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Are Grades a Dying Breed of Student Assessment?

Friday, August 30, 2013

by Andy Chandler Grevatt, Learning 2030 Contributor

Image © Jeff Pioquinto, SJ  

“Weighing the cow doesn’t make it fatter.” 
–various origins

It’s typical for the high school students of today to experience regular testing. Sometimes as often as a one hour test in every six hours of teaching. 

Additionally, there may even be a ‘revision lesson’ in preparation for the test. This equates to about 20% of learning time used for revision and testing. 

Now add this into the mix: in England, the country where I work, from the moment that pupils start high school, they are being prepared to pass the terminal exams five years later. 

The government compares schools based on how many C grades or above the pupils achieve on these exams. The response from the school is to focus on “intervention;” getting pupils from a D grade to a C grade at the expense of those on the border of other grades. 

Employers now see a C grade as a “pass,” but with little knowledge or understanding of what a student with a C grade knows, understands or can do. 

In fact, many teachers don’t really know what any particular grade means beyond the fact that the pupil can answer more exam questions correctly. 

Image © audiolucistore


What’s really in a grade?

As a teacher, I have been part of that treadmill. In reality I know that, despite the constraints of policy, teachers have much nobler ambitions for their pupils’ education.

However, when push comes to shove, as a teacher, you are judged by the grades that your students achieve in terminal examinations. 

You are under pressure from your students and their parents, and pushed by your bosses to ensure those students achieve the best grade possible.

Beyond the almighty “A” 

Becoming a researcher has allowed me to take a step back from all this to consider alternative models for assessment.

I have seen excellent use of models of progression in science education to assess students. But, I have also seen poor practice where pupils are just drilled for exams; taught what is on the upcoming test and nothing more. 

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” – Albert Einstein

So what do I think would be a better system of assessment:

Based on reading and research, my current thinking is that:

  • A school’s assessment framework should focus on a range of quality and skills that represent the values and aims of the whole school. Then it can be applied to individual subjects.
  • Assessment should be part of everyday classroom practice.
  • Both teacher and pupil need understand what successful outcomes look like.
  • All assessments should be student-focussed. Effective feedback is essential to pupils’ progression and both teachers and pupils need to develop a common language to give and respond. Any assessment activity must focus on improving what a pupil knows, understands or can do.
  • Teachers have to be assessment-literate. They need to understand the purposes of assessment and to have a model that suits their subject.
  • Grades should not feature as part of the education in the school, instead reports should be based on what pupils know, understand and can do, along with clear targets for progression.
  • Assessments should focus on authentic activities that can be assessed against clear outcomes. 
  • Students should keep portfolios that demonstrate their developing knowledge, understanding and skills for each subject. These should form the basis of assessment and feedback.
  • If examinations for qualifications must still exist, the students should have only a short preparation time. If the school curriculum and assessment framework have been well designed, students will already have the deep knowledge, understanding and skills required.

Having said all this, assessment models will still have constraints. The cultural expectations of parents, teachers and pupils, the examination and qualification systems of the country, the values of the school, are just some examples.

Could the schools of 2030 really be test and examination free?

Andy Chandler-Grevatt is a Teaching Fellow in Education at the University of Sussex. He has written or co-written more than 25 books and curriculum guides to help science teachers in the UK assess their students' deeper understanding of their subjects.