How to inspire passion #edchat

Working from home has made it easier to participate in the weekly #edchat on Twitter – the topic today was how to discover student passion.

An interesting chat I had with @joe_bower and @monk51295 was about the use of grades in assessing student learning, and how they work to kill student passion.  Joe makes an excellent argument on his blog for abolishing grading – a form of assessment he believes is obsolete and archaic.  I couldn’t agree more.

Grading student work using reductive labels such as an A-E scale, or a mark out of 10 or 20, just doesn’t do the job that anyone wants it to.  Parents (well, most of them) seem to think they want this kind of measure, and yet when it comes to parent-teacher conference evening the first question I am usually asked is along the lines of “so, what does a ‘C’ mean?”

In NSW Australia it is now mandatory for schools to report to parents using an ‘easy to understand’, ‘jargon free’ A-E scale.  The purpose?  To allow teachers to report student academic achievements at any point in time using clear standards.  So, what does a ‘C’ mean?  Well, it means that the student’s achievement is sound; that they “have a sound knowledge and understanding of the main areas of content and has achieved an adequate level of competence in the processes and skills.”  (Parent: “so, what does ‘achieved an adequate level of competence’ mean??”…and here we are, back at square one…)

NSW schools have the option of using the grade labels (A-E), or they can use the corresponding descriptors:

  • A = ‘Outstanding’
  • B = ‘High’
  • C = ‘Sound’
  • D = ‘Basic’
  • E = ‘Limited’

I was absolutely dismayed when I started teaching at my school to find they had wholly and solely adopted the A-E grade system, even though the use of the letter grades wasn’t mandatory.  While I recognise that faux-descriptions like ‘High’ or ‘Basic’ aren’t much better, at least they are somewhat descriptive.  The ideological baggage alone attached to A-E grades is enough to poison parents’ understanding of student reports – using these terms in my experience transports parents right back into their own school experience, and instills an instictive kind of dread.  Parents who were ‘C’ students in school now apologise for their ‘average-ness’ in semester interviews.  And parents who were ‘A’ students seem puzzled that their spawn have not exhibited their genetically inherited excellence.

The problem with this is, as an English teacher, I truly believe that the way in which we engage with texts in todays classrooms is so much more complex than in the past, that comparing a ‘B’ grade from the 1970s to a ‘B’ grade in a NSW English classroom today is like comparing apples to oranges.  Yet it is this historical understanding of grades that we draw on when we offer them to parents as a ‘clear standard’.

In my teaching I have taken a pragmatic approach to grading student work, and I tend to use a combination of grading individual outcomes on a tick-a-box scale, following this with comments.  My faculty insists that I allocate a grade to any common assessment tasks, but for most assessments I can withhold this from students and just record it in my markbook.  Here is an example of the feedback sheet I use in our Year 7 Debating assessment task – syllabus outcomes are rephrased to connect with what students have learned to do, and an overall grade can easily be calculated by looking at which column got the bulk of the ticks:

debating task assessment marking criteria (download PDF – feel free to use!)

One thing I know I don’t do enough of is getting students to explicitly reflect on their progress, and this is something I worked on a lot last year.  In a post on his leadership blog @dan__rockwell explains that a sense of making progress is the greatest motivator of all.  Unlike grades (which act as ‘carrot and stick’ motivators), giving students a sense that they are making progress can really inspire them to learn and move forward.  A practice I would like to start in my classes is to give students the assessment feedback sheet at the start of the unit and get them to fill it in with what they would get before participating in the lessons.  They could then compare this to my eventual feedback (and/or their own self-assessment using the same sheet) to guage their progress.

It seems obvious to me that this is more valuable than knowing you got a ‘C’.

Joe suggests in his blog that when an organization has some policy or rule that simply desn’t allow you to always to the right thing, then professional acts of subversion are called upon.  Refusing to grade student work is one way of subverting the archaic A-E grade system in NSW.  Refusing to conduct NAPLAN exams this year in light of their use in the MySchool website would be another example (but I wonder how many of us will put our money where our mouths are on that one?)


  1. #1 by Dan Rockwell on February 24, 2010 - 1:52 pm


    Thought provoking article. Assessment is always a challenge. You made application of my blog in a new arena.

    All the best.

    Leadership Freak
    Dan Rockwell
    Recent blog – The Power of Progress

  2. #2 by Alan Stange on February 24, 2010 - 3:13 pm

    I am in agreement with you. There is a problem with percentage grades and the traditional attachments we have to the letters A, B, C, D, F. Both systems are well-entrenched. In our Saskatchewan schools students from 6 to 12 (middle and high school) currently retain percentage scores on their report cards. Elementary classrooms in my school division have adopted Exceeds Expectations, Meets Expectations, Beginning to Meet Expectations, and Not Yet Meeting Expectations (E, M, B, NY). Inevitably teachers want to add plus and minus signs. Inevitably parents equate the scale to the familiar letter grades and inevitably parents question why their child is not getting Excellent.

    Any assessment will lead to the evils of grading. Any assessment will be interpreted as a grade. I think all things considered our elementary strategy is better than percentages. Particularly as it is linked directly to specific student learning outcomes. We seem stuck with assessment of one sort or another.

  3. #3 by Kaylene McCormick on February 24, 2010 - 7:35 pm

    Trying to abolish grading will be impossible as some parents are competitive in their thinking about their children’s education will see the continuation of such an “archaic” grading system.

    As chairperson of my son’s daycare Parent Advisory Committee, I was shocked the other day when I learnt from the director that some parents want a grading system implemented on the kids annual portfolio documenting their progress in areas like Gross Motor Development and Socialisation.

    From the moment a child is born, children are constantly being graded against some scale.

  4. #4 by Hiba R on February 28, 2010 - 7:55 pm

    OMG! YES! Kelli, I agree with everything you have said in this blog because it is something I was so passionate about during university, but so shocked at when I actually started teaching.

    Although there’s no real ‘perfect’ solution to grading or non-grading, I do think that letting kids know how much they have learnt and how much they have tried is far more more important than telling them they are ‘sound’. “Sound? I thought I was sight!”

    I have come across people who are very sceptical of people who are sceptical of A-E grading. Their criticism of us? “Oh, let’s live in this happy world where there are no assessments and no competitions!”.

    “No, you dumb-arses”, I protest. “There IS competition in the real world, in higher education and employment especially. But the POINT of school isn’t to compete. It’s to learn!”

    If students have studied a text and understood the concepts and ideas and can connect it to other texts and to their own world… Then isn’t that what’s IMPORTANT? Giving them a ‘C’ or a ‘B’ on the final essay they produce is just not satisfying. They learnt it all, didn’t they? They understood it? They should be rewared for that, and if their essay-writing/literacy skills are poor (which is usually what stops a lot of students from getting the ‘A’!), then that can be addressed else where.

  5. #5 by Lyn on March 6, 2010 - 9:39 am

    Hi Kelli, just catching up with blog reading so I missed this a few weeks ago. I’ve been grappling with this ‘grade’ problem for a long time. Many years ago I went right into peer marking, believing that the real purpose of ‘marking’ was to provide feedback so that kids could work out where they needed to put their energy in future tasks and because I was tired of hearing ‘I’m just not good at English’. This worked up to a point and I still use it. Interestingly I developed a marking guide approach very similar to your debate assessment sheet. I’ve got a few stored up if you would like some more, cheers Lyn

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