Grade expectations

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills 

They’re a source of both anxiety and pride, but school marks can also have long-term consequences for students. Most teachers reward student achievement, but also the skills, attitudes, habits and behaviours that are necessary for lifelong learning. However, as this month’s PISA in Focus  points out, the tendency of teachers to award higher marks to girls and socio-economically advantaged students than to boys and disadvantaged students – even if they perform equally well in school and have similar positive attitudes towards learning – is cause for some concern.

Marks help to promote student learning by informing students about their progress, alerting teachers about their students’ needs, and certifying the degree to which students have mastered the tasks and competencies valued by teachers and schools. Schools and teachers recognise this: more than 95% of students in the countries and economies that participated in PISA 2009 – except Korea – attend a school that measures student achievement through teacher-prepared tests, student portfolios or student projects. In most cases, students receive feedback on these assessments in the form of school marks.

As PISA results show, few countries and economies share the same marking schemes; in fact, even schools within a country may have different ways of marking. In addition, different education systems establish their own ways of informing students that they have failed a class or an assessment. In some countries, the marking scheme allows for only one possible value for failing. This means that students who fail do not know how far they are from meeting the passing criteria. This is the case in Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Poland, Serbia and the Slovak Republic. Other countries establish the passing mark somewhere in the middle of the marking scale, which gives students some idea of how far they are from passing. In Ireland, for example, the grading scale ranges from 0 to 100, but only scores below 40 are considered unsatisfactory or failing. In some countries, such as Austria, Hungary, Poland and the Slovak Republic, the remaining values on the marking scale reflect the quality of the passing mark in clear and distinct labels, such as “sufficient”, “good”, “very good” and “excellent”; meanwhile Belgium (Flemish Community), Italy and Ireland use a wider array of numeric values (e.g. 50 to 100, 10 to 20 or 6 to 10).  Analyses suggest that countries and economies that have a grading system with a limited number of values and use labels that refer to clear categories of achievement (e.g. “sufficient”, “good”, “very good”, “excellent”) can better differentiate students’ performance.

Students often base their expectations of further education and careers on the marks they receive in school; and school systems use marks to guide their selection of students for academically oriented programmes and, later, for entry into university. So whenever teachers reward – or punish – certain student characteristics that are unrelated to learning they may inadvertently shape a student’s future according to factors that have nothing to do with the student’s abilities, talents and personal goals.

That’s why it’s a good idea for school systems to promote marking practices that reward the behaviours and attitudes that help students to learn – so that more students can make the grade.

For more information on PISA:
PISA in Focus No. 26: Grade Expectations
Grade Expectations: How Marks and Education Policies Shape Students’ Ambitions 
Photo credit: Test score sheet / Shutterstock

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