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Wednesday, 7 August 2013

What do Grades Mean?

A ‘grade’ is a summative expression of performance in a task or examination taken at a particular time.  Grades can be expressed as letters (A, B, C), numbers (6, 5, 4), grade descriptors (excellent, good, satisfactory) or sometimes as percentages which correspond to particular marks or grades.  Attaining a particular grade in an exam, for example, should not be confused with measuring progress or being an indication of progress over time because a grade given for a piece of work or for an exam performance is just a reflection of that particular performance and nothing else.  Examination grades are not only an approximation of a particular achievement as the same student on the same exam paper can produce different outcomes on different days.  Grades also depend on types of questions set, mark schemes and the quality of markers, including the reliability of the whole process of quality assurance.  Parents and policy makers would like to believe in the exact reliability of examination grades, however, this is not the case because, for many reasons, there is an element of error in any test.
In case of public examinations, grades are moderated and standardized to ensure, as far as possible, grade validity and reliability so certain comparisons can be made, and to warrant confidence in the system.  Ensuring comparability of examinations in different subjects, has been more controversial and harder to achieve in order to reflect a different level of difficulty of different subjects.  Although statistical models are applied to analysis, for example, GCSE grades for different subjects with different degrees of difficulty, an absolute inter-subject reliability is not easy to achieve because not only some subjects are harder than others, but there are gender difference in relation to achievement across subjects and there are differences in attainment between top grades and lower grades, where on average differences between the highest grades are twice as big as those between the bottom grades.  In England in 2004, about 600,000 candidates’ GCSE scripts were analyzed[1] in order to construct greater grade reliability between different subjects. 
Samples on the scale of 600,000 candidates are very large indeed and not applicable at school level, where students’ work is routinely graded in the course of their studies.  Therefore it can be quite difficult to establish a degree of certainty of what the actual grades mean and how they translate from achievement in one subject into another.  This grade consistency can be even difficult to achieve within one subject, unless a robust moderation system is in place.

On a practical level, I am often asked what attaining a “6” or “64%”, for example,  in a test means.  What this means is exactly what it says: that a particular student’s performance was judged as “6” or “64%” attainment in this particular test.  This grade or score does not give any other information and, as mentioned above, is only an approximation of a student’s performance.  It is a summative judgement of a performance in a particular task.  It is a performance at a given time and it is not a predictor of any future performance which can change with effort, task and many other variables.  Similarly, assigning a student to a particular set (where schools have different ability sets in some subjects), reflects the best-fit ability position at the time and should not be in any way a predictor or an indication of where the student may end up with further learning and effort.  In other words, these are positions in a given time and should not be viewed as fixed positions as this could be counter-productive to future learning and student effort.
When I asked students what type of feedback was helpful to their learning and whether they understood grades/marks in different subjects, these were some of the typical answers:

“Corrected work and told us how to be done right.”
“It is different in different subjects and I don’t really understand what the grades mean.”

“I understand grades and marks some of the time.”
“It is useful when teachers tell us what we’ve done well and how to improve.”

“It helps when it shows were you could’ve done better. I don’t really know what is a B in history and what it is in science.”
It seems that students are rather confused regarding what their grades mean and make frequent references to guidance on improvement, which is what they seem to value as helpful feedback to future learning.

There is another risk of too much focus on grading: students may see themselves as being a certain grade performer, e.g. a C-grader or even and A-grader without putting further effort as they can be satisfied from the grades already attained.  This attitude puts a ceiling on learning, even at the higher end, where students may stop trying their best through continued effort and develop a ‘fixed mindset’ (satisfaction from own ends).
Parents, who have their best intentions at heart, may contribute to this type of mindset as they often put too much emphasis on grades and can praise ability as a form of encouragement, which is counter-productive to effort and learning development, and results in students’ setbacks because they are reluctant to try in case they fail and may become defensive, blaming outside factors for their lack of achievement (Dweck[2]). 

The meaning of grades can be even more confusing, when looking at the grading of transfer tests/examinations, where different institutions set their own grade criteria and boundaries. The examples of such tests, where there is no moderation and no grade standardization, are transfer tests to different or senior schools, for instance ISEB Common Entrance examination.
Confused about the meaning of grades in these situations? 

I am.  
We should be questioning the validity of such examinations as they can have a negative impact on learning and render grades quite meaningless, to be frank.  They also contribute nothing in terms of performance/data analysis because of the lack of any standardization.  The only purpose they serve is selection to particular institutions according to their own criteria. 

Therefore, if we are really concerned with learning and individual progress, we should be questioning the meaning of the status quo regarding reporting educational progress in the form of grades or levels, where level descriptors inhibit the overall performance and undermine learning[3], and grades can be ambiguous and can put a ceiling on learning.
To serve students well, we need to have high expectations and involve them in their learning to a greater extent, where we value their voice and guide them to their next steps of learning through formative feedback, and the grades will take care of themselves...

Dr Joanna Goodman

[1] Comparability of GCSE examinations in different subjects: an application of the Rasch model


[2] Dweck, C. (2000). Essays in Social Psychology. Self-theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development. Hove: Brunner/Mazel.


[3] A report by the Expert Panel for the National Curriculum review


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