Report cards should be clear, not confusing

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Appeared in the Globe and Mail, May 8, 2023
Report cards should be clear, not confusing

Is it better to be “extending” at two-digit multiplication or “proficient” at it? How about “developing” versus “emerging?” According to the British Columbia education ministry’s new proficiency scale, the proper order of skill development is: emerging, developing, proficient and extending.

This is the kind of gobbledygook parents can look forward to seeing on their kids’ report cards this fall because the province has mandated (beginning next school year) that Grades 8 and 9 students will no longer receive letter grades or percentages on their report cards. Instead, teachers must use the government’s new proficiency scale.

According to the ministry’s new K-12 Reporting Policy Framework, these terms describe the level of “understanding of the concepts and competencies relevant to the expected learning.” An “emerging” student has an “initial” understanding, a “developing” student has a “partial” understanding, a proficient student has a “complete” understanding and an “extending” student has a “sophisticated” understanding.

To make things even more confusing, some words on this scale have more than one possible meaning. For example, the “emerging” descriptor can include “both students at the beginning stages of grade level expectations, as well as those before grade level expectations.” In other words, students who are “emerging” in a skill area might be failing the course, or they might not. It’s all a matter of interpretation.

Interestingly, Grades 10 to 12 students will be spared from this nonsense, at least for now. Their report cards will still have percentages and letter grades. Probably because universities and colleges use these marks to determine admission and award entrance scholarships. At least at the upper grade levels, parents won’t be left scratching their heads trying to decipher their kids’ report cards.

Of course, you might wonder why Grades 8 and 9 teachers shouldn’t also be able to continue using percentages and letter grades. After all, everyone understands the difference between an A+ and a B or 95 per cent compared to 40 per cent. When they read a report card, parents want a quick snapshot of how their kids are doing, not a heap of meaningless verbiage. They shouldn’t have to wait until their children enter Grade 10 to receive a report card that makes sense.

As the B.C. government has stated many times, this new proficiency scale was developed in response to the new provincial curriculum, which, according to the government, places “more emphasis on the deeper understanding of concepts and the application of processes than on the memorization of isolated facts and information.”

In simple terms, this means that B.C.’s new curriculum, and the proficiency scale based upon it, focus on the process of learning rather than on the actual content to be learned. Sadly, by downplaying content, the B.C. government is putting students at a disadvantage. Research clearly shows a strong connection between content knowledge and reading comprehension. Reducing the entirety of the curriculum to several so-called core competencies deprives students of the knowledge-rich learning they need, particularly at the earliest grade levels. Subjecting parents to mind-numbing word salad on report cards will simply add insult to injury.

Finally, reducing all assessments to only four levels of achievement will inevitably lead to a loss of precision. When teachers lump students who are passing and students who are not passing into the same “emerging” category, there’s something wrong with the new proficiency scale. There’s obviously a huge difference between a student who narrowly passes all the tests and one who fails each test by a wide margin. They certainly don’t deserve the same mark.

There’s no need to jettison easily understood letter grades and percentages and replace them with meaningless verbiage. The B.C. government should send its new proficiency scale back to the drawing board.

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