Mass Produced Target Grades

Sixth form students will by now have dragged themselves through the January exam series. They can relax until scores are released in March, when most will be judged according to their college ‘target grades’. And it is likely to be a miserable experience for most.

I used to talk to my students and get to know their individual strengths and weaknesses. I would encourage those who I perceived were studying hard, and chide those who were just attending class without the necessary intellectual engagement. Reports to parents and managers were based on my professional opinion of each child. But not any more.

Teachers still get to know each of their charges, but their professional judgements are now routinely tempered by the knowledge that performance against their grade target trumps all other information.

Value Added

Target grades are now the ubiquitous tool of comparative assessment in schools: Key Stage 3 results are used to predict GCSE grades, while GCSE grade averages are used to compute the most likely grade a student might achieve at A Level. This is a very good process for working out if the school is doing a good job, since if a year group cohort gains a mean score above the mean predicted grade, then the group has learned more than could reasonable been expected. The school thus has recorded some value added, in the language of education.

Using the same data for individual teachers is only likely to be reliable over a period of several years, since the sample sizes from individual classes are much smaller, leading to more variation from year to year.

Blinded by Numbers

The big problem stems from applying these statistics to individual students. It is very easy to calculate an expected grade from a single child’s previous achievement, but with a sample size of just one, the precision is poor. The reliability stemming from a cohort in the hundreds is lost, and the prediction is routinely in error by a whole grade or so. (See my post Physics Exams Too Easy, Says Ofqual

Now, this would not be a problem if these figures were just another piece of the puzzle to be understood by the teacher, but OFSTED, the government overlord of teaching standards, thinks students should know these rough predictions, and be challenged to achieve them. And leaned on if they don’t come up to scratch.

Once upon a time, I got to know my own students, and made judgements as to their individual abilities and potentials, and assessed their effort accordingly. Not perfect, but at least both teacher and student were in the loop.

Forget the Child – Press the Button and Set That Target

Now, each student is given a grade to achieve by the end of a two year course, during which they will mature and develop. If they are very lucky, they will get several target grades which take into account the historical difficulties of each subject they are studying. If not, as is happening more commonly now, they will get a single grade to span the range from Photography and Media to Chemistry and Maths. And to make the target aspirational, a grade will be added to ensure that only a quarter of students will be able to meet their targets, with poor reports and disciplinary procedures for those souls unlucky enough to keep missing impossible targets.

Advantages

  • Simple and cheap to operate.
  • Keeps OFSTED happy.

Disadvantages

  • No educational merit.
  • Can turn keen students into serial target-missers.

An open and shut case for school managers. Shame about the children.

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