As we approach a new term at school, I felt that the time is ripe to reflect on an appropriate grading and reporting system that could be adopted in our schools.  A recent school report that I was shown had a percentage score for each subject as the term test mark and comments such as [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Grading and reporting: Are we on the correct path?


As we approach a new term at school, I felt that the time is ripe to reflect on an appropriate grading and reporting system that could be adopted in our schools.  A recent school report that I was shown had a percentage score for each subject as the term test mark and comments such as ‘Well done’ and ‘Needs improvement’. Do these accurately reflect a student’s learning progress and achievement? Does it contain meaningful feedback to the student and the parents to enable them to plan development strategies for the future?

Back to school as the new term begins. Pic by M.D. Nissanka

The central objective of grading and reporting is communication. If done properly, it can strengthen not only the students’ learning but also teaching. A good report will endorse the acquisition of learning objectives, diagnose the weaknesses and provide suggestions for improvement. Failures should not be seen as a complete non-performance as learning to overcome failure is an invaluable lesson for any child.

Unfortunately, the system in place today in most schools in Sri Lanka is such that a single failure may result in poor performance, thereby not providing the needed encouragement to the child to reflect on what went wrong and how it is to be corrected.

A pioneer in the research for grading and reporting in schools was E.B. Page who carried out his research when he was in the Duke University. His conclusion was that the grades will have a beneficial effect on student learning only when accompanied by specific or individualized comments. The same result has been obtained by those who dealt with this kind of research in recent times. Grading and reporting will be more effective if done in reference to specific learning criteria.

Grading can be divided into two categories named as ‘normative’ and ‘criterion based’. Normative grading comes from the belief that intelligence too fits the ‘normal curve’. In other words, most students will be of average intelligence and there will be a few who are below or above what is considered as average. In criterion based grading, students are assessed according to specific learning criteria. The main difference between them is that the student achievement is measured against standards under criterion based grading rather than against others who are being assessed. Are Sri Lankan schools really using criterion based grading, which is considered to be the superior method of grading in education? If so, why is it that schools still use ranking and even state the rank in some of the reports?

Thomas Guskey and Jane Bailey who are considered experts in assessment, identify three categories of learning criteria used for grading and reporting purposes in their publication titled ‘Developing grading and reporting systems for student learning’.
Product criteria – These are used by teachers who prefer performance-based approaches to teaching and learning. They focus on what students know and are able to do during the period under consideration. The importance is given to communicate a summative evaluation of student achievement.

Process criteria – Teachers who consider effort or work ethic when reporting on student learning use process criteria. Here the emphasis is not just on the final result but also the path of reaching there. Progress criteria – Teachers who use progress criteria look at how far students have come rather than where they are. The emphasis is to consider how much students have gained from their learning experiences.

As all of the above are important in the educational process, the recommendation is to use an approach combining all three criteria. When developing an appropriate grading and reporting system, the following functions should be considered:
Strengthening student learning ability – It should contain meaningful feedback giving opportunities for students to identify their strengths and weaknesses and enhance motivation.

Communicate the achievement status of students to parents – Through effective communication parents can be involved in the educational process. Administrative and guidance use – They can also be used for a range of purposes such as evaluating the effectiveness of the instructional programme, providing input for counselling, providing information to other schools or employers etc.

When grading, if the above mentioned three learning criteria are to be used, it is best that the final achievement grade is obtained through a combination of formative and summative assessments. Formative assessments are checks on learning used throughout the instructional process where feedback is offered on their learning progress. Summative assessments provide an overall evaluation of the achievements of the students in a particular subject area. Many schools nowadays use letter grades to indicate students’ learning progress. However, it is important to avoid similar descriptors as shown below, as they indicate normative based assessment.

A – Very Good
B – Above Average
C – Average
D – Below Average
E – Poor

The Overseas School of Colombo which I am attached to follows a criterion-based-assessment programme: the three learning criteria described above and offers grades separately for each criterion. The achievement grade is in a number form going from 1 to 7 with clear descriptors about knowledge, skills, application, insight and analytical thinking. The effort and progress are indicated through letter grades with the following summarized descriptors. These are sent to parents along with a comment consisting of about three sentences covering product, process and progress criteria, for each subject.

Effort: EE – Exceeds expectations Progress: A – Excellent
ME- Meets expectations B – Good
AE – Approaches expectations C – Satisfactory
BE – Below expectations D – Mediocre
E – Elementary

When reporting, it has to be done to enhance, not hinder, learning. It is important to include a clear statement of purpose explaining the reporting procedure and the reporting period. Once again, let me give you an example quoting extracts of a statement of purpose used at the end of a semester in the senior classes of my school.

“Marks are awarded as per a student’s performance on a variety of assessment types which are offered at regular intervals throughout the academic year. The marks are cumulative throughout the school year, allowing students to demonstrate growth and progress from August to June. Think of this report as a ‘snapshot’ of how your child is performing at this time. As your child progresses through the school year, their marks will change in order to reflect their knowledge and skills at the time of reporting. This report reflects the assessment at the point of the end of the semester.”

According to Sir Walter Raleigh “No instrument smaller than the world is fit to measure men and women: Examinations measure examinees”. Grading and thereafter reporting is an exercise in professional judgement and therefore is a subjective process. Therefore it is important to use the most recognized and appropriate tools to collect, evaluate and communicate students’ achievement or performance. As Vauvenargues aptly stated “People are not to be judged by what they do not know, but by what they do know, and the manner in which they know it”.

(The writer is an examiner of the International Baccalaureate Organisation and teaches at the Overseas School of Colombo).

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