News & Events

Beyond letter grades: A culture shift begins

Measuring what matters: New ways of supporting students in their learning journeys…

Standardized tests, grade point averages, and tests scores: A shift from facts and skills to concepts and deeper learning…

Most educators agree: the  conversation has begun. Can we move beyond  letter grades  – spawned in the industrial era – to improve student learning?

Are there better ways for teachers to ensure students are learning the skills they need to succeed?

These questions were the focus of a “Curriculum Implementation Day”  for more than 800 educators, staff and administrators in New Westminster Schools.

They gathered recently for discussion on everything from how technology can improve assessment of student learning –  to the role of students themselves in assessing their own learning.

Throughout the day, teachers and staff led more than two dozen workshops and ‘hot topic’ sessions to help colleagues reflect on their own assessment practices and gain insights into new approaches.

It was a galvanizing start to the 2018-2019 school year.

A pressing question in a time of change…

Superintendent Karim Hachlaf emphasized the district’s commitment to high and measurable expectations for all learners…..

As Karim Hachlaf, Superintendent of New Westminster Schools,  emphasized in a keynote presentation at the Massey Theatre September 21, the need to  meaningfully assess how students are learning is an especially pressing question in BC.

That’s because school districts across the province are in the three-year process of implementing BC’s redesigned curriculum from kindergarten to grade 12 – a sweeping shift in education from the traditional emphasis on facts, tests, and memorization to the critical competencies all students need to learn – in school and beyond.

As Harvard analysts note, “everything you learn will become obsolete in a decade,” Hachlaf said. “What does this mean for ourselves, our students and our parents?”

The BC curriculum supports personalized learning and the skills necessary to the world students will be living in. It’s a future that increasingly requires complex problem solving, critical and creative thinking, collaborative team work, and more – as evident in reports like the World Economic Forum’s The Future of Jobs.

In this context, assigning students an ‘A’ or a ‘C’  or an ‘incomplete’ can be viewed as part of an increasingly “broken system” that does not allow for this shift to “deeper learning.”

Deeper learning, dynamic teaching…

Educators implementing BC’s redesigned curriculum are increasingly focused on how students learn as much as ‘what they learn” – in what’s known as the Know-Do-Understand curriculum model. 

This approach emphasizes core competencies in students: their ability to think critically and conceptually, to communicate, and to develop their personal and social responsibilities as they also develop skills and strategies in applying knowledge.

Evidence suggests the redesigned curriculum in BC will benefit from a stronger emphasis in ongoing assessment in the classroom. That means using approaches designed to help learners understand what they need to do to move forward  – while helping teachers adapt strategies to better meet their students’ learning needs. (See, for instance, Dylan William, Embedded Formative Assessment).

What might innovative approaches look like?

Guest teachers from Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows, where a new reporting model is being rolled out, highlighted three-way conferences for parents, teachers and students as a strategy that puts students in the center of the learning equation.

Conferences allow students to share their strengths, demonstrate their learning, and establish learning goals together with their parents and teachers. In Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows, the district’s assessment practices for the school year currently incorporate two conference-style reporting sessions along with a final report card. The district no longer assigns letter grades in elementary school.

In another workshop led by Isabella Lam, Queen Elizabeth elementary school vice-principal, the emphasis was on helping students – even in very early grades –  to reflect on their own classroom learning.

She asked: What role can students play in understanding where they are, where they are going, and how to get there?   

Empowering students in their own learning

As participants found, students can learn to identify what they can do now, what they can’t do yet – and the next steps that will help them progress.  In the process they learn to understand their competencies and skills, adopt a positive mindset for training their brains to learn new skills, and set goals for themselves. (See Surrey teacher Kelli Vogstad‘s framework).

One example Lam shared with participants highlighted a student in grade 6  who reflected on her learning in French.

  • She wrote that now she was good at memorizing  and was proud of how far she’d come in pronunciation.
  • She recognized that speaking and spelling were two different skills, and that she was not yet mastering French accents and spelling. 
  • Her goals or next steps were to study her French at least once a week and focus on accents.
  • “I would like to start with days of the week, then to months then to greetings,” she wrote.


Self-reflection is a major step helping students to become owners of their own learning – and it can begin in the earliest grades. As Queen Elizabeth elementary school principal Paul Manville noted: “There’s lots here – we have just begun.”

Inclusive learning…

For students with learning and behaviour challenges, a major shift in supporting student learning is also underway thanks to the joint effort of more than 40 school districts – in a project that focuses assessment less on behaviours and more on a student’s strengths.

That means incorporating student voice and supporting a student’s abilities to meet their unique learning goals. The “Competency Based IEP” (Individualized Education Program) is a significant shift in philosophy in curriculum, instruction, and assessment and will be a first in the history of special education.

From the “feedback-friendly classroom,”  to digital portfolios that demonstrate student learning in action,  the learning assessment landscape is changing.

Guest facilitator Meggan Crawford led discussions on challenges in secondary school assessment…

The secondary school challenge…

In many ways, the culture shift presents a particular challenge for high school teachers.

They are required to provide letter grades or percentage marks several times a year in a context where both parents and students tend to regard grades as a benchmark of achievement.

Grades also continue to be viewed as critical for entrance to post-secondary institutions, despite the fact that the assessment culture there is also changing.

And for many students accustomed to getting marks on ‘everything,’ grades are a motivation to improve performance.

However, marks typically summarize and judge learning rather than provide insights into how to improve learning. As educators discussed in a session on “Assessment Issues in the Secondary Classroom: Challenges and Possibilities,” teachers can choose to incorporate other approaches – a variety of ‘formative assessments’ –  throughout the year that help ‘coach’ students to benefit from feedback and reflection.

In subjects like physics and chemistry, which traditionally involve a rigorous approach to mastery of complex content, the sense is there is less scope for more creative or qualitative assessments. For instance, in science labs, students observe chemical reactions and record information that goes beyond a qualitative assessment – such as “the liquid got hotter” –  to using measurements that are not subjective.

However, as teacher Shenton Tan emphasized, labs are spaces where students are also able to engage in problem solving by experimenting, learning from mistakes, and demonstrating their knowledge in practical settings.

More and more, students are encouraged to apply their knowledge in authentic ways that reflect engagement with the real world – by becoming involved in physics projects, or history research, or fieldwork of interest to them.

For teachers like Cary Smialek, the challenge is to maintain a critical balance between creative thinking and objective outcomes – as in the Apollo 13 example of a near disaster in 1970 that put the lives of three astronauts at stake after the flight lost power. NASA’s ground crew scientists demonstrated innovation, creativity, collaboration and quick thinking under pressure in coming up with an ingenious solution –  involving  the use of duct tape, plastic and cardboard – that allowed the flight crew to save their lives.

Despite the challenges, teachers are increasingly incorporating effective discussions, tasks and activities that support improvement in their students’ learning beyond tests and memorization. They are ensuring professional judgment in their assessments of student competencies based on rigorous criteria, rubrics, and performance standards, and they are developing a range of tools to share their students’ learnings with both students and parents.

As session facilitator and guest educator Meggan Crawford noted, the discussion taking place at New Westminster Schools is part of a culture shift across the province that will  unfold over time, particularly as the redesigned curriculum is only due to be fully implemented for grades 11 and 12 in 2019-2020.

“We need to be open to new options for assessment,” she said. “It can be more meaningful than it already is.”

Isabella Lam, Vice-Principal at Queen Elizabeth elementary school, guided discussion on the role of student self-reflection that can empower students in their own learning, even in the earliest grades…

A Profound Impact…

For teachers in a session on ‘Fixes for Broken Grades,’ the memories of their own experiences in school were profound.  One middle school teacher never forgot how students with natural athletic ability got high marks in physical education classes, while she was graded poorly – unrecognized for her commitment, enthusiasm or devotion to her team.

“By the time I was playing field hockey at the University of British Columbia and we won a gold medal in the provincial junior varsity championships, I realized ‘I am an athlete,'” she said. “It’s something I’d never forgotten.”

Now she ensures her students have the  flexibility to demonstrate their own learning. “I give kids choice – and I recognize effort.”

Superintendent Karim Hachlaf also shared his own memory of a teacher who returned one of his literature essays peppered with comments – but no mark. He thought she’d made a mistake.  Instead, she invited him to resubmit the paper, which he did – several times.  The experience took Hachlaf beyond a focus on grades to a focus on learning. His writing improved.

Yet another teacher has never forgotten the unconventional approach of his photography teacher. As a student, he never went to class, never did assignments and instead, spent all of his time in the darkroom producing thousands of photographs.  He got a good mark – and his love of photography continues in adulthood.

The experience of marks for students can be intimidating: they  can affect self-esteem, minimize learning and create winners and losers where success or failure is used as a motivator,  rather than thoughtful feedback to help improve learning.

In BC, a changing curriculum is leading to a change in assessment practices. Pilot projects are underway across the province, and teachers are working with the new curriculum and competencies in ways that can shed light on good practice.

As New Westminster Schools’ Board of Education Chair Mark Gifford noted in seeing so many educators and staff involved in sharing their professional learning with each other:  “It’s inspiring to see the energy and enthusiasm of everyone involved,” he said.

The planning committee members for this year’s Professional Development Day were Darren Elves, Jen Richter, Tu Loan Trieu, John Lekakis, Isabella Lam and Maureen McRae-Stanger. 


See related:  A Framework for Classroom Assessment