Ben Fuller is Lead Assessment Adviser at Herts for Learning

Yesterday, our Schools Minister Nick Gibb said that teachers could save time and workload by, instead of producing in-depth marking of children’s work, just writing a grade on each piece. We do of course all want to find ways to make marking and feedback less time-consuming and more impactful, but this suggestion of using grades as part of the day-to-day process of formative assessment demonstrates a tragic vacuum of understanding about the purpose of feedback.

He may not be aware, but there is a wealth of research pointing to the fact that his suggestion is, at best, ineffective and, at worst, damaging. As far back as 1988, Ruth Butler’s research (referred to by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam here) explored the effect on students’ progress of three approaches to marking:

  • providing just a grade
  • providing a grade and a comment
  • providing just a comment

The clear result was that comment-only marking was the most effective. Students understood where they had been successful, how to make improvements and what to focus on next. Providing a comment and a grade, or just a grade, produced less impact on progress.

Grades do not communicate to a learner what they have done well and how they could make improvements. All they communicate is how that pupil’s outcome on that day compares to other pieces of work they have produced before, or how they compare to their peers. Neither of these are particularly helpful from a formative point of view and, worse, they could have a detrimental effect by reinforcing a fixed mindset.

In making his remarks, Mr Gibb has clearly conflated two very different purposes of assessment: formative and summative. When it comes to making an overall summative judgement about how much of the required syllabus content children have learnt and how effectively they can apply it, some system of grading does the job. But such grades are not produced for the purpose of helping children learn, they are for school accountability (and, at secondary school, they are qualifications for the student). To help children learn, we need formative assessment – and that does not mean giving grades on a regular basis.

That our Schools Minister should so misunderstand this concept is not only concerning, it is also somewhat baffling because apparently, so I am led to believe, Mr Gibb and Mr Gove, in the early days of the new administration following the 2010 General Election, listened carefully to a panel of experts explaining these very points to them – about how levels were being badly used as part of day-to-day feedback, despite the research telling us that comment-only marking was best. And their response? – to scrap levels. (Incidentally, I have always maintained the opinion that that response was an example of extreme overkill. Levels themselves were not the problem and – as a means of summative grading – made a lot more sense than what we have now: BLW, PKF, PKE, PKG, WTS, EXS, GDS.  The problem was that they were being used improperly. All that was required was for the DFE and Ofsted to jointly issue a statement to the effect of “Levels should not be used in giving feedback to pupils. This is bad practice. Stop doing it.” That would have done the trick. But they didn’t.)

We do need to find ways to cut down on teacher workload, and no doubt there are instances where school marking policies are overly burdensome or unwieldy. The report of the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group states that feedback and marking should be:

  • Meaningful
  • Manageable
  • Motivating

Sticking a grade on everything certainly does not address the first of those and I believe it doesn’t address the third. Some might argue that being given a good grade is, in itself, motivating, but unless you have a good understanding of how and why you achieved that grade, it brings with it the fear that your next piece of work may not be so successful. The feedback, then, is essential in helping the learner to understand where they have been successful. (And of course it goes without saying that if the grade is low, the leaner is unlikely to feel motivated by receiving that grade – and what they need is specific feedback that helps them to improve.)

For further ideas on ways to develop effective and efficient approaches to marking and feedback that will positively contribute to pupils’ progress, you could book onto this Herts for Learning training course, or why not come and hear Shirley Clarke speak about effective formative assessment and see the presentations of the Hertfordshire teachers who have been involved in her action research programme this year?

We do need to keep developing better (more impactful and more time-efficient) ways of giving children feedback on their learning. Grades are not the answer.