Educators Worry that Marks Kill Motivation

I REMEMBER TWO THINGS about my first report card. It was pink (which I loved), and inside, beside one course, my teacher had written an F (which I loathed). My four-year-old brain promptly concocted a solution. I took a pen and scratched a wavy line along the bottom of the offending letter, instantly transforming my record of failure into a bright, shining E for Excellent.

The subject inspiring such shameless ingenuity was French, and F was indeed an accurate reflection of my (lack of) knowledge and skill. (I was - and remained until I left in the spring of 1966 - the only unilingual anglophone at Montreal's École Marie Jeanne Fortier.) Be they Es or Fs, or the As, Bs and Cs more commonly doled out by today's elementary teachers, that's what grades are meant to convey. And when parents open their children's report cards, that's what they're looking for. They may scan the teachers' comments first, but, ultimately, it's to the grades they turn for the lowdown on their kids: Does my daughter know what she's supposed to know? Can my son do what he's supposed to do?

Michelle Gaudreault didn't find such quick answers to those questions in the fall. Her three children - in Grades 2, 4 and 6 at Courtland Park School in Saint-Bruno, Que., on Montreal's South Shore - are part of a pilot program initiated by the Riverside School Board. The program test-drives an innovative approach to student assessment, one that dispenses with grades. Instead, it focuses on the developmental stages in learning, measuring student progress in terms of how well kids apply what they've learned. It also involves teaching kids how to judge their own work, and moving away from testing as a way of gauging student performance.

These methods have garnered mixed reviews from parents, some of whom complain it doesn't clearly tell them how their children measure up to their classmates. Kristine Daigle, whose daughter is in Grade 1 at nearby St. Lambert Elementary School, says the new system gives parents "too much information." The evaluations are "supposed to encourage the student and not give them negative feedback," she says, "but I don't know where my kid stands." At first Gaudreault shared that feeling. "I missed the marks - we grew up on that, and every parent wants to know where their child lies in the classroom," she says. "But how important is that, really?"

Not at all important, contend the system's developers at Quebec's Riverside School Board, whose aim is to measure learning, not simply what a student can recall on a test. If that's hard to digest, try thinking about it this way: even though I failed French in nursery school, is it true that I failed to learn anything about communicating in a second language? After all, my mother reports that on returning from school, I'd stand in her kitchen and let out a lengthy stream of gibberish punctuated with a firm "assis-toi!" - pre-verbal babbling that, linguists say, is a sure sign a child is learning speech patterns. Or, consider an example at the other end of the spectrum: Alice Bender, a former principal and retired administrator with the Riverside board, aced her high-school chemistry exams. "In Sister Loretta May's mind, she was very successful in teaching me chemistry because I got an excellent mark." But Bender claims she didn't then, and still doesn't, understand anything about the science.

Grades, it seems, can be highly deceptive. But they also have amazing cachet - especially in today's achievement-oriented EDUCATION system. In the late 1960s and the 1970s, when many teachers embraced a "child-centred learning" approach, letter grades often gave way to descriptive comments about a student's progress. But the culture has since shifted, and now educational "outcomes" are what drive the system. This means that, in the past two decades, teachers have become increasingly beholden to a battery of provincial and national standardized tests that are all about raising - and ranking - the performance of kids, schools and provinces. And parents have been clamouring for clear, concise information about where their kids stand. That has led to entrenching grades as the system of evaluation on report cards, starting in Grade 4 in British Columbia and Grade 1 in Ontario and Nova Scotia. (Elsewhere, the format varies according to the priorities of the school district or individual schools.) For many teachers, grades are the least of all evils. But Stephen Powell, who teaches Grade 3 at Brookville Public School in Campbellville, Ont., 50 km west of Toronto, disdains them. Ontario's current policy, he believes, shifts the focus from the child to the curriculum expectations. Because the curriculum is so "dense," kids who need more time to grasp a concept often don't get it. "Instead of helping them meet the expectations, you end up assessing them." And giving out Cs and Ds, he adds, "is especially difficult in subjects that are developmentally related, like reading."

Raising standards and ranking student performance against them are intended to encourage excellence. If you raise the bar, the thinking goes, children and teachers will rise to the challenge. But one deeper issue that tends to get overlooked is what sort of knowledge schools should promote. Critics claim an emphasis on testing and ranking students detracts from genuine, or "deep" learning, in which the aim is for kids to absorb information into their long-term memory where it can be accessed and used creatively. As well, a wide body of research indicates that grades and other externally imposed rewards or censures can dampen children's enthusiasm for learning - whether they're D- or A-students.

That's particularly poignant when you consider that the Learning Partnership, a non-partisan education research and policy group, reported last May that some provinces whose students do well on standardized tests also place near the top on another list: that of secondary school drop-out rates. President and CEO Veronica Lacey points out that a significant number of Alberta's First Nations students, for instance, don't finish high school. Because the province has focused on academic performance and upping standardized test scores, she says, its schools "have not paid as much attention to marginalized students" - something, she adds, they're currently working to redress. So, if education is, as Irish poet William Yeats famously said, not about "filling a bucket, but lighting a fire," perhaps it's time for schools to re-evaluate evaluation.

QUEBEC IS ONE of those provinces with the dubious distinction of appearing in the top third of both lists. And it was with the 33-per-cent dropout rate for boys (20-per-cent for girls) in mind that the province began radically revising its curriculum in 1997. The reforms emphasize cross-curricular skills, project-based learning, and replacing traditional grade levels with two-year "cycles" that are supposedly more attuned to the learning stages children pass through.

The pilot project at the Riverside School Board - where dropout rates are considerably lower than, and standardized test scores hover around, the provincial average - is about extending those concepts into the realm of evaluation. Launched four years ago at the elementary level after consultation with parents and educators, it involves extensive use of "process portfolios" - student selections of work showcasing their learning, self-evaluation and reflections on how to improve. (Many Canadian schools use portfolios, but with much less emphasis on self-assessment.) Another critical element of the system is the "student learning profile," a teacher-written report that documents a child's progress through the learning stages.

It's all based on the idea that learning how to read and write is no different from learning how to walk, a developmental process in which every child advances at his or her own pace. Bender, who helped implement the system, points out that, in any given Grade 1 class, kids' ages differ by as much as 12 months. "When you're five years old," she says, "a year is 20 per cent of your life. You learn a lot in 20 per cent of your life." And it's counterproductive to fail kids because they need more time to meet learning goals. "You wouldn't give a child a D-minus because they weren't walking at a year," she says.

To be clear, Quebec's curriculum does include more traditional expectations outlining what students should know. Instead of assessing whether they've met those expectations, however, the student learning profile identifies the stages children must pass through in order to become strong readers, writers, mathematicians and so on, and then plots where they fall on that continuum. The emphasis is on what students can do, not on what they can't. And grades - or any other sort of performance ranking - are nowhere to be found.

That approach enjoys a lot of support - if not always among parents, at least among those who study the science of evaluation. Contrary to popular belief, claims Université de Montréal psychologist Roch Chouinard, a "loss of motivation to learn is not primarily the result of parenting practices or phenomena outside the school. The main causes lie within the school." He notes that kids who regularly get low grades eventually stop seeking help - because they view it as an admission of their own powerlessness. For Université de Sherbrooke education professor Jacques Tardif, "Starting with 100 per cent and subtracting for each error is a strange thing to do." Rather than encouraging trial and error, it punishes a child for risking an answer they're unsure of.

On the other hand, if a teacher emphasizes what the child does well - writing "elefant" isn't necessarily evidence of failure but of successfully sounding out a word - the child knows she's on the right track. And that, says Tardif, who has been watching the Riverside initiative with interest, gives her a reason to believe she can improve. It's not simply the chronically struggling child whose motivation is at risk. One of the "most thoroughly researched findings in social psychology," Boston psychologist and award-winning author Alfie Kohn has said, "is that the more you reward someone for doing something, the less interest that person will tend to have" in the task at hand. At least 70 studies show that "extrinsic motivators" - including giving out As for school work - are "not merely ineffective over the long haul but counterproductive" to cultivating a desire to learn.

The love of learning is exactly what was on Liza Vespi's mind when her son, Liam, brought home his Grade 1 report card in November 2002. Shocked to see a C in every subject, she and her husband decided not to show him the grades. For Liam - whom Vespi describes as high-energy and bright - to be told "right out of the block that he's mediocre," she says, "sets him up for a self-fulfilling prophecy." Neither did Vespi give the grades much credence. Like many young boys, Liam's reading skills are developing relatively slowly, says the part-owner of a Toronto media transcription company. But the low grades don't reflect his "intelligence or ability or potential." Rather, Vespi is convinced, they speak to his difficulty following instructions. In some ways, she adds, the Cs indicate "my son isn't an approval junkie." To help Liam adjust to the classroom, she and her husband pointed out that "it's a game, and his job is to show the teacher he knows the material." His Grade 2 report card was much improved - some Cs, a few Bs and one A.

Banishing grades is a pretty radical step - especially for today's parents, most of whom were raised with marks amid a sink-or-swim atmosphere. But to really be deep learners, argues Tardif, kids need to take responsibility for their own learning and evaluation. That may seem like handing the asylum keys to the proverbial lunatics, but the teachers at the Riverside board say it works. "Rather than, 'I'm going to test you on it, so you better learn it,' " says Courtland Park teacher Carole Rodger, her first- and second-graders want to learn for their own sake. Because the emphasis is on finding ways to improve, adds Isabelle Lessard, who was a Grade 1 teacher until becoming vice-principal this year of St. Mary's Elementary School in Longueuil, Que., "they all have to get somewhere, and when they get there, they have to go higher." Doug MacCaul, a father of two kids at Boucherville Elementary School, sees other long-term benefits of this approach. By organizing their portfolios and engaging in self-reflection, he says, kids get invaluable training for the future: "How many people know how to present themselves when they go for a job, for example?"

Still, not all educators are on board. In the staff room at another Riverside school, Harold Napper in Brossard, Que., teachers say they like the portfolios but worry that by accentuating a student's progress, teachers aren't preparing kids for the possibility down the road that, judged by other criteria, they might fail. Parent Darlene Hamilton-Browne echoes that concern. "In life you're measured by everyone else," says the mother of a Riverside pilot-school student. "You get a promotion if you're the best in your department - that's just the way it is."

THE PERCEPTION that schools should prepare kids to tough it out in a competitive, career-driven world helps explain the appeal of more rigorous standards in the first place, says Alan Sears, a University of Windsor sociologist. Within and beyond the classroom, there's evidence of a "hardening of expectations," says Sears, whose 2003 book, Retooling the Mind Factory, offers a sweeping critique of the changes in Ontario's education system in the past 30 years. That's especially apparent in report cards. An A no longer denotes mere excellence, but is now an indication that a student "exceeds" grade-level expectations. (Bs go to those who "meet," and Cs to students who "approach" them.) The upshot of such definitional finessing? A downward spiralling of grades, causing one Toronto-area principal to put up a notice reading, "As are out and Bs are in." Teacher Powell contends the new definitions "give us less flexibility" in grading kids who aren't star students. That's because a C - which used to indicate a student wasn't really at risk - now sends the more negative message that the kid needs to "pull up her socks."

Nova Scotia parents have signalled they won't stand for a similar redefinition of grades. After a new report card was piloted in eight schools last year, says Hantsport School principal Marion Ross, parents were "extremely disappointed" with high letter-grade standards. With the revised version, a student doesn't have to be consistently working beyond grade level to get an A. In B.C., where new report cards will be sent home this fall, the definitions aren't finalized.

But the trend is clear: grades are again the norm for more and more Canadian children - despite warnings from academics, teachers and parents about how they can affect motivation. Provincial officials responsible for the new report cards say they're simply responding to popular demand. But parental views tend to be cyclical: one decade mom and dad are clamouring for grades and a back-to-the-basics curriculum, the next they're worried about their kids' spirit and creativity. Perhaps Quebec's Riverside board has found a happy medium.

A Brief History of Student Grades in Canada

1870s to 1900: Compulsory education for young children (generally up to age 12) introduced in every province but Quebec, where schooling wasn't mandated until 1943.

1910s: The first report cards go home. Most teachers assign percentage grades with the marks reflecting the proportion of the curriculum the student has learned.

1920s: Compulsory education in English Canada extended to include older children (generally up to age 16).

1920s: Finding it difficult to assign single percentage points, teachers begin to round grades up or down to the nearest multiple of five.

1930s and 1940s: Many schools shift to issuing letter grades (As, Bs and Cs) instead of percentages.

1960s: Teachers experiment with a variety of grading schemes, which include a simple pass or fail and descriptive comments without grades.

1968: Ontario's Hall-Dennis report advocates getting rid of testing and grades altogether.

Late 1970s and 1980s: Research suggests student retention, a.k.a. failing, negatively affects students' achievement and self-esteem. Social promotion policies (passing poorly performing students to the next grade level so they can stay with their peers) become increasingly common.

1980s and 1990s: Report card formats vary according to the priorities of different school districts.

1999: Ontario introduces the first provincially standardized report card. Computerization enables teachers to use "canned" comments (a set database of phrases to describe student performance).

2003: Letter grades are the most common means of rating elementary students across Canada (in all provinces but Ontario, B.C., Nova Scotia, the format remains in the hands of local school authorities).

Celebs Remember Their Classroom Verdicts

PRIME MINISTER PAUL MARTIN

I actually lucked out: I had reasonably good grades throughout school. I was a long way from what you might call a dedicated student - there were far more important things in life. And nobody thought Einstein was in any trouble because of my math ability, which is why I always thought I was well-suited to be a finance minister. I have the same nightmare every spring at exam time. I walk in, I have not gone to class all year, and I haven't got a clue to any answer.

SINGER-SONGWRITER SARAH HARMER

I remember mostly the subjective impressions that teachers had of you on report cards. "Conscientious" was the word I recall, and I had to ask my mom what that meant. In high school I did set a record for the amount of skipped accounting classes, and probably didn't want to show that to my mom. I scraped by in everything other than music and phys. ed. until Grade 13; then I really wanted to move to Kingston for university, so I really worked hard.

A friend who's got a kid went to parent-teacher night recently and said it was like getting her tea leaves read. I think for most parents it feels like an evaluation or reflection of themselves.

COMEDIAN SANDRA SHAMAS

I remember report cards as being the death knell of whatever privileges I might have had. But in some ways I liked getting report cards. It was an opportunity to hear what the teachers really thought of you personally. It was like being reviewed. But at the end of the day they didn't make a whole lot of difference. In my house, as long as you were progressing through the grades, your report cards were never an issue. It was a report from the world. And your progress at home was not necessarily predicated on your progress in the world.

AUTHOR MICHAEL ONDAATJE

When I was at school in England, my end-of-year report cards were so bad I actually burned a couple - steamed them open first to make sure, and then burned them. The most consistent word in my reports was "mediocre," and there was always the phrase "should try harder" somewhere in there. I did not peak early in my educational career.

AUTHOR DOUGLAS COUPLAND

I liked school when I was growing up, and report cards were never a bad thing for me. I've looked at some of the report cards that kids have nowadays - they're like 64 pages, perfectly bound on 100 bond glossy stock with photos of the teachers and bios. Good god. It must be so boring to write 30 or 60 report cards and find something new to say about every single kid. I can't believe these teachers aren't all mad.

Maclean's January 12, 2004