VICTORIA — When the New Democrats scrapped letter grades for much of the K-12 school system recently, they embraced a reform they had vigorously rejected during their time in government in the 1990s.
On taking office in 1991, NDP Premier Mike Harcourt inherited the previous Social Credit government’s decision to replace letter grades with what was then called “anecdotal reporting.”
The change was part of The Year 2000, a broader reform prompted by a Royal Commission that spoke of “nurturing the positive self-esteem of all learners” and “empowering the child.”
“Challenge is the one word that is not used in the program,” it declared. “The call to excellence should come from the self, not from outside.”
Harcourt’s first education minister, Anita Hagen, a school teacher from New Westminster, went along with the shift and defended the Year 2000 plan for the NDP’s 1½ year in government.
But when opinion polls identified a growing backlash against the education reforms in general and anecdotal reporting in particular, Harcourt announced “the report card is in on the Year 2000 and it has failed.”
“We will no longer shy away from telling parents when their child is not meeting standards,” said the premier.
He dumped Hagen from the cabinet and replaced her with Art Charbonneau, a no-nonsense engineer from Kamloops.
Charbonneau soon replaced anecdotal reporting with the familiar letter grades: A, B, C+, etc.
“Numerous philosophers on the education side go on about a lot of things that from my point of view are, broadly speaking, on the touchy-feely side,” he told the legislature. “Anybody who knows me knows that I am not exactly on that side of things. I believe quite firmly that the education system should be designed to build self-esteem through accomplishment.
“Praise has a very valuable place when it follows achievement, but I do not believe that children will go out and succeed in the world simply because they have been praised. … That will not get them anywhere.”
Carbonneau’s tough talk sparked a backlash from “progressives” in the academic community and even from some New Democrats. He was called a reactionary and worse.
Though Charbonneau retired from politics at the next election, his restoration of letter grades, implemented with the 1994 school year, has mostly remained in place.
“Student reporting has not changed substantively since 1994,” as the current NDP-led education ministry acknowledged earlier this year in announcing that letters were on the way out for all except Grades 10 to 12.
Once again, the NDP was proceeding with a change initiated under the previous government – this time it was the B.C. Liberals.
Once again, there was a backlash, apparent in a survey the Education Ministry commissioned in the fall of 2021.
Some 4,500 people responded to the ministry’s questionnaire on the plan to replace letter grades with proficiency ratings.
“Overall, 69 per cent of people reported being dissatisfied with the policy,” Ashley Joannou of The Canadian Press reported recently. “Only 13 per cent were satisfied, with the dissatisfaction rate highest among teachers at 77 per cent, followed by students at 68 per cent.”
Among parents and caregivers responding to the survey, 55 per cent were dissatisfied. Only school administrators endorsed the shift to proficiency ratings by 60 per cent.
Apparently, that was enough of a vote of confidence to persuade the current NDP government to stay the course.
In June, Education Minister Rachna Singh announced that the proficiency scale will replace letter grading “on student report cards from kindergarten to Grade 9.”
The Education Ministry says it discounted the results of the survey cited above because it was based on an early draft of the policy that has since been revised.
Moreover, “many of the people opposed to the proficiency scale had no direct experience with it” because they were not from one of the districts already experimenting with the scale.
“Feedback from the surveys of pilot districts and from provincial stakeholder organizations (for example, the teachers’ union) with greater familiarity and understanding of the proficiency scale were more supportive of the use of the scale,” the ministry said in a statement this week.
“The ministry will continue to engage and make improvements now that all school districts are adopting the new policy. Ensuring students are supported to succeed is a top priority for the province.”
For the school year starting in September, the New Democrats have ordered that students in Grade 9 and below will henceforth be rated as “emerging, developing, proficient or extending.”
Emerging means “the student demonstrates an initial understanding of the concepts and competencies relevant to the expected learning.” Developing means the student “demonstrates a partial understanding,” while proficient means the student has a “complete understanding” and extending means the student has “a sophisticated understanding.”
If that seems vague, confusing or otherwise unsatisfactory, it puts you in the company of the New Democrats who restored letter grading 30 years ago as well as most of the teachers, students, and parents who responded to the survey by the current government.
But best keep your opinions to yourself. Today’s New Democrats and their Education Ministry know better.
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