What’s important?

Below is a conversation that a mum shared in response to a blog post I was reading and It made me reflect on the topic of grades in the learning process.

Conversation between mother and son about grades:

Sam: Would it be fair to say that school ultimately is about the grades?
Mom: No! It’s about learning …
Sam: But then why do they send home report cards with our grades and not our learning, because taking a test doesn’t ultimately show how we learn or what we learned. I’m only asking cuz I got into a discussion with my physics teacher who … said that school is not about the grades, so I asked him why colleges look at the grades and not the learning progress… Because grades can also reflect what we didn’t learn . . . I’m not arguing that grades don’t reflect learning but ultimately what it comes down to is what our grades are in school, we don’t ask our friends what their learning is in a specific class, they ask what’s your grade. It’s not a competition between learning, it’s a competition between grades. What we learned in some of the classes isn’t going to be important in our lives or in college, but what matters is how we did in the class and how good our grades are. Like even when adults talk about school, they never say they either learned a lot or didn’t learn anything, they say whether they had good grades or had bad grades. So when we apply for college, it doesn’t matter what I learned in Psychology or physics, it matters how our grade is, especially if we never intend on pursuing a career in that field.
…I know I need to be on his good side but he was saying things that I didn’t agree with so I just said it to him, and then some lady walked into the room and started to argue also?! I was actually pretty mad at that point. She then told me that I need to accept the world we live in and go sit down… Nah.

I think if we were all asked what is more important, grades or learning we would respond with learning, just as the teacher/mum in the conversation did. But if we think deeply about what we promote to students we may find that grades are what we promote above learning. Do we tell our kids, “I want to see how far you have come from the start of this unit to the end. I want to see your growth” or do we say, “to get an ‘A’ you have to do this, this and this.” We could argue that the two are not mutually exclusive while others argue research suggests grades have no benefit or place in the learning process at all.

Now don’t get me wrong, grades/reports can reflect learning but they don’t necessarily show how far a student has come. A child who see’s a D grade on their report feels inferior to his classmates who have achieved B’s and A’s. He may have work exceptionally hard to achieve the D and come from a really low base level to achieve it. Regardless of this effort and growth the overwhelming focus is on the grade not the learning. The student still sees themselves as a failure with little achievement made. If we see the learning process as important should we focus solely on that? In a system that requires grades can we even do that?

As teachers we are caught in a situation were parents, universities and students expect them, we can’t escape them. It could be argued that we can do both, focus on learning and then provide grades reflecting that learning and growth. Some would argue we can’t.

“We’re addicted to grades. I’ve nothing against grades at the end of the school year. But telling students, after every piece of work, that they’re on an A, B, C or whatever is bizarre, perverse. The national curriculum levels were meant to be descriptions of the totality of achievement over an entire key stage, not judgments on individual pieces of work. Assessment should be part of a conversation with pupils that helps teachers to decide where lessons should go next. It should be “assessment for learning” (to move learning forward), not “assessment of learning” (a full stop in the learning process). Dylan Wiliam

I encourage you to read articles from the following blog, not because I think you should or will agree with everything on it but because I think it will challenge your thinking.

The following link will take you to the blog “for the love of learning – abolishing grades page”.

What is your position on grading and it’s importance in student learning?

Who will pack your parachute?


I have stolen the title of this post from the person who wrote the post I am about to redirect you to. This post challenges percentage based grades and the way in which we present them to parents v skills based reporting. I thought that the example used in the post about assessing someone packing a parachute and averaging their grades was an interesting one.

Do the use of grades and percentages take focus away from what students can and can’t do? Does the grade take the focus away from the importance of the written feedback? I have heard of a school that sends home report comments first and then the grades a week later so that focus is on the students strengths and weaknesses rather than a single grade.

What do you think of the the following post by @cherraolthof (a teacher in Alberta, Canada)? Do you agree with the sentiment of the article? It would be great to hear what teachers think about the views expressed in this post. To read the post click here.

Assessment, Grading and Learning

Quite often in a secondary setting I have found it is easy to get into the habit of using summative assessment more than formative assessment and focusing more on the end result rather than the learning along the way.  I have always tried to design formative and summative assessment tasks that are beneficial to learning but at times I have focused as much on getting marks/grades to ensure I could generate a report when required as I have the actual learning. Because of this my assessment has often lacked in the formative area. In the last 8 months or so I have thought about assessment and grading more and more and how it impacts on learning.

The following are quotes from educators around testing & grading and learning and what they see as the contradictory nature of these terms.

“We try to individualize instruction because all students are not the same but we standardize assessment with the expectation that students learn at the same rate.” Beth Knittle

“We’ve confused measurement with assessment and forgotten that the root word for assessment is assidere with translates into ‘to sit beside’. We’ve come to see assessment as a spreadsheet when it’s really a conversation.” Joe Bower

“If you are looking to increase a child’s anxiety, desire to escape and fear of failure, or decrease their intrinsic motivation and self-efficacy then it makes perfect sense to grade students.” Joe Bower

As a teacher I want students who enjoy learning for learnings sake and not for the end result of an A, B, C, D or E grade (or word equivalant!). I want students who don’t care if they fail but just get back up and try again. I want students who learn in an environment that is diverse and broad not narrow. As a set of beliefs I am not sure I would get to many arguements here and yet the policies we enact may just encourage the opposite.

We want students who enjoy learning but the end result for most students (increasingly more so at younger year levels) is an A, B, C, D or E grade, this is not teaching students to love learning so much as teach them compliance. Do this and you will get that and once you have that the learning often stops.

We would like kids to embrace failure but through the school system we encourage students to fear failure. We all know what a ‘D’ or ‘E’ means. Students don’t want to show their parents because the reaction (first reaction at least) is often not where do we go from here and how do we improve (because quite frankly there is generally not enough information in a report card for that to happen) but a displeased look which conveys everything to the child – you are not good enough. Hence the student’s attitude becomes “I don’t want to fail!”

We want a diverse learning environment but NAPLAN and all the other standardised/academic tests we use encourage a narrow view of education not a broad one. Why are we all doing persuasive writing in term one? Because NAPLAN said so.

Obviously assessment and reporting are an essential part of schooling but I am now not as sure as I was 12 months ago about how that should look to students, teachers and parents.

  • Can we focus on developing quality formative assessment (a lot of teachers do this well) as a way to improve learning? A lot of research says formative assessment has more impact on learning. Formative assessment allows for informative, useful, constant task focused feedback and practice. Summative tasks are still useful but without a higher percentage of formative tasks lack the ability to improve student learning.

One of the key components of engaging students in the assessment of their own learning is providing them with descriptive feedback as they learn. In fact, research shows descriptive feedback to be the most significant instructional strategy to move students forward in their learning. Descriptive feedback provides students with an understanding of what they are doing well, links to classroom learning, and gives specific input on how to reach the next step in the learning progression. In other words, descriptive feedback is not a grade, a sticker, or “good job!” A significant body of research indicates that such limited feedback does not lead to improved student learning. Association for Middle Level Education

  • Can we convey more effectively to parents where there kids are at and what there learning is?
  • Grades are so ingrained. When a parent and child sees and A, B, C, D or E grade the writing that follows, however informative, almost fades away into the background.
  • One school I’ve heard sends their comments home first. Two weeks later the grade goes home. hmmm……interesting!

Maybe what is written here is confronting, I know it is for me. For 17 years I have focused on a small number of formative tasks, made the summative task the main aim and tried to generate grades as a way of passing on how well a student has performed. Should I change? Can I change within a system that is based on grading as an end point? What is your position on this topic? I encourage you to leave your point of view in the comments section.