Mark Musings

Last night, I had a great Twitter conversation with two instructional coaches, Stephanie and Bill, two classroom teachers, Jo-Ann and Brian, and one principal, Chris. There were many components of this discussion, but maybe the biggest one, was the concept of report cards and marks.

  • I believe in the use of descriptive feedback.
  • I think students should learn how to self-assess their work, set goals, and work on meeting these goals.
  • I don’t think that all assessment should be in the hands of the teacher. Students, of all ages, need to be involved in assessment.
  • I think there should be opportunities to reflect, make changes, and try again. This is learning.
  • I don’t think that we should focus on marks. Growing Success emphasizes the importance of “assessment for learning,” and I believe in the value of this formative assessment.
  • Not only do I believe in all of these things, but I practice them too: in my Grade 1 class now, and last year, in Grade 5.

With a move towards more inquiry in the classroom — as highlighted by the new Ontario Social Studies History and Geography Document — a focus on descriptive feedback instead of marks, makes sense. I know that I’m not the only one that was part of this Twitter conversation that believes in and practices this focus on descriptive feedback instead of marks.

The problem is though, we have report cards. On the Grade 1-8 report cards, we have to give students a mark. I know that we can determine these marks in multiple ways.

  • We can do so with the students.
  • We can do so based on observations and conferences.
  • We can do so based on tests, assignments, and an assortment of rubrics.
  • And we can probably do so in a combination of other ways.

Here’s my problem though: we’re still giving a mark. 

  • We can tell students that the comments matter.
  • For the rest of the year, we can just give students descriptive feedback.
  • For the rest of the year, we can have students self-assess and set goals without giving marks.

But on these report cards, the students see the marks. On these report cards, the parents see the marks. And all of a sudden, this focus on strengths, weaknesses, goal-setting, and the true love of learning is replaced with a letter grade or a percent. 

  • But does this mark show the growth from where the child started to where he/she is now?
  • Does this mark encourage future learning or does it stop it?
  • Just how important is this mark?

I’d like to think that with teacher encouragement, parents and students can continue to see beyond this mark, but I’m not so sure.

  • I know that post-secondary schools accept students based on marks, but with some post-secondary programs that focus more on inquiry, is it time for a change?
  • And if college and university acceptance is still going to be mark based, do students really need marks before Grade 9?
  • How does giving a mark prepare students for learning?
  • What value do these marks hold in elementary school?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic as I continue my mark musings!


14 thoughts on “Mark Musings

  1. Anne Davies has provided our Middle School with PD on Assessment for Learning. As a staff we have thoroughly discussed, planned, and are now navigating away from marks. We use 6 learning skills modified from Growing Success for non-academic and “KICA” for academic indicators in each subject. We’ve gone to a 5-point scale for all indicators and more descriptive feedback in the comment section. No marks.

    • This sounds amazing, John! So does this mean that there are no marks on report cards? What feedback have you received on this from parents and students? How do teachers feel about this? Is there any indication that this might be moving down in the grades (i.e., 1-6)? I’d love to learn more.


      • No marks on report cards grade 5-8. We may still provide a final grade in June for this year. Haven’t heard negative feedback from parents. In Junior School and Montessori there are no grades. One course in senior only provides a final grade. Other Senior subjects still grading on each report. Some students want grades, others are happier without. All students co-construct criteria and we do a lot of peer/self assessment and goal setting. Students use feedback more than ever before. It is amazing! We’re also developing process for conferencing instead of classic parent/teacher interviews. Students must attend interviews. All teachers support it.

    • John, thank you so much for answering my questions! It sounds like students are really receiving a rich learning, and it’s great to hear that everyone is on-board and there’s been no negative feedback from parents. I completely agree with you that inquiry lends itself to feedback instead of marks, and I love that your school is going in that direction — in both daily work and report cards. How do we get more schools doing so? I happen to think it’s time. I’d be curious to hear what others think.


  2. Hi Aviva:

    Your posts are evidence that we could be in a time of massive paradigm shifts in education. The way we teach, evaluate and correspond with all stake holders in education has to change. The advances in technology and the way children use it is definitely having an increasing impact on the appearance of our classroom and the way we teach. I recently heard Amanda Lang, a business correspondent on CBC televison say that the way we educate in Canada needs to be redone throughout the country. Right now, I think this change is occuring like a snowball gathering momentum. With every voice (such as yours), the snowball is increasing in size.
    Your suggested changes to report card writing make sense. Elementary teachers already are looking at that high school report card with envy. Minimal comments with a mark and that’s it? Most elementary teachers are required to write a fair bit for each reporting period. I remember when the progress report came in and teachers were looking forward to a simpler form of reporting for so early in the year. When they saw what the actual progress report card they were shocked at how similar to the report card it was. Lots of writing!
    If we revamped the report card, I think it should not be as labour intenstive as the ones we are currently using. I actually think the most important feedback for parents occurs at the interviews. Even though only one interview is mandated there should be at least two mandated interviews throughout the year. Of course, every teacher has the choice to keep their parents informed through a variety of channels without the interviews. Here’s where technology is changing the way we keep our parents “in the loop.” I have found that keeping parents up to date on the learning of their child throughout the year and especially when sharing their self-evaluations has been invaluable to the student, teacher and parent.
    Using your approach, Aviva is an excellent one. It involves educating students, parents and teachers on a different philosophy of reporting. It avoids nother problem I have with using marks.. A “B” for one teachers in to necesarily a “B” for another teacher. Even with self-monitoring this continues throughout the system. I have also heard of teachers who purposely mark students lower on the progress report card to show growth as the year progresses. I think if we eliminated marks altogether, we would at least be more focussed on important learning skils when evaluating and reporting to others about the successes of our students.

    • I really like this idea. I still struggle with applying a mark to my students’ rich inquiries and the deep learning that I KNOW has taken place. As well all know, one component of an inquiry cycle is “sharing”. While this can take a variety of different forms, I would love to see some key phrases such as “As seen through his/her performance task, Child has demonstrated (early/developing/appropriate/proficient) skills in….(collaboration, communication, problem solving, etc…. Maybe these might even be the learning skill comment John Hannah mentions) and has demonstrated (early/developing/appropriate/proficient) understanding of…. (Content expectations)”. Hand in hand to this though, I think the onus needs to be on collective assessments, which is more real life. No longer should it be just the teacher’s determination, but these comments need to be derived from self- assessment, peer assessments and community assessments. I think this is more “real life” and the feedback from these assessments becomes more meaningful than any “final document” or report card. Also, I Still believe that there should be fewer specific expectations (or a provincial rethinking of them to consider them as “guiding suggestions”) to give teachers the freedom to meet student needs and interests without having to always rework them to fit the teacher’s need to address all the curriculum expectations.

      • Katrina, I agree with you! I really like this as well, and I do like your suggestions. I wonder though about specific expectations. Do we really need to meet all of them, or if we address the overall expectations, will we end up meeting the specific ones anyway?


    • Thanks for the comment, Herman! I think that you make a really important point here. Sometimes I think that we spend more time deciding on marks than we do at really describing how the students are doing and offering some meaningful next steps. We also need students to be involved in the “assessment” process, and this can be done through opportunities for self-assessment.

      Interviews are really important, but not just at report card times, but all the time. You’re right about how technology can help keep parents informed, but I think that it’s also important that they converse with us on “education topics.” Blogs allow for this to happen (through the comments). Emails or phone conversations also work well for this. Getting students to talk to their parents about learning at school is also wonderful, and guiding questions provided by the teacher can help with this. Aaron Puley, a consultant for our Board, is fantastic at suggesting these different ways of engaging parents — and not just informing them!

      Thanks for continuing this important conversation!

      • Independent – but still lots of staff discussion following strong movement to inquiry and cross-curricular planning AND student-centered learning change supported by admin. Started collecting anecdotal evidence to validate “products” with conversations and observations.

          • Thanks John and Katrina! Katrina, I totally agree with you. It sounds amazing and would be a wonderful change for a public Board. Do you think that it’s that much more complicated though because we’re not independent? I wonder if this change needs to take place at a Ministry level, and if this is where we’re moving. What do people think?


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