Let’s suppose that you are obliged to provide your headteacher or Principal a number, i.e. a Level or a Grade, for each student at the end of each term, say. And let’s further suppose that you have been doing your best to dispense with Levels, as the Department for Education in England said we should do three or four years ago, or are trying to go “gradeless”, as some teachers are in America.
The question is: how can you square this particular circle?
I would suggest you have several options.
Have a system of grades anyway
This makes sense for two reasons. One is that there is no official reason to not use Levels or grades. I think there are issues with doing so, but there’s no law against it. The issues are:
- not being able to perfectly map the new Computing curriculum to the old Statements of Attainment;
- if you are visited by an Ofsted inspector (Ofsted is the schools’ inspectorate in England), he or she may raise an eyebrow if you say you’re keeping Levels;
- there is research evidence (and anecdotal evidence) to show that giving marks, grades or Levels detracts from having conversations about the learning that has taken place — the conversations (with students and their parents) end up being about the number rather than what it is supposed to represent.
However, as I say, it is not illegal to use marks, grades or Levels, and so when you are assessing students’ work you could assign a mark, grade or Level to it right there and then. That will at least save you from having to “reverse engineer” your comments into a grade at a later stage.
The second reason why doing so might be regarded as a legitimate thing to do is that it turns out that the evidence on giving marks is more nuanced than we had realised. Research from the 1990s, such as that by Ruth Butler, found that giving out marks only, or marks and comments, led to students making less progress than if they were given feedback only in the form of comments. (http://www.sec-ed.co.uk/best-practice/giving-effective-student-feedback/)
But other evidence, cited in the Education Endowment Foundation's report on marking, “A Marked Improvement", suggests that girls’ progress is enhanced by having marks as well as comments:
"...there is good evidence to suggest that awarding grades alongside comments has a different impact on different groups of pupils. A large, longitudinal study from Sweden found that boys and lower attaining pupils who received grades at the end of each year made less progress than similar pupils who did not. However, grading had a positive long-term effect on girls."
So, especially if you teach in a girls school, you may be tempted to retain marks, grades or Levels. If you’re not sure, then perhaps you could set up a research trial of your own, by giving some groups marks and comments, and some groups comments only.
Have a system of shadow grades
In this approach, you retain a stem of grades and comments, but you give the students only the comments, reserving the grades for use by the powers-that-be. In other words, you adopt a private version of the approach suggested above.
Award a Level or grade in retrospect, or as a summary of attainment
Let’s suppose that you have been using a system of gradeless marking throughout the term or year, and now find yourself having to summarise each student’s achievement and progress in the form of a grade or Level. How can you do so? Three approaches suggest themselves:
One way is to use a system of Key Performance indicators or similar. For instance, you say that if a student has achieved A, B and C, they are at Level or Grade 1. If she has achieved D, E or F they are a Level 2, and so on. In other words, you create a system of bands and then report numbers based on those bands.
Another way is to have students grade themselves. This is the approach suggested by Mark Barnes in his blog post at Freshgrade (https://blog.freshgrade.com/overcoming-problems-in-a-no-grades-classroom/).
This is an attractive proposition, because it puts the onus on the student to evaluate his or her performance. You will, however, need to discuss with them the criteria against which they are judging themselves. Still, I like the idea of saying to them, in effect, “Well, what do you think you’re worth?”
Yet another way is to use a random grade generator. This sounds ridiculous, but it’s based on the premise that most students will tend to fall within certain boundaries anyway. By assigning random grades to students, you save yourself a lot of time, because all you then need to do is go through all the assigned grades and check whether or not you agree with them. I suggest that in most cases you will, in which case you can replace the ones with which you disagree with grades you assign yourself.
If you’re still not convinced, consider this: the concept of providing a grade or Level, i.e. encapsulating all the discussions, project work, blogs, videos, rewrites and so on in the form of a number or letter, is in itself pretty meaningless in my opinion. So, unless you have to do so for a high-stakes exam like a GCSE, why expend a lot of time and energy coming up with letters and numbers when you already know about the attainment and progress of your students?
If you like the idea of trying a random grade or Level generator, have a look at the instructions in the article 6 ways to respond to requests for pointless data.
Whichever approach you use, it’s a good idea to know why you have chosen it. In other words, your choice should be based on a process of rational decision-making. I most certainly do not recommend a random approach generator!