Grading Dilemma

I teach in a school that requires me to hand in three classmarks each semester for Grades 7-10. These marks are totalled and then used in conjunction with the school-based common examination results each semester to sort the students. On the twice yearly school report cards, students receive their place in each class, ranked against their peers, ie 13/25 and a grade from A-E which shows their place in the year group. Once students are in Grades 11 and 12, the grading requirements escalate in preparation for the Higher School Certificate at the end of Grade 12.

The three classmarks that I am required to submit can be based on anything, yet they are expected to adequately sort the students. I once tried to submit the same mark for all students and I was told that I was being unprofessional. My attempts at grading students for their participation, or having them self-assess their progress have been unsuccessful. Grading students for participation created an artificial dynamic in the classroom. Having students self-assess is simply unfair when it comes to ranking them against their peers.

I do not believe that the purpose of schooling is to sort, sift and grade students. I am critical of a system where a number is accepted as an adequate representation of learning, and I am critical of a system that makes learning competitive. I feel like the grading requirements turn me into an accountant instead of a teacher. Yet I struggle to resist the temptation to place a number on student’s work. Grades serve as a mask that I can hide behind. While I teach my students about moral courage, I sometimes fail to demonstrate it myself.

Grading, marking, ranking and judging students can only damage a learner’s inquisitiveness and learning spirit. Students are judged by their grades and they judge themselves by their grades. Disturbing consequences can accompany students’ beliefs that earning grades is the point of going to school. They can come to view learning as a chore, they can avoid challenging tasks, they can fall apart when they fail, they can think less deeply, and most obviously, they come to value ability more than effort.

While I may advocate to change the system, I accept that grading requirements are a professional obligation. However, at the end of the day, I want students to leave my class knowing that they are more than a grade, that one size does not fit all, and that our individual differences make us better.

About cpaterso

Confusion is good and grades are overemphasised. Less us, more them. Working in a learning and teaching leadership role in a Sydney school.
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9 Responses to Grading Dilemma

  1. I was aghast when a fellow (primary) school parent mentioned a few years back that all she’s after on the reports was the rank – apparently, so they knew the kid wasn’t lagging behind. Seriously? I’m glad to say that the school has since dropped ranks and just now, the letter grades. We get comments instead. I wonder what that parent must think now. I hope parents don’t lobby to bring the grades back!

    As a teacher, I feel your pain. It does seem so random and I’ve told students that it is a professional obligation and they are not bound by it. I doubt that has much credence in schools that have awards and stream students based on grades. So, in fact, students are bound by grades – especially while at school. However, I’d like to think that somehow I can communicate across that we are more than the “boxes” others impose on us, be that grades or other measures – and so it continues in our professional lives, if truth be told. Ultimately, they have to believe it themselves and I guess that comes from giving them opportunities in school to enjoy learning and express their voice, not limited to their ‘academic’ self.

    Your dilemma is real and shared by many. I like that you end with a hopeful tone. There will always be constraints placed on us. It’s what we achieve within those constraints that shapes who we are.


  2. Crista says:

    Malyn– I think your posts demonstrates a great deal of courage (and reflection)! Your students and your school are lucky to have you. It seems like you are going through a journey like so many of us have…examining how we evaluate students and questioning our practices and the practices of our schools. This is how we grow! Perhaps you have outgrown your school and it’s time to make a move….do you have any options in your area?


  3. whatedsaid says:

    How can grading encourage students to be curious, to be inquirers, to love learning? Is grading incompatible with inquiry? I’ve just written a post about how much my (primary) school has changed. Will high schools ever change from the culture of marking, ranking and judging?


    • So, the 3 assessment marks can be based on anything? How can you possibly rank students and compare, when subject teachers are assessing on whatever outcome they see fit? Highly subjective, which is why grading in many instances does not do learning justice. More importantly, learning progression is not given it’s best chance, as adequate and effective feedback is often lacking.


  4. Tasha Cowdy says:

    Your thoughts on assessment resonated strongly with me. I have very recently read a post on alternative ways of assessing at middle and high school level and at Kindergarten and Early Childhood level . It seems more and more people are questioning the effects of grading on learning. Surely, things have got to change?


  5. We all hear you mate. Is there really an end in sight to the requirement for such alphanumeric indicators? I spend alot of time trying to frame assessment and grading to students and parents and have them understand that the progressive feedback and the sum of student learning can not be so simply stated with a nominal grade. I found that this helped to get my intended message across, although often a parental bottom line is on a 5 point scale.


  6. cpaterso says:

    Thanks for the replies. I do wonder how much of our job is now educating parents? When it is the ‘parental bottom line’ that dictates policy, we need to challenge the parents on their understanding of learning and what their children need.

    Malyn, you are so right when you say, “so it continues in our professional lives, if truth be told”,
    And yes Crista, I suspect that I have outgrown my school, but I also suspect that I may have outgrown schools. Not an easy position to be in.


  7. I also share this same concern… damn reports and grades! Lets think a bit more holistically, Einstein would have failed oral communication or be given a low grade as he did not start talking until 3. I teach little 3 and 4 year olds and I am forced to grade students on a scale 1 – 5. Reports do not give a true reflection of what the child really is like. cheers – continue be an agent of change!


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