How should we grade exams?


Numbers, letters or something else? How we can best grade our students' exams is a never-ending debate. Headteacher Marion Gibbs looks at the options.

Secondary schools become rather different places at this time of the year. Older students are engaged in public examinations of various kinds and younger ones are often sitting internal tests or completing assessments. The school buildings can seem somewhat quiet and empty. Later in the term, drama productions, concerts and sports and the familiar end-of-year rituals take over and the whole place comes alive again.

Meanwhile, we are nearing the end of the current style of school examinations and facing an era when students no longer complete their education at 16. Recently, the grading system for the new GCSE examinations has been under discussion. Apparently, the minister favours a 1 to 4 grading to replace A* and A grades. In my day, O levels were graded 1 to 9, and then 1 and 2 became grade A at GCSE and 3 and 4 became grade B and so forth. 

It has been suggested by some educationalists that we should abolish grades entirely and just provide marks, as they do in other countries and did years ago in the UK. This has much to commend it; it would sort out the problem of a student who gains 79 per cent (a B grade) being seen as in a far different category to one who gains 80 per cent (an A grade), but identical to another student who scored 71 per cent (also a B grade).

The stumbling block may be interpretation by employers and others who select students on the basis of examination grades. It is perhaps simpler just to look at grades. 

There is also the issue of comparability between subjects – scoring 99 or 100 per cent is possible in mathematics, for example, but unlikely in English literature or an essay-based examination. On the other hand, we are now well used to actual examination marks being transformed by some mystical statistical formula into a simple percentage Uniform Mark Scheme, covering the whole mark range.

Musing on this proposal, I wondered whether it might also be helpful to the employer or selector to know the students’ rank. Jo Bloggs – English language 86 per cent (ranked 1,823 out of 35,672 candidates in 2017). However, as soon as one tries an example, it becomes clear that this is a silly idea – not to mention the psychological harm which might ensue if a student is labelled with a rank of 27,893 or some such!

The question remains – why do we grade examinations? Is it the role of schools to educate students to their full potential or is it the role of schools to provide future employers and the further education and university selectors with precise tools to allow them to choose the best students?

Should we instead see examinations at 16 (or 17 or 18 in the new world) as being more like a driving test which demonstrates students’ competence at a given level rather than discriminates in any precise way between them?

Obviously this would mean that students would have to be selected for Apprenticeships, jobs and further academic courses, including university, in some other way. This might lead to yet more tests and examinations, but they might be much more relevant and specific to whatever the student was applying for and the institution which was using them would have a first-hand understanding of what the applicants did and did not know or could do. But perhaps then the wheel would turn again and universities would band together and establish A levels or some such and employers would invent City in Guilds?

Certainly, the current pressure on students (and their teachers) to gain particular grades at GCSE and A level, and in other qualifications, and the way in which examinations dominate the school curriculum are putting a blight on more than just the summer term in our schools.

At this time of change, can someone not find a way to ensure that education in the widest sense is at the heart of every school while examinations become just something which happens along the way, without much fuss or stress? That is a goal worth achieving for future generations of students.

  • Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.


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