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Do Grades Matter?

Report cards are an integral part of the education system. Over the years, reporting practices in many provinces and states have changed as schools make revisions to the curriculum and student evaluations evolve. In many school districts in British Columbia, Canada, for example, letter grades and percentages which are usually reported in grades 4-9 have now been replaced with more holistic scales and written comments.

This leaves parents scratching their heads.

“How do I know how my child is doing if I don’t see a grade?”

“What does ‘applying’ really mean?”

“Does this mean that my child got an A?”

Because most of us were educated using the more traditional approaches to grading, many parents find the changing format vague. Does this form of reporting help students perform better in school? Are we heading into the right direction with this change? The answer is yes!

In this blog, I will explain how a more holistic approach to evaluation and reporting builds the growth mindset and benefits your child to be successful learners.

I’ll also share what we can do as parents to support and encourage our children to be successful learners.

student with test paper

Types of assessments

Teachers generally use two types of assessments to evaluate students: formative assessments and summative assessments.

Formative assessments are done when teachers collect information that can be used to improve instruction and student learning while the learning is taking place.

Examples of formative assessments include:

  • weekly check-ins

  • observations

  • giving feedback

  • discussions

  • self-assessments and surveys

These formal and informal checks of understanding ensure students are on track with the intended learning objectives. There are no grades or scores attached to formative assessments, or at least there shouldn’t be.

Summative assessments are used to evaluate a student’s learning and achievement at the end of their learning. This could take place at the end of a chapter, unit, or semester.

Examples of summative assessment include:

  • quizzes and tests

  • written reports

  • individual and group projects

  • presentations

There is usually a level, percentage, or grade that is attached to summative assessments.

Both forms have value in determining whether students meet learning objectives; however, parents tend to focus more on the summative evaluations because that is what our child usually brings home to show us. In the early years, your child brings home artwork to share, but when teachers start doing more summative assessments, we start to see test papers coming home for us to sign. We receive the stapled rubric grading sheet that’s attached to their projects, and we anticipate for their end of term report cards. So it’s no wonder we only tend to think about marks. But we also need to be equally engaged with hearing about the process that leads up to those results. The more holistic form of reporting helps us do this.

school classroom

Focusing on progress, not results

Many report cards now place more emphasis on explaining the qualitative progress of your child rather than just strictly on a grade or a finite number. Now referred to as “progress reports”, this type of summary gives us a better insight to our child’s learning and development. This holistic approach offers more opportunities for parents and students to discuss the ongoing efforts and changes that take place while our child learns in the classroom.

All about the growth mindset

Reporting through a competency scale and delaying percentages and grades help a child foster the growth mindset. Coined by Carol Dweck, a psychologist and Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, she affirms that when people have a growth mindset, they believe that their abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work, and it is this love of learning that is the key to becoming a successful student. This mindset plays an influential role on one’s learning achievements, as well as their professional and personal life. To learn more, see growth mindset.

When formative assessments become the forefront, it helps pave the way for students to highlight the learning process rather than on the grades. Seeing the continuum of learning encourages students to nurture the growth mindset and view their learning as “unfixed”. It drives students to take responsibility and create change to better their learning. To learn how parents can encourage their child to foster a growth mindset, see building a growth mindset.

Continuous learning

Discoveries in science have indicated that the human brain “grows'' as we learn, and through time and practice, the neural connections in the brain change, restructure, and bind themselves when people learn new skills and acquire new knowledge and experiences. Learning new information produces cell growth in the hippocampus and strengthens the connection of cells in surrounding areas of the cerebral cortex. Often referred to as neuroplasticity, this is why continuous learning is so important. When teachers report on the students’ progress, it encourages this drive for continuous learning. And it is this drive to learn continuously that fosters the growth mindset. See training your brain.

Senior Associate Dean, Higher Education Administration Mark F. Hobson from Southern New Hampshire who is passionate about educational neuroscience and brain-targeted teaching, sums it up well when he says that “a growth mindset drives a higher desire to learn and achieve; the more we learn, the more our brains want to learn. The better we perform in learning, the more we believe in our abilities to learn and succeed.”

children doing project together

Grades and percentages come later

I am not saying that grades should be eliminated. When students enter their senior years of high school, grades play an important part. Depending on your child’s plans after high school, their marks and grades do play a factor.

But grades and percentages shouldn’t be so heavily focused when students are in elementary school, nor should it burden them and create unnecessary pressure in their early years of high school.

What we should be doing during those pre-teen years is to help them focus on the process of learning and create a growth mindset to become confident, motivated learners who learn to create their own game plan for growth.

This way of reporting and communicating student learning encourages learners to make changes and work on building progress, so by the time they reach the years when grades do come into play, they will be fully prepared and ready to set goals to do well. There will be less anxiety and stress when it comes to the time when summative assessment is weighed more heavily. When they have the growth mindset and know how to effectively learn and value knowledge, success in school follows and the grades and test scores will automatically reflect these successes.

family sitting together and talking

Our role as parents

As parents, we need to understand how this shift will ultimately reach exponential gains in our child’s future. As parents, we want to create lifelong learning where our child will continuously be inspired to do more, know more, ask more questions, and be creative to dive deeper into what they are passionate about.

To support and encourage our child to be successful learners, we can do the following:

  • Place less focus on test scores and final marks.

  • Celebrate the progress.

  • Be more involved with what your child is learning throughout the year, not just when they receive their progress reports.

  • Ask your child how they are doing. Have weekly updates and ask them to “teach you” what they are learning. (Make sure you have established effective communication with your child first. See how to do that here.)

  • Focus more on long term and continuous learning where we encourage our child to form positive learning habits and goals.

  • Connect and communicate with the teacher to support your child’s learning.

We want our children to be “continuously learning and loving the process” whether that’s learning at school now, or with their careers and personal lives in their future.

As a parent, it took me time to adjust to the changes of the school reporting system in my district, but I see the benefit to this change. It is a good sign that our elementary school progress reports are now more thorough with words replacing letter grades and percentages. Even if your school implements grades and percentages in the reports, I encourage you to zoom out and consider your child’s learning as a whole and take in the written feedback from the teachers. Look at their portfolios and see how their learning progresses. When talking to your child about their reports, use the teacher’s comments as the lead-ins for discussions. Avoid letting the grades drive your first reactions.

In the long run, it is the will to learn, grow, and improve that is most important and that is what truly matters when our children venture out as adults. In the long run, grades don’t really matter in elementary school. What really matters in elementary school is for parents, students, and teachers to work together to ensure that our children, no matter what their ability and level, love learning and create paths for growth.

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