Percentages belong on report cards

April 24, 2013

Published in the Vancouver Province

Suppose you have two grade 8 students in the same science class. We’ll call them Ken and Damian. Ken received a mark of 85 per cent on his report card while Damian got 96 per cent. Who did better in science?

For most people, this question is easy to answer. While both students did well, Damian’s higher mark indicates that he outperformed Ken. Damian probably received slightly better marks on his tests, submitted higher quality assignments, and demonstrated a superior understanding of the subject matter. In other words, there is a real and measurable difference between a good student like Ken and an excellent student like Damian.

However, some school division officials apparently think Ken and Damian deserve the same mark. As a case in point, Battle River School Division, based in Camrose, Alberta, requires its teachers to grade student work at one of four levels – beginning, developing, achieving, or excelling. Since the “excelling” level includes a range of 84 to 100, both Ken and Damian would receive the same mark under this system.

Unsurprisingly, the new grading system is not going over well with parents or students in Battle River. A recent rally at the school division’s office attracted more than 150 students and parents while about 2,800 parents and 300 students have signed a petition opposing the new grading system. Despite the opposition, the school division has given no indication that it plans to change course.

The philosophy underpinning the new approach is known as outcomes-based assessment. Essentially, it states that students should be evaluated based on how well they master specific learning targets known as outcomes. For example, an outcome for a grade 5 math course might be “use two digit multiplication to solve real-life math problems.” The teacher would then give a mark based on how well students learned that particular outcome.

So far there is nothing particularly objectionable about this approach. After all, it makes sense to specify what skills students need to master in each subject. It also is reasonable for teachers to use a four-point scale to evaluate some types of student work based on these learning outcomes. Problems arise when school administrators toss aside common sense and impose rigid assessment policies that lead to unnecessary conflicts with parents and students. Sometimes policies that sound good in theory do not translate well into the real classroom setting.

The no-zero policy at Ross Sheppard High School in Edmonton that led to the firing if physics teacher Lynden Dorval is a case in point. Ross Sheppard’s then-principal followed outcomes-based assessment to the letter when he instructed teachers not to give zeros for missing work. This was based on the conviction that all grades must only reflect achievement of learning-outcomes. Of course, Ross Sheppard teachers found out very quickly that many students do not submit their work on time if there is no academic penalty for lateness. No-zero policies may sound good to ivory tower academics but they don’t work in real classrooms.

The removal of percentage grades from report cards is another example of this disconnect between assessment theory and classroom reality. While it may make sense to grade some assignments 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 differentiate between good work and excellent work in a way that simply cannot be done when teachers are limited to four achievement levels.

In addition, most students still write unit tests where even more levels of proficiency are possible. A student who answers all 50 math questions correctly on a test should receive a higher grade than another student who answered 44 questions correctly. Conversely, it is much worse to get only three questions correct than to answer 24 questions correctly. And yet, both these students would receive the same “beginning” grade under the Battle River system.

It is also important to recognize that percentage grades are a form of communication that virtually all parents understand. Even if strict adherence to the principles of outcomes-based assessment was technically correct, school divisions need to weigh this against the need to work together with parents and provide them with understandable information about student achievement. Administrators who wish to overhaul grading practices need to ask themselves whether the change they seek is so important that it necessitates alienating a large number of parents and students.

In this latest clash between theory and reality in public education, let’s hope reality wins for a change. Percentages belong in classrooms and on report cards.

Charting new course for small schools

April 20, 2013

Published in The Chronicle Herald (Halifax)

The last few years have been difficult ones for public education in Nova Scotia. Declining student enrolment, poor academic results and unpopular school closures are just a few of the problems facing this province.

When it comes to school closures, trustees and parents are caught in a vicious cycle. As student numbers decline, the province reduces funding to public school boards. In order to balance their budgets, boards make unpopular decisions to close schools. Parents feel powerless as trustees ignore their impassioned pleas to keep community schools open.

However, instead of making parents fight a hopeless battle against monolithic and unresponsive school boards, the province should give them the tools they need to take meaningful action. It should follow the example of Alberta and pass charter schools legislation.

Charter schools are public schools that operate independently of school boards. They are governed by non-profit organizations and receive an annual per-student operational grant from the province. Charter schools have no religious affiliation, practise an open enrolment policy and follow the provincial curriculum. Currently, 13 charter schools operate in the province of Alberta.

Parents in rural Nova Scotia should take note of recent events in the tiny hamlet of Valhalla Centre in northwest Alberta. Several years ago, Valhalla Centre nearly lost its community school. However, instead of allowing the school board to proceed with closure, parents and other community members banded together, purchased the school building from the board, and established Valhalla Community School as an independently operated charter school.

Because the school now operates independently of the school board, the community adopted a charter that reflects local concerns and values. Valhalla Community School places a strong emphasis on rural leadership and requires its students to learn about board governance and parliamentary procedure. It also focuses on teacher-directed instruction, classical literature, drill and practice in mathematics, and accurate spelling and grammar. Interestingly, since becoming a charter school, student enrolment has steadily grown as it now attracts students from the wider geographical area.

Imagine what Nova Scotia parents could do if they had the same opportunity to establish charter schools as parents in Alberta. Charter schools legislation would make it possible for parents to keep their schools open while simultaneously refashioning them to better reflect the values of the local community.

Not only that, but charter schools can revolutionize education in urban centres as well. Consider the example of Foundations for the Future Charter Academy (FFCA) in Calgary. FFCA was established almost 20 years ago and its enrolment has steadily grown to almost 3,000 students today on seven different campuses.

Like Valhalla, FFCA places a strong emphasis on traditional academics and hard work. FFCA students wear uniforms, complete regular homework, memorize their math facts and learn to read by phonics. Its program is so popular with parents that it has more than 6,000 students on its wait list.

Many parents in Halifax would probably be very interested if a school like FFCA opened in their city. Since charter schools do not charge tuition, admission would be open to all parents, not just those who could afford high tuition fees.

Parents dissatisfied with the instruction provided in regular public schools would finally have an alternative.

However, the range of potential charter schools goes far beyond those who prefer a traditional model of education.

For example, the Boyle Street Education Centre in Calgary caters to at-risk youth in the 14 to 19 age group while Mother Earth’s Children’s Charter School in Stony Mountain focuses on aboriginal education. In addition, the Suzuki Charter School in Edmonton promotes advanced music skills at an early age using the approach of renowned musician Shinichi Suzuki.

Clearly, charter schools reflect the diversity of Canadian society.

In contrast, the one-size-fits-all model of public education in Nova Scotia does not meet the needs of a diverse population.

The natural trend towards increased central control by school board officials means school principals have limited control over their own schools and simply follow the dictates of the board.

Not only that, recent controversies around school closures have shown that school boards cannot effectively respond to the needs of parents and communities in the face of budget cuts.

Charter schools have the potential to transform public education in Nova Scotia. All the government needs to do is give them a chance.