Let’s stop talking about target grades…

Tomorrow marks the start of my second week back in school after summer with new pupils and a new timetable. It’s been great to see the energy and enthusiasm of my senior pupils this past week and I’m excited for how their learning will develop over the year ahead. But undoubtedly, over the next few weeks many of us in schools across the country will be asked to give pupils ‘target grades.’ There are many reasons why I’m not a fan of target grades and this blogpost aims to articulate why.

Before I go any further, I want to say that I understand the intention and thinking behind target grades, especially in terms of data and reporting. I realise that grades are very much part of our education system. Parents, and many pupils would find a shift away from reporting on target grades problematic and require a change of mindset. And yet, personally, I feel they cause so much confusion and angst.

Learning is a long term change in knowledge and understanding. And my aim as a teacher is to get pupils excited and motivated to learn. To shape pupils who are passionate about my subject and who get a real buzz from their achievements long after the exam. Not just to get a grade, although I appreciate for many that is important. So why are we still fixated on marks? And do target grades actually help in the journey to pass exams?

My beef with target grades started a while back when I heard of a school where teachers were ‘not allowed’ to give pupils target grades of C as it was seen as not ‘aspirational’ enough. Imagine… teachers’ professional judgement being over-ruled because it might not look good for a pupil to have a C as a target grade. I understand why the school may have wanted to discourage low target grades and instead have high expectations for all learners, but it makes me worry about the part target grades play in the success of a pupil or indeed a school. If we are not giving teacher autonomy to decide a realistic and achievable target grade for a pupil whom they know well, it may as well be a target picked from a hat, making a bit of a mockery of the system. And the more I thought about it, the more I concluded that target grades can be hugely problematic.

In the first instance, target grades are a way of labelling pupils and in many cases, limiting their potential from the start. I don’t believe for a minute that teachers do this intentionally, I’m sure it is often from a place of good intent, but let’s consider how this feels from the pupils point of view. Whilst it might make teachers feel they are differentiating more successfully, how can we ensure that this does not instead create a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Firstly, let’s take the high flying pupil. The student doesn’t cause the teacher any bother, has been a model pupil all through school and did well last year according to her teacher. Her A target grade is well within her reach and the feedback from the first few assessments confirm this. So why should she push herself? She’s pretty confident she’ll get her grade and so she can sit back and coast. She’ll do what she needs to get her A, but that’s it. When assessments are returned, she’ll read the grade to check she made the mark but skip the feedback. Are we really encouraging her to be all she can be so that she experiences the joy and passion of learning?

But perhaps more damaging is the pupil who’s target is a C but despite her best efforts, just isn’t quite making the grade. How must it feel to always be falling short of a target grade? To constantly be told you aren’t quite there yet. This continued emphasis on the grade could be soul destroying for a pupil who already finds this particular subject difficult. As Dylan William suggests giving a grade does not help the student to improve. And when feedback is given along with a grade, the feedback is most often disregarded in favour of the grade. The grade encourages pupils to compare themselves and becomes ego-involving. For me, it seems far more productive to stick to the learning. Yet still we focus on target grades.

When we focus on the mark or grade, we are attaching extrinsic motivation to learning. We are rewarding performance. And the more we focus on this, the less likely we are to be able to harness the intrinsic motivation and passion which comes from deep learning and understanding. Yes, for certain senior classes we may be required to refer to grades or marks at times, but personally I’d prefer to see a move away from constantly referring to target grades and instead consider whether the pupil is achieving their potential. A simple + = – system seems sensible to me. The symbols represent whether a learner is continuing to progress positively, stagnating or progress dipping. The high achieving learners have to keep working hard if they want to keep getting +’s because there’s no room for complacency. Anyone struggling to progress is highlighted by a -. The lower attaining pupils work hard and continue to be rewarded with +’s and any passive learners who are not pushing themselves are flagged up with =. This system focuses much more on incremental improvement and learning as opposed to performance.

If we place more focus on the feedback we are giving or how the learner needs to specifically improve, rather than referring to whether the student is meeting a target grade on a specific piece of work, we are hopefully guiding the learner to the actual ways in which the learner can get better. Dylan Wiliam suggests that feedback should ‘improve the student and not the work.’

Finally I think target grades often cause confusion for pupils, staff and parents. A target grade set to be achieved at the end of the year, makes it very difficult to track progress throughout the year. How can we confidently say that pupil x is meeting their target grade of a B in November when, they still have 5 months of learning left before their assessment? In art and design, a pupil may have only completed half a folio, and whilst they are doing all they can and working to the best of their ability, the folio would not get the desired target grade if assessed in November. Parents find this difficult to fathom, ‘She was getting a B in November, so why is her work now a C?’ Might it be better to focus on the whether they are ‘on track’ to meet their potential and instead spend time giving appropriate feedback to help the learner improve?

I would love to hear your thoughts on what is undoubtedly a highly contentious issue and perhaps how this works in your school. Target grades do serve a purpose, but I can’t help thinking there may be a better use of time, and as always it comes down to great learning and teaching.

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