Should Numerical Grades on Report Cards be Replaced by Descriptive Grades?

Calgary Municipal Election

There is a pilot project in Calgary public schools to replace numerical grades (grades as a percentage) with descriptive grades (such as "evident" and "emerging").  The suggested change would also eliminate teacher comments from report cards.

This article will discuss the benefits and consequences of each system to help determine what is best for students and the school community.


Numerical Grades Should Be Kept

Descriptive Grades Should Be Used

Grade Interpretation

It is easy to understand the meaning of numerical grades.  Parents may  not be able to understand with the same clarity what the new grading system means for their child.

Descriptive grades, like letter grades, are a translation of a numerical grade.  It would be better to report to students and parents the raw information rather than a vague description.

Grade Interpretation

The descriptive grades of "exemplary", "evident", "emerging", and "support required" divide students into four easy to understand categories.  Parents will quickly learn the new system, because it is simpler than the existing system.

Numerical grades are harder to understand because they come without context.  A student can get 75% on a "hard" test and be the best student in class, or get 75% on an "easy" test and be struggling.  Students are not expected to receive 100%, and therefore numerical grades create unrealistic expectation and interpretation.

Student Reponses to Grades

The new descriptive grades will not stop students from responding to reports with anxiety or from judging each other.  Students will adjust to the new system faster than adults and there will be negligible results in terms of student attitude.

The existing system encourages students to work hard for every percentage of success that they can achieve.  The granularity is helpful because it add meaning to every little success.  The new system will effectively discourage students from caring about little changes in their grade so long as they are in a particular descriptive category.

Student Responses to Grades

Numerical grades lead to anxiety among students.  Students compete and judge each other over very small differences in grades.  By moving away from a granular level, descriptive reports creates a more even playing field.

The new descriptive words have been selected to provide specific messages to students.  When a student receives a "fail" grade, they often find it demotivating which leads to a reduction in effort rather than an increase.  The "support required" descriptor is designed to encourage the student to work harder.

Teacher Comments on Report Cards

Teachers need to have the right to add comments on report cards.  This is an important method of communication between teachers and parents, and it allows teachers to treat students like individuals.  Students are individuals who deserve to have individualized comments; there is no other possible method to respond to the diversity of learning challenges and opportunities.

Teacher Comments on Report Cards

The new system makes teacher comments unnecessary because it will create a clearer outline of the student level.


Making the new descriptive results more akin to letter grades with clearly defined percentage ranges would allow grades to be concrete but still have the message contained in the new descriptions.

Changing to the new descriptive system but still allowing teachers to embellish report cards would allow the new system to be implemented without restricting communication options.


Descriptive or Numerical Report Cards

What kind of report cards should Calgary students receive?



Numerical Report Cards


Descriptive Report Cards


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  1. Metro News: Report Card Critics Common on Calgary Board of education Campaign Trail
  2. Huffington Post: Calgary Report Cards Drop Letter Grades, Eliminate Teacher Comments
  3. Globe and Mail: Report Cards Without Grades Coming to Calgary: A Mistake?


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