How Do We Change A Cultural Fascination With Grades?

Over on Google+ I have conducted a short survey to further explore the challenges that educators face when attempting to implement assessment for learning strategies in schools. By which I mean a focus on the process of learning, improving student’s metacognition, sustained opportunities for reflection and a general effort to assess “for” learning not “of” learning.

With over 100 responses this short straw poll indicates that it is not the lack of time or issues around timetabling that make this process a challenge, but a cultural focus on levels and grades. 58% of those who responded felt that it was this single factor that was influenced assessment implementation within schools.

I was surprised that this proved so conclusive (even within such a small sample) – I was expecting the other more practical factors to play a part for educators such as timetabling, a lack of training or indeed a curriculum that does not flex to accommodate changes brought about by assessment for learning.

In fact the second highest response again is a reference to summative assessment – taken together nearly 75% of responses point the finger at the ongoing fascination with summative assessment, grades and levels.

But how do we alter such an entrenched view? When we think of our own schools, is there a lack of appetite for anything other than grades and levels?

I think that one thing that would begin to change this perception of what is important in the classroom would be a concerted effort to better understand assessment in total. This is especially important for parents and pupils so that they do not skew the value they place on end of year assessments or reports. Also the message that the school puts out about what is important and how this plays out day to day.

This is not so clear cut the older children get and the further they get into education – you could argue that as a student gets older the focus on their grades and levels becomes more intense. It becomes less about how they have learned something or what the journey was like, and more about the net result – the grade.

What do you think? There is no overnight fix, but what steps could teachers and schools take to shift the focus away from simply a grade or level? If this is such a clearly perceived barrier, how do we change it?

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Survey: What is the biggest challenge to implementing assessment for learning?

  1. Any grading system builds failure into the system. If you could avoid failure, why wouldn’t you? Assess students so they know where they are and help them move on from there. Let them learn at their own pace. Even if you barely pass, you really don’t understand the content. If we let each student work on some content until they master it, then they have learning that they are more likely to be able to use in the future. At the top end we have the problem of once you get an A you can stop learning along with constant pestering by students who just want to know what to do to get the grade. Grades are responsible in part for the idea that any body of knowledge must be crammed into semester or year-size bites. If you get to the end of the year and don’t squeak over the passing line, you get to start all over. Another evil aspect to grading is averaging. A student can get poor grades at the beginning, start to catch on, and by the end be a top performer. Where the student ends up, however, doesn’t matter as you can never get rid of a poor grade. With this logic alone you would think we could convince people to start the process of getting rid of grades. Read my summary of “Drive” by Daniel Pink which explains how extrinsic motivators like grades don’t work. http://bit.ly/jl7ara 

  2. “What do you think? There is no overnight fix, but what steps could teachers and schools take to shift the focus away from simply a grade or level? If this is such a clearly perceived barrier, how do we change it?”
    I think it is important to experiment with assessment practices that focus on feedback and celebration. At a high school where I coach literacy teachers, the teachers often worry a few weeks into a quarter that they don’t have enough grades in the grade book. So often the stress to monitor the work and learning of a large number of students sends them to a traditional grading structure for fear that doing anything else will look to an observer or authority that they aren’t keeping up. Also, these are the safe routines of teaching: Assign, grade, repeat. 

    When I have veered away from grading, it has always been with an experimental mindset and an inquiry question. How can I provide relevant, personalized feedback in an online environment? How can student self-assessment promote engagement and collaborative learning? When I put grades aside, how do I categorize the student work in my classroom? If I have a strong inquiry question, I have the confidence to monitor, observe and take notes on student performance that allows me to report to stakeholders in a way that doesn’t mesh with tradition but does demonstrate my commitment to teaching and learning. 

  3. Definitely those that have suggested a shift in thinking and better education of students and parents (at the very least – teachers) is essential. Other wise policies will never change and the demand for grades will be further entrenched.

  4. Hi Laura, some very interesting insights on your statement! Definitely the biggest challenge is regaining the focus on learning or understanding. I hope your strategies are inspiring some passionate and curious learners!

  5. I think the main reason for grades driving our education system is that colleges, at the top of the system, select top students based mostly on grades.  Many parents are fearful of adopting a different model because doing so may hurt their child’s chances of getting accepted to a prestigious college. 

  6. Hi folks, excuse the naivety but I’m relatively new to this
    assessment lark. I find this really interesting and agree that the value of
    continuous formative assessment well outweighs the benefit of teaching towards
    summative assessments and furthermore agree that children’s ability to self
    assess and evaluate own learning is the goal of any
    teacher.  However, we constantly hear
    about industry’s concern in the dumbing down of curriculum & exams and we
    measure citizen’s contribution mainly through lifelong learning and employment
    which are both generally only accessible to people with the correct school
    grades. How can we steer society away from this kind of currency?

  7. Perhaps the shift in focus will not come from the mainstream. A few years ago, I observed a three hour session that transformed my ideas on teaching. The program was designed for Aboriginal Students in a ‘tutorial centre,’ because they were suspended from class. The program was a series of circus skills. The leader demonstrated what Level 1 juggling looked like and invited students to try. After ten minutes he demonstrated Level 2 juggling skills, and some students moved on to take up that challenge. It was their choice to go to the level they wanted. By the end of the three hours there were 5 different activities going on at different levels. Students were invited to perform something simple for the group. The level of involvement and personal satisfaction I saw was amazing, a stark contrast to what I saw happening in the classrooms at Bourke high school. In this program there was no shame or failure, a concept I have taken away. The leader was a principal from Dubbo in far west NSW. I would like to know if the program continued if anyone knows more details. I possibly learnt more in that three hours than anyone else who was there, yet the leader wouldn’t know that a trainee teacher was carefully observing his every word.

  8. I would love to see some examples of schools which have bridged that gap. As a private school, our parents have a real financial interest in how their child is achieving, and therefore a very heavy reliance on grades.

  9. Absolutely.  Its the conversations that embed a  new culture.  Even tho schools may think they are trying to have those conversations, they aren’t articulating it in such a way that it gets through. Perhaps this is partly because educators aren’t sure about this themselves or they give up too soon. Too much time is taken up by the mundane-easier to talk about. I’m wondering how to start this revolution that is sustained over all of the din. 

  10. Let’s face it, grades make life easy! A one stop shop. 
    At my school we are mandated by the ‘Department’ to provide long winded reports that end up being presented in indecipherable edubabble. Meanwhile the private school down the road is swamped by parents willing to pay thousands of dollars to ‘just gimme A, B C or D’, (not E cause that would be a waste of money)!

  11. Let’s face it, grades make life easy! A one stop shop. 
    At my school we are mandated by the ‘Department’ to provide long winded reports that end up being presented in indecipherable edubabble. Meanwhile the private school down the road is swamped by parents willing to pay thousands of dollars to ‘just gimme A, B C or D’, (not E cause that would be a waste of money)!

  12. I agree with so much of what has been written here and start a new role in Sept with whole school responsibility for AFL and HW amongst other things.

    It’s a secondary school and i have some ideas of where i want to take things but – Which schools are good models for engaging with parents and students to shift the emphasis away from grades?

  13. Why do you think most parents are unwilling to engage with this conversation? Do you think it is to do with their own experiences of school and how grades/levels were perceived?

    I agree with you Gavin that the wider assessment agenda, culture of grading and general fascination with results dictates the direction some schools take. And yet early years and primary do, I believe, have the scope to move away from this.

    Sad to think of school and education policy being shaped by OFTSED and school league tables.

  14. Is testing part of the learning process? Really? We should wholeheartedly demote testing to an assessment backwater in my opinion. We can get a bit caught up here with the semantics involved here, but snapshot tests serve such a narrow focus. We should be putting our time and energy into providing students the space to reflect themselves, and the means with which to articulate what they are learning.

  15. Is testing part of the learning process? Really? We should wholeheartedly demote testing to an assessment backwater in my opinion. We can get a bit caught up here with the semantics involved here, but snapshot tests serve such a narrow focus. We should be putting our time and energy into providing students the space to reflect themselves, and the means with which to articulate what they are learning.

  16. I think two key contributors to the grading culture are within the realms of a school’s influence. Perhaps this doesn’t need to be so daunting a task. One key contributor is the school itself, hard questions have to be asked about what role school plays in these young people’s lives. What vision of learning do we have? What it is important to us? The school can have a huge influence on whether children talk and obsess about grades or not – it seems within our reach to influence this directly.

    The other is the home. The conversations that go on at home influence the perception of “what is important?” and “how will I be successful at school?”. Again I think the school can take steps to backup it’s own belief that there is more to learning that simply grades. By articulating this vision and helping parents to better understand the shift in perceived value, it may help to influence this unhealthy viewpoint.

  17. Thanks for your reaction and response to this – the language that teachers use with students is a crucial element to all of this. You are right the terms “formative” and “summative” tend to get in the way, more often than not, of teachers fully appreciating the issue.

  18. Assessment looks very different the older children get and yes, as always, there is much we can learn from practice in EYFS. What do you think we could do to work with older students? What practical steps can you take in the face of such a fierce focus upon examination results?

  19. I agree. The perception or purpose of testing has to change. The more teachers test not for grades, but for learning and understanding, the more we start to change the culture of testing. Once students realize that not all tests are graded, they will come to see that testing is part of the learning process.

  20. I”m not surprised about your results.  It does certainly make the idea of how we go about changing something that is so deeply entrenched a bit daunting.  I would suggest that at a very young age, there is an understanding from the student of grades (tho they might not verbalize it)- that this is something that someone else does to you.  It goes all the way up through university. There is a dynamic movement to use only descriptive comments (formative) as assessment until the end of year/term. The more we talk about this area, the more evidence we will have towards the changeover.  

  21. Tom, I was really struck by the results of your survey, too, which I saw over at Google+ and I ended up doing something that fits in with your suggestion here –  “I think that one thing that would begin to change this perception of
    what is important in the classroom would be a concerted effort to better
    understand assessment in total” – I decided to write up a grading philosophy to share with my students, and I decided to use the terms “formative” and “summative” in the statement, hoping perhaps to educate my students (some of whom may be future teachers, after all) about the meaning of those terms. They are not my favorite terms precisely because their meaning is so un-obvious from the labels (and the spellchecker insists that “summative” is not a word, ha ha) – anyway, I do think all of us who cope with the imperative to grade by using an alternative to summative grading should take every opportunity to explain what we are doing and why. I think you are right that this is a cultural problem – many people simple equate testing and grading and don’t realize that there are, and must be, alternatives. Here is the statement I wrote up to share with my students: http://onlinecourselady.pbworks.com/learning

  22. There will never be a shift away from grades as long as school league tables exist and OFSTED place such importance on grades. The use of data – based on grades is institutionalised (in secondary schools at least). These have become the driving force in many schools for everything that occurs in the classroom. I agree that greater efforts should be made to help parents understand assessment more but not all parents are willing or able to get to grips with it.

    The obsession with grades and levels is damaging – it hinders learning, undermines teaching and encourages spoon-feeding of pupils where teaching can be debased to merely an exercise in getting students to jump through hoops and tick boxes. On an individual level though, teachers have little scope to move away from this if they are following departmental policy, which in turn follows school policy which itself is shaped by the demands of OFSTED and the school league tables.

  23. I think you may have put your finger on the key issue of your question; it is the older pupils who have the greatest emphasis on success in terms of levels, grades and attaining their “target”. Perhaps, the is a glorious inverse
    opportunity here to approach this top down?

    We have EYFS doing amazing things with REAL learning opportunities, fun opportunities which “catch them learning”. Brave school leaders try and take this thinking into Key Stage 1 and 2 and extend the deep learning journey through all kinds of learning experiences.

    So, perhaps for cultural shift on grades, we could start with A-Level focus, or GCSE attainment instead. Take these pupils and investigate how they REALLY learn, shift towards personalising their learning journey through their passions and interests, with the formative assessment agreed alongside the process, rather than strangling it. If we get the older pupils to enjoy walking through the gates, it could even ripple-effect into the social structure which we see shattering around the country at the moment.

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