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International School Ikast-Brande
Leadership blog

To Grade or Not to Grade - that is the question!

This is the English version of Mr. Browns contribution to the debate in Skolemonitor.

The question being debated about grading in primary education centres seems to be mainly on the question Why! Many comments are negative but here is one perspective to support assessment and marking.

As the Head of a school that uses various forms of grading from our primary school up to our 10th year cohort (and have done so in my last five schools). First let’s define what we are talking about. A grade is a mark or score against criteria within set work or an exam. So, we actually only use this in our secondary school where students use past international exams papers to achieve a ‘grade’ of their work. In our primary we use formative assessment as ‘working toward’, ‘working at level’ or ‘working above’ expected levels for their year group. These ‘assessments and grades’ are reported to parents in both written reports and face to face conferences twice a year and are used to show any needs, progression and areas in which a student is excelling or needs support. In all of this it is feedback and next steps on their performance that is the key to success, not the grade. A teacher relationship and school culture toward assessment should always be positive and progressive and in doing so makes it a support in education not a stick to hit students with.

Why do we do this? Well it’s because the vast majority of the world’s educational institutes and workplaces mark, grade and generally assess performance. The debate about grading here in Denmark oftens comes back to affecting freedom, or play, or social development and they should be considered, but in all higher education, workplaces and indeed through life we are assessed, marked and graded by others.

People talk about the Finnish system being so good as a non-exam system. There are no competitions or judgements and only one non-compulsory end of school exam, however people do not often talk about the regular assessment system used in Finland. Students are graded as individuals by their teachers (all who have a masters degree with multiple assessment practices) on a very regular basis with a view to development. Teachers mainly use formative (ongoing) assessment and occasionally Summative (Final) assessment. It is their work on feedback that develops the child but they do assess and grade.

Good or bad being assessed through life is with us all. So, when I read about stress in our students or anxiety about schools grading students lets be pragmatic instead of emotional. Life isn’t all roses and smiley faces, people will judge you, workplaces will promote or hire or sack you based on assessment, some places may pay you based on performance or results. There are various studies on both sides of the divide to support the yes and no camps but the reality is the world we live in judges us on what we do. Being able to handle feedback use it to our advantage and develop ourselves only comes from knowing where we are and where we can go. I asked many of my current students (who have all joined us from Danish schools) whether they like the reports and assessments and was given a resounding ‘yes’ by all of them. ‘It tells us where we are’ and ‘I know what I need to work on’ were typical comments.

The WEF clearly state that a worker in the next decade must be able to learn, relearn and reskill to be successful at work. This can only be a positive change if we understand ourselves and our skills, which we will know through assessment of our work output and personal abilities.

So, before people start talking about ‘putting students in boxes’ by grading them we should understand that it is how it is used, and the feedback that goes with it that can make it a positive and useful experience. Teachers need to be trained on giving correct feedback and using it to support children’s development. If you just believe we should give a child a grade or percentage to judge them or define them, then you are missing the point!!

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