Response by Ken O’Connor to the Toronto Star article on Ontario Grading Guidelines

Original articles here

and Ken’s response

I would like to respond to the article titled “Ontario’s grading guidelines get a big zero’ (Star, August 22nd) by saying that while Joe Killoran may be well-intentioned he is mostly wrong.

He states that the rationale for determining grades only on achievement of academic expectations and reporting learning skills separately is that “it is more important for students to think critically and understand the subject matter.” It is not a matter of relative importance – the rationale for separating achievement from learning skills is that when you mix them together you know nothing about either as grades become an uncertain mix of achievement and behaviour. For far too long before this policy change thirteen years ago some students received inflated grades because of their excellent behavior and relatively poor achievement while other students received deflated grades because of their high achievement and less satisfactory behavior. I cannot help wondering if Mr. Killoran would like to fly with a pilot who got high grades in pilot school because he tried hard but had poor ability to fly the plane!

Mr. Killoran is also wrong when he talks about “rewarding” behaviours by including them in grades. I agree that the behaviours he lists are very important but grades are not rewards; they are or should be accurate summaries that provide useful information for students, parents and teachers. The Ontario school system does “grade learning skills as well as knowledge of course content” and it is by separating achievement and learning skills that the importance of the learning skills is highlighted. The Ontario Ministry of Education made this importance even stronger when the learning skills were moved alongside the grade for achievement for each subject in the most recent version of the high school report card. In the first version of the report card used from 1999 till 2011 (approximately) the learning skills were on the right hand side of the report card separated from the achievement grade, a placement which some saw as indicating lower importance.

There are many reasons why it is inappropriate to use zeros, the main one being that when a student is given a zero they are effectively being told that they do not need to do the assignment. This is the opposite of accountability; the way to make students accountable is to say ‘until you provide this critical piece of evidence of your academic achievement your grade is “I” for incomplete.’  This is an accurate communication and puts the responsibility clearly where it should be – on the student. If Mr. Killoran does not hand his grades in on time the Principal does not say you don’t have to submit them, he is told his work is incomplete and to get them in promptly. This is what a grade of incomplete also accomplishes for students.

The final issue that Mr. Killoran addresses is the “most-recent, most consistent” approach to grading. He says that this “bears no relation to how students are graded in university or how they are evaluated in the work-place” and again he is wrong.  Learning is a cumulative and developmental process and what evaluators of students and workers want is continuous improvement. This requires ongoing effort and learning but what is emphasized when it is time to make an evaluation is the more recent achievement. For example, it makes no sense to include in the end-of-year evaluation of a student’s reading and writing skills how they were performing in September because with good teaching – and good learning – most students are at a completely different level of achievement at the end of the year.

Mr. Killoran’s “approach to grading is well-intentioned but it does students no favours. Skills like meeting deadlines, showing up on time, and working hard (do) matter in the real world.” It is made clear that they matter in the school system by separating achievement from learning skills and reporting on each, and that is exactly what the Ontario Ministry of Education’s policy requires and the Ontario report cards provide.


Ken O’Connor, an edu-babbler with 23 years classroom experience and ten years as a Board Curriculum Coordinator.

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