Making The Grade(s)

I really enjoyed reading Clay Burell's most recent post. As happens so often in my online reading, it ties in with some of my thoughts as I've just completed writing Term Two reports for my class and for the first time in twenty plus years of teaching, I've had to assign grades to each learning area from A to E. This stems from a mandate from the outgoing Federal Government that despite union opposition is now compulsory across all schools in Australia. I blogged about this 18 months ago when it seemed imminent but it took until this year to become an unescapable reality. Clay really pulls apart the history of grading as a tool for assessment in schools and makes some very valid observations that question the structure of schools worldwide. This point about class size ties in with my day today involved in industrial action when my union is asking the government (as well as improved salaries) for reduced class sizes:

So complete is our acceptance of factory schooling, we consider classes of twenty “small” when, I would argue, even twenty students for an hour is a recipe for poor learning - come on, do the math: one teacher teaching twenty students for an hour equals three minutes of individual attention maximum.

Anyway, over the last three years I have moved from the 2006 report card system where I had to write descriptive comments on each learning area (8 in all) with larger paragraphs for mathematics and English and finish it all off with a 200 word summative comment at the end about attitude to learning, organisational and social skills. This was close to 1000 words of writing for each student and with a class of 30 in most primary classrooms, most teachers really felt the pressure during this part of the year. Parents loved the individualised comments about their children. Feedback indicated that they really appreciated the work put into the reports - but as one teacher said to me, "That just about killed me. My private time was totally consumed by report writing. I'm glad it's over."

With the Federal Government putting the pressure on schools late in 2006 and into 2007, we adapted our report cards to be ready if needed for the A to E grading system. We did not end up using them, substituting a continuum system that rated student achievement from Well Below Year Level Achievement (what would become an E) to Outstanding Achievement Above Year Level (A equivalent) and reduced the written component down to two sections for Literacy and Numeracy and the 200 word summative comment. Still a lot of work but the teachers were wilting like in 2006. Interviews were held straight after the report card went home to explain how the middle part of the continuum "Achieving At Year Level" was a good place for their kids to be. Parents still gravitated towards the personalised comments where they looked for context for the achievement system.

For this year, the A to E system was mandated in all South Australian schools. It had to happen.

Teachers met to share work samples and to moderate their expectations for each year level. There was constant referral to the SACSA "Lite" documents to check on the outcomes being assessed. This common understanding was essential to ensure that teacher judgement was consistent across the school as standardised testing does not dominate the Australian education scene (yet, he thinks cynically) to provide that sort of data. We don't have grading books like a few American edubloggers I have chatted with are compelled to use. We interpret the curriculum and individual schools have to put structures in place to ensure consistency. The writing shrank back to the summative comment only. Grades were inserted for strands within Learning Areas and an overall grade calculated. We also have spent time talking with the kids to ensure that their first experience with grades was not a bad one. Many Aussie kids have formed their perception of grades from American TV shows, their parents' high school experiences where if you got a C, then you obviously weren't trying very hard. This is in conflict with the Aussie system where C is year level achievement - to get a higher grade means working above that year level and being on a par with students in the year level above. The romantic concept of "straight A's" just by working hard and being a "good student" is not going to happen. Multiple A's on a report might only be achieved by highly gifted students.

Now I don't see myself as a "professional grader" as Clay indicated but I think he realises that the Australian (and NZ as well) system within primary schools at least is a different beast to the one he is leaving. But interestingly, that despite the fact that Australia ranks well in front of the US in any number of international comparisons, we still keep wanting to adopt the worst ideas from their systems. I think this grading idea is one of them. It's only a matter of time before this becomes the next logical step for our politicians seeking to "improve" our education system.

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4 thoughts on “Making The Grade(s)

  1. Darren Draper

    The only thing worse than compulsory schooling is compulsory grading, although I’m sure that some (likely not all) of your students and their parents appreciated the customized feedback you were able to provide them.

    Now, No Child Left Behind has been an interesting beast.

    While I affirm that NCLB has had one of the worst affects on teachers’ attitudes than anything else in recent memory (other than our District electing to eliminate our retirement package – yes, life has been joyful all around), there have been good things resulting from it. If nothing else, teachers have been far more conscientious of the curriculum they include in their teaching as well as how effective their instruction was in enabling understanding. In the past – and in any number of untested subjects – teachers are still under no obligation to teach to their full potential. Consequently, some classes offer little more than a chance for students to view and review the latest in Disney offerings, with neither little punishment for poor teaching nor adequate incentive for teacher improvement.

    The realist in me feels to exclaim, however, that there must be a better way to improve classroom instruction than by forcing our teachers to teach to the test! The day that happens in Australia and elsewhere will be a sad day, indeed.

  2. Charlie A. Roy

    I’ve heard great things about the Aussie educational system. Any resources or books that point out the key differences or essential components that set the Aussie system apart?

  3. alexa harrington

    How student work/success is measured and recorded is such a quandary. On the one hand, the students (and the parents of the students) feel like they really need a quantitative measure of the students’ success. On the other hand, isn’t education better when it’s the learning that’s the focus, not the grades?

    Standard grading procedures are certainly easier and less time-consuming than writing up lengthy reports, but I think something important is lost when everything is based on numbers and not on the individual student. However, educators work incredibly hard for the money, and it seems selfish of students and parents to ask for individualized reports at the end of every term.

    The solution, of course, is to have better funding for schools. This would mean better pay for teachers AND would enable the hiring of more teachers. The result would be an improved student-to-teacher ratio and well-paid teachers, which would mean a better education for the students as well as teachers with the time and funding to write incredibly individualized grade reports.

    Also, I think every school should be equipped with a real fire-breathing dragon and a chocolate river and a gumdrop tree. Then everything would be perfect.

    Perhaps we’ll all just have to learn to muddle through the best we can and hope for the best.

  4. Graham Wegner

    @charlie I don’t have any definitive texts to point towards but maybe a browse at the MCEETYA website might unearth some information of interest.
    @Darren and @Alexa – thank you for your comments. They stand as heartfelt responses to my pondering of the goals behind our Australian grading system. I don’t have anything profound to add at this point in time.


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