about what will happen when a young student who has never received such a “summative” grade collides with more senior environments that demand them.
Reform education by all means – but don’t threaten our children’s progress, or crush their expectations, through asymmetrical reform.