Letter Grades: Are They Harmful or Useful?

Starting in June 2023, in British Columbia, students from kindergarten to Grade 9 will be assessed with a proficiency scale instead of letter grades. Students from Grades 10 to 12 will continue to receive letter grades and percentages to meet university entry requirements, but for younger students, it’s meant to better reflect how a child moves through their educational journey.

The province launched a pilot project to replace the grading system in 2016. This project included modernizing the curriculum to include communication, problem-solving, and using knowledge in practical situations. Clint Johnston, president of the BC Teachers Federation, says that the proficiency scale can help assess the depth of a student’s understanding, especially in subjects like math.

“Math is often viewed as something absolute,” he said. “But it’s not just getting the right number from memorizing a certain process, but actually understanding the underlying principles of how they’re getting that answer.”

The proficiency scale starts from emerging and goes to developing, proficient, and extending. A student’s report card will still include teacher comments and suggestions.

When did the grading system start?

It was established around the 1940s. This was so schools would have an easy way to communicate with one another about a student’s academic readiness. Aside from the grade system, teachers also relied on a 100-point scale system.

What do grades mean?

You likely have experienced the grading system, whereas your child might not. Here are the corresponding grades to the proficiency scale.

Letter Percentage Proficiency Scale
A 90 – 100% Extending
B 80 – 89% Proficient
C 70 – 79% Developing
D 60 – 69% Emerging
F 0 – 59%

This is just a broad overview that may not reflect all school districts. Some schools may utilize grades like C+ or B- to indicate how close a student is to a solid letter grade.

Why keep grades for older students?

  • Standardization. Because of how prominent the letter grade system is, you automatically know what it means. If you see an A, you’ll know that the student is high-achieving compared to a student with a C. This not only helps schools internationally but also students, as they can quantify how to score higher.
  • Easy to understand. Each percentage is associated with a letter grade range, so students can calculate the minimum marks needed to move to the next letter grade.
  • Comparison. Teachers can use letter grades to compare students with one another for their own reference. This helps them see which students need more help and which ones are excelling.

What are some disadvantages to letter grades?

  • Subjectivity. As seen in the above chart, there are lots of different ways to display letter grades. Grades also depend on the teacher. It’s difficult to quantify a student’s literary analysis, as all students have different opinions and interpretations of stories. Some teachers may be stricter than others in the same school.
  • Limitations. The grading system often does not reflect what a student is learning or how they apply their learning. This can force students to conform to traditional methods of learning instead of exploring different options.
  • Time-consuming. Teachers must create rubrics and long lists of criteria for students to quantify their marks. Students can also dismiss the importance of the course material that they’re learning in order to simply get the highest mark possible.

What can be done to balance grades and other grading systems?

Many school districts are moving away from the letter grade system to various forms of proficiency scales. They may not use the same model as BC, but they may use something similar. 

Schools are also moving away from emphasizing grades and adopting methods to promote critical thinking and practical applications of knowledge. Teachers can accomplish this by encouraging more group activities, self-assessments, and allowing students to explore material on their own, so they can learn in a way that’s best for them.

Grades continue to endure in today’s education, but small, local changes are being made to move away from harsh percentages to looser definitions of success. So far, the parent response to the new grading system is positive, but perhaps this will change in the future.

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