Grades are so much a part of the educational landscape that it’s hard to imagine what schools would be like without them. In the debate over whether or not we should retain exams this year, no one is suggesting we should do away with 1-9 GCSE grades. But what if we did?
Clearly, this is unlikely to happen anytime soon, but maybe it’s worth conducting something of a thought experiment. In 10 Things Schools Get Wrong, Jared Cooney Horvath and David Botts, propose that grades are one of the things schools are currently getting wrong. They make the point that grades are a tool and that “embedded within each tool is a world view.” (p 39) The routine use of a tool changes us; when society incorporates a tool, society is changed.
Because grading is simply a tool, we learn little by asking questions like ‘Will students learn better if we employ more nuanced grades?’ or ‘How can we organize assessment in a way that will improve student outcomes?’ The more instructive question to ask is ‘What world view do grades espouse?’ In other words, what does the tool of grading itself suggest about the world, how it functions, and how it should be approached? (p 40)
The answer, according to Horvath and Botts, is that grades alter reality by forcing us to reify, quantify and rank. To reify is to turn an abstract concept into something more concrete. This happens a lot in education. For instance, ‘learning’ is an abstraction. Although we all think we know what it is, we can’t perceive it with our senses. When we say, “I could see lots of learning in that class,” we have reified learning in order that we can speak about it as if it’s a thing, but – regardless of how we use language – it remains an imperceptible abstraction. Then, once we’ve reified something we can quantify it. It’s a short step from the claim you can ‘see learning’ to believing that you can see how well students are learning. In the past this has led to inspectors judging learning on a four-point scale. And, as most teachers have experienced, once a thing can be quantified, it can be ranked. If you can ‘see’ that teacher’s students are learning more or better than this teacher’s students then we can rank teachers as better and worse. In turn this invites us to ask questions like, who is the best teacher? The point, of course, is that this is a nonsense. Learning remains an abstraction and all you ever see are proxies.
This is exactly what happens with grades. Examination boards attempt to precisely reify the abstraction of academic performance within subject domains; they produce examinations which quantify students’ performance and then each individual student’s performance is ranked and they are awarded a grade. We know grades can have a toxic and distorting effect, which is precisely why Ofsted (and most schools) stopped grading teachers. However, we still appear to think that grading schools – and students – is a good idea.
Let’s think about what grading students does to the system. As teachers we tend to believe that the purpose of education is to make children happier, healthier, safer, more creative, better critical thinkers etc. In my book, Making Kids Cleverer I argued that all these aims might best be achieved by making children more knowledgeable, others would disagree and suggest that a better way is to reify and quantify twenty-first century skills and then rank children accordingly. However, Horvath and Botts make the point that when those who don’t work in education are asked what they see the purpose of education as being they see that, “The only plausible argument is to ensure universities and businesses can easily sift through candidates in order to identify those best suited for various positions.” (p 44)
This makes sense, after all, why else would we grade students?
By this point you may be feeling a little uncomfortable. Few people become teachers to squeeze the highest possible grade out of children – we tend to become teachers because we care about children’s intellectual development or want to pass on a passion for our subjects – but what is it we end up doing? Horvath and Botts suggest that the effect of all this on students is that “they are farming out their identity and becoming more dependent upon external validation: as the world says they are, so they must be. This is no better illustrated than in the proliferation of likes, pokes, favourites, thumbs ups, and stars driving an individual’s sense of self-worth and accomplishment. Where on earth might students have learned that external sources are best equipped to accurately determine value, ability, and self-worth?” (p 46) If we want students to be driven by more than an external sense of their self-worth, maybe we should reflect on the thought that what we do in education is a major part of the problem. How much of our day-to-day efforts are invested in increasing our students’ ranking?
The inescapable, grinding focus of raising students’ rank has a seriously warping effect on the school curriculum. We don’t just teach the syllabus, we drill students in test performance in order to ensure they get the best possible results. Inevitably, this means there’s far less time to think about meaning, less time to develop taste and judgement, less time to explore nad digress. In fact, less time to do all of things that probably drove you to become a teacher.
Essentially, grading is only beneficial for someone else. GCSE grades help post-16 providers sort students into academic or vocational pathways; A level grades are useful for universities; university classifications are (somewhat) useful to employers. But why should it be the job of schools to make it easier for universities to recruit the students they’d prefer to recruit? If they want to know who’d be most suitable for their course, can’t they organise their own grading system? For that matter, why should it be universities’ responsibility to provide gradings for employers? Again, if employers need grades to know who to employ they can organise their own system.
Whatever you think education is for, there’s seems scant evidence that grades are likely to help.
So, what are benefits of grades?
1. Parents like them.
As a parent I want to know how my children are getting on in school and the only way the information their teachers provide becomes meaningful is when I’m given some sense of their performance relative to that of others. One of the reasons schools report of students’ progress using GCSE grades is because parents have a sense of what they mean. Of course, the information these grades supply is, in part, illusory because schools are unable to grade accurately, but, in broad terms a child who is reported as achieving a grade 7 in maths is clearly doing a lot better than a children given a grade 3. We want to know our our children compare. But why?
On one level it might be narcissistic to externalise our own self-worth to the point that we’re using proxies of of our children’s academic performance to validate ourselves as parents, but there’s probably more a stake. Schools also reify, quantify and report students’ rank in effort. By comparing effort grades with attainment grades we have a sense of how hard our children are working. If they’re working hard but performing poorly we would, one hopes, intervene differently than if they’re not working hard. If they’re trying hard and doing well we can sit back, relieved that nothing more is expected.
Exam grades are a quick and easy way to hold schools to account. After all, if there were no grades, some schools, some teachers might slacken off and not bother teaching the parts of their subjects either they or their students found hard. How would we know which schools, which teachers were doing a good job? The first thing to say about this kind of blunt accountability measure is that it’s deeply unintelligent. In my new book, Intelligent Accountability, I explain how high stakes accountability systems inevitably produce perverse incentives. This makes it increasingly hard for everyone in the system to have scruples. But if we’re entirely honest, there’s huge pressure to scour examination reports for hints and tricks, pay examiners to provide training and replace a broad curriculum with one focussed on maximising test performance. I don’t think anyone – teachers, students or parents – really want this.
The question we should ask is, how could we hold schools and teachers to account more intelligently? At a systemic level this is hard to get right but the answer is to combine accountability with trust; to trust schools to do what they say they will do and them and then hold them to account for these things. I know, I know, easier said than done, but if grades produce so many net negatives we need more of a justification for retaining them than the fear that schools and teachers are so untrustworthy that there’s no other option. If we really are that untrustworthy is probably sensible to look at the systemic pressures that might be driving this.
3. What about assessment?
Getting rid of grades certainly doesn’t mean getting rid of assessment. Assessment is the life breath of teaching; without out it you’d be working entirely in the dark. It doesn’t even necessarily mean getting rid of summative, terminal assessment. If we go back to the process of reify – quantify – rank (comparative judgement is an interesting attempt to rank without reification) these things aren’t inherently bad. If we’re aware of the potential for harm we could, perhaps, mitigate the effects of grades by introducing a driving test style pass/fail certification in different subjects which allowed students to retake as many times as necessary. This could be used to demonstrate a basic level of competence which would signal to employers that an important threshold had been passed. We could also introduce a system like the one used in music grades, where students study for and take examinations in higher levels when and if they are ready to. So, if we really want to rank, we’re at least not making it an all or nothing one-shot attempt.
As I said at the outset, this is a thought experiment. I’m not sure what I think. Ultimately, if we do want to retain grades (beyond pass/fail) I think we need better justifications than those I’ve explored above. Perhaps this is all a bit utopian, but I certainly found Horvath and Botts’ arguments interesting and I’d encourage you to read their ideas yourself. Also, there are nine other potential mistakes to get your teeth into!