Electronic Resource Centre for
Human Rights Education:
Critical Choices for Hungary
Critical Choices for Hungary
Grading in Schools
Written by: Gizella Szmicsek and Csaba Katona
Those who left their schoolbenches years ago might be inclined to disregard the topic at hand. Grading? What is there to say about it? Perhaps bitter memories come to mind and we will try to explain the grades we got... If we view the problem with neutrality, however, and seriously consider the roles "A", "B", "C", "D" and "F' play in our schools and in our entire educational system, we will soon see that we can hardly afford to ignore the issue.
To be able to fully appreciate the significance of this question we need only consider the role education plays in our lives. Today a person's status - and especially his job - depend on schooling and grades achieved. This system is presumptively called a 'meritocracy'- that is, a system of selection according to ability. Research has shown that in Hungary a person's status - determined by a sum of rank and the possesion of tangible and intangible goods - is most strongly determined by a single factor: education. (For the sake of accuracy we should add that the type of school attended and the results achieved are determined by cultural models and attitudes learned at home.). Clearly, however, three little words determine who will attend what school: excellent, good, satisfactory. These three little words bring us back to our topic.
When introduced this system of advancement based on merit' was an extraordinarily democratic and revolutionary advancement - no longer would family background, sex, age, rank, religion or wealth determine what a person was fit to do. The system of advancement on.the basis of knowledge is extremely democratic - after all, knowledge is available to all. Whether boy or girl, brown eyed or blue, Hungarian or Slovak, Protestant or Jew, or rich or poor, everyone is judged by the same standards.
Today this 'revolutionary' equalizing quality of education has passed. Today, instead of equalization we are likely to feel the system's limiting, 'pigeonholing' qualities. To summarize, what was once a symbol of equality has become a destroyer of the value of equality.
More precisely, the equality assured by grading is destroyed when, at college entrance exams, in addition to being judged on the basis of their subject knowledge, students are evaluated on the basis of such unquantifiable factors as their choice of words, style, ability to judge the difference between what is important, and what not so important, and a number of other forms of behaviour and attitudes which cannot be learned from books. Thus, despite our pretensions, students are judged on the basis of their knowledge of the 'theives' cant' of what is culturally 'in'.
We are very pleased that you have chosen evaluation in schools as your forum topic. Evaluation of any kind is a stimulating topic for discussion - but especially so when we talk about grading. The question can be imagined as a long, twisting school hallway, flanked with doors, some smaller some larger. One door, perhaps the biggest, opens onto the mass of questions related to teacher training. Another opens to reveal school system questions, yet another the welfare system and politics. If we open all the doors, we can see that the hallways the give us access to are connected in a seemingly endless labyrinth - the labyrinth created by the questions of education in Hungary today.
Grading is a stimulating topic for discussion because of the breadth of society it encompasses: nearly everyone, from grade-school children to grandmothers, is interested in the topic. Virtually everyone understands the problem, and nearly anyone invited to a discussion of the question will want to put in their nickle's worth. In the back of this discussion guide you will find a questionnaire. You can use this as a warm-up to the forum by asking participants to fill it out before starting to discuss the topic. You will also find extracts from interviews on the topic scattered throughout the booklet. Some of these interviews are also available on tape. These quotes represent a wide range of opinions, but by no means reflect the full spectrum of opinion on the topic. In fact we have yet to interview important groups whose opinions must be taken into account in a discussion of the problem: partners, representatives of local governments, education researchers, social workers and psychologists are some of the groups not questioned, though they surely have something to say to the topic. As a preparation for the forum you also might want to tape some interviews of your own, and before or during the forum play back those parts of the interviews which most strikingly illustrate the forum's major lines of thought. This should help forum participants to focus their thoughts on the topic.
Three grading options:
You will find three different solutions to the problem of grading in this workbook. Each option approaches the problem from a different basic viewpoint, And each represents its own unique expectations of education.
Choice one stresses the importance of equal opportunity and objectivity in
our school system. These goals can best be met if every student in every school is
expected to meet the same standards. This standardization of education makes the
objective, quantitative evaluation of student performance possible to ensure that the most
talented are allowed to continue their education, and to rise to the top.
In contrast to the first choice, the second is based on the belief that it is naive to think that a standard can be found that will accurately measure knowledge, achievements, creativity, intelligence, learning, and all the other qualities students are given points for when they take their entrance or graduation exams. If we want all of these qualities to be accurately evaluated by students' report cards then we should allow qualified experts to do the grading - experts who are acquainted with the students, and who are equipped with the theoretical and practical knowledge needed to evaluate shades of difference in student ability - and nobody is better prepared to do the job than teachers themselves: grading, after all, requires professional handling.
Although it well may be that there is a need for a national standard in grading, and it clearly is a fact that teachers are the most highly qualified to evaluate student performance on the basis of such a standard, according to the third choice grading should be more than just a yardstick to measure achievement. In fact, grading is the most basic source of power in the classroom, and simultaneously one of the most important forms of communication between teacher and student. It would be just as naive to assume that a new teacher is fully prepared for the classroom, as to assume that a newly licensed driver is perfectly equipped with all the skills he will ever need for the road. In other words: only practice makes perfect. Thus what is needed is an evaluation system that gives feedback to both teacher and student.
As you may have already noticed these three choices are not mutually exclusive - in many instances they may even complement one another. It should also be clear that the concepts embodied by any one option are inadequate to fulfill all the needs of those involved in grading - whether teacher or student. There are arguments for and against each alternative. At the end of the forum, after having made their views known to one another, forum participants should be able to come to a common standpoint - a standpoint that could be called "choice four". Choice four may not exactly match any of the participants' personal opinions, but it will be acceptable, and therefore optimal, for the forum participants.
Once you have completed your forum please do mail us a summary of the results, and your comments.
We hope you find this exercise in democracy productive. Let the forum begin!
There Should Be a National Standard in Grading
The function of grading is to provide an objective numerical gauge of students' knowledge based on a centrally set standard.
One grievance raised by many students is the fact that teachers sometimes make exceptions, and will grant some students better grades than others even though their test scores and work are identical. Some teachers would only award a college professor an "A", and the best a diligent student can get is a "C". Then there are teachers who give "A"s to practically anyone who attends class and shows up at the exams. There are even schools which have done away with grading all together.
The variety and inconsistencies within the school system makes schools unreliable guides of achievement. You can never tell what an "A" or a "C" really means. An evaluation of a teacher's work is equally difficult. After all, the amount to which a student develops in school is, to a great degree, the responsibility of the teacher.
What is needed to minimize these problems is an easily comprehendible,
uniform national curriculum to be identically taught, and evaluated in every school.
Experts should be called on to develop ideal curricula and teaching methods. This will
make it possible to objectively evaluated children's work, and to minimize conflicts which
arise from subjective evaluation. Naturally, this does not mean that lessons will only
include what is in the curriculum. However, we do need to expect a minimum, identical in
every school, that every student should know.
One teacher had the following to say about the question: "I believe that, due to the constant changes in the system, due to the fact that teachers change so often and that there are so many kinds of teachers, some standard has to be found for the teacher, student and parent. Every school needs some sort of set standard. I can even imagine that some level of performance is expected of each school's students at the end of eighth grade, to ensure that there is not such a great a difference in the levels of knowledge of students mixing in the freshman class of highschool."
This teacher was echoed by a student who said: "There are huge differences between grades given within a school. If one teacher teaches subject X, as opposed to another, the "a" one awards carries a completely different weight from the "A" the other awards. The differences nationwide are even more extreme. You can see this at college entrance exams: somebody comes from a country highschool with all "A"s to take the exams and can't even squeak when hit with the first question..."
A few arguments for national Standards:
We don't have to reinvent the wheel here, two national standards already
exist: school graduation exams and the college entrance exams. However, there is room for
improvement. In addition to offering standard questions at the national graduation exams,
a standard evaluation system could be introduced. This could be done through the setting
up of independent testing committees. Also, considering the fact that a choice of careers
starts before secondary school a similar graduation exam should be given at the end of
- The introduction of this sort of national standard and the designing of entrance exams based on this standard would do much to increase the equality of opportunity when students are accepted to college. Such a system would allow for a more objective judgement of students' knowledge. Taking into account the role college entrance exam results can play on a person's future one might say that one of the pillars of social justice is an objective evaluation system.
- However, just as Shakespeare wrote one Hamlet, and yet no two stage versions of the play are identical - so would each school's application of the national standards differ. There would be good schools and bad schools. Still, a centralized grading system would enable students to change schools without overly disrupting their studies if they were dissatisfied with their school.
- Another problem is one of the nightmares that many will remember from the socialist
system: under that centralized education system, at any given time all high-school
freshmen studying math might be asked to think about such earth-shaking questions as why
natural numbers cannot be divided by zero. Such a system favours neither the exceptionally
bright, nor the underaverage. In fact, such a system is designed to favour an ideal
As teachers are the best prepared professionally to realistically evaluate student performance the job should be left to them.
What follows is a chain of thought which we believe many teachers will agree with:
"We need to measure teacher achievement. I try to judge my own performance with my own scale, but nobody else really pays attention to this. I see what the students have achieved by the end of the year in comparison to what thy knew at the start of the year. Most measure achievement by whose students have won competitions. I've had a student who came in second in the national physics competition, but I really didn't get much positive response for this. Actually, I got no thanks at all... Generally this is something students themselves achieve, but still..."
A school's prestige is generally a result of the quality of its teachers. If they are skilled professionals, working with sound theories, who know what they want to achieve, they will have the respect of both students and teachers. A teacher needs both skills, and a sound theoretical base on which to base these skills. A teacher can win the trust of their students' parents by talking with them about his teaching theories.
Differing attitudes and strategies
There are teachers who strive to drive their students towards achievement in competitions and exams. Then there are teachers who try to offer the extra skills (such as knowledge of foreign languages, or of computing) that will give their students an edge in the job market.
There are teachers whose goal is to pass on values and morals so that a
student will behave honorably in any situation, so that he will respect his fellow men and
be an upstanding citizen.
Then there are teachers who place the emphasis on the student's emotional balance, on developing personality, or on effective group-work, and who choose their teaching materials and develop their assignments accordingly.
The following comments from a student show that virtually any subject can be taught with a variety of such strategies: "I had a p.c. teacher who gave grades on the basis of how much the students had developed at the end of the year. He gave the same numerical grades as any teacher, but his system was far more humane. In his class the best runner didn't necessarily get the best grade - everybody had the same chances ... but that's as rare as a blue moon."
Parents often have very little information about the theories on which their children's schools base their teaching methods. Actually, we should admit that many parents don't even know what their children are being taught. Often it is better that we amateurs to the field don't try to influence what is taught as educators know better than we do. Therefore teaching, and this includes grading, is a professional question.
Let's summarize the arguments for this view:
- Education is a part of the market. We should let schools and teachers prove that they are better than the best. It is their right to choose the evaluation system they prefer.
- Enumerable factors determine student achievement, and yet we still need a grading system that enables us to compare student results. A teacher is the best able to fairly evaluate a student's work, and no pre-set standard can compensate for this.
There are a few arguments against this view as well:
- And here's a tough one: Why should we believe the arguments above -
that's the way the system has always worked, isn't it? Differences in quality between
classes are often the result of differences in teachers' abilities. What's to guarantee
that things will be better from here on? And let's not overly glorify teacher skills -
they're just people too.
Grading exists to give a signal to the student of how he or she should develop, and to tell the teacher of where to concentrate his efforts.
More and more teachers are expressing similar sentiments: "Somehow you need to understand that it's not the subject, it's the students a teacher be with - we're all people... And if I think about grading, and I'm sitting with them, I feel that I'm one of them. I know that I will get an honest reply if I ask what they think of my work."
For such a system to work every educational institution (school, group, kindergarten, trade school, etc.) needs to have some sort of open education system. This means that the school should define what goals it is working towards (what it wants to develop in the children), and this generally should be reflected in educational materials (textbooks, lesson-books) and will make the system of grading to be used clear.
In such a system the school must hold itself to its norms, because parents will choose a school for their children on the basis of these norms, and on the basis of this program - and very often are willing to do so for a price (as is the case with foundation schools). It is in the school's own interest to develop a program for which there is a demand - and if people show their approval of the system, to maintain standards with a regular system of checking and controlling.
More and more schools are developing their own educational programs. There are even chains of schools, and associations of schools. What is still relatively rate are organizations that provide a range of schools, each with its own spirit and educational style. in the best of cases the entire teaching staff will coordinate its work, so that each teacher's efforts complements the whole.
Many parents are enthusiastic about schools with such programs as they are
free to choose the school and teaching style they prefer for their children. They know
what to expect of their child when he comes back from school. In this system a teachers
can be evaluated as well. Some bear evaluation better than others, but if evaluation done
carefully, and well worked-out it will allow for human error, and will enrich the teaching
experience instead of being used as a way to mark out the inferior, or to cause
insecurities. Such a grading system can help both teachers and students do better jobs in
the classroom. The question that often arises here is who should evaluate the students,
the teachers and the principal? The answer is that they should evaluate one another, and
might even ask for grading help from other schools or a board of observers. Grading here,
of course, would depend on how teachers and students feel, and that depends on any number
of other factors, such as: the school administration; their economic and social wellbeing;
their everyday lives, etc. Still, more and more are calling for a change in the spirit of
education - for an end to the alienating rituals that fill school life today. More and
more people are calling for a form of grading that places an emphasis on the acquaintance
with and acceptance of the other. In the end, an honest evaluation of one another's work
will only be given in a system free of threats.
We probably can all agree that grading is only worthwhile if it fulfils two functions: if it reinforces our strengths and helps us overcome our weak- nesses. When reviewing our grading system we should not forget the fact that there is no single power in adult life that can influence or motivate us to the degree that grading can influence children. But here we should stress that grading is merely a means to a goal, and not the goal itself. And we should not forget that grading says something about the evaluator as well. Finally, we should not forget that we can only grade 'something' and not 'someone'.
Who should grade? Just teachers? Perhaps students? Maybe parents? The studentbody? The teaching board? The parents' association? Teachers and students together? Teachers and the studentbody? If a teacher insists on his sole right to evaluate, the student will never learn to evaluate himself. What is more, the student will learn not to have independent opinions, and will base his behaviour on the opinions of others. This is where an evasion of responsibility begins. This is where we learn to cover up our mistakes, and to be subservient.
What are we grading?
Knowledge? Knowledge of what? Textbook knowledge? Knowledge of what to say? Memorization? Writing? Unfortunately these have little to do with "the curriculum". These are a skills a student is gifted with. Or do we grade knowledge of how to use skills? Where? Knowledge of skills needed at school or in real life? 'Real life' knowledge can't even be graded in school. What are we to grade? Should we grade whether or not a student has understood what the teacher has presented on the basis of the teacher's own conceptual system? And isn't it clear how many ways one can interpret a simple explanation? Knowledge, after all, when transplanted arrives to a new environment - a new thought system, with a different set of knowledge and associations starting from what a person has read, seen on television, and done in his spare time. One teacher put the dilemma of grading as follows: "Just what are we grading? Are we grading, for instance, how well a student has mastered the technique of climbing a rope? Or whether or not he means to? Or whether or not he wants to? And what if he doesn't want to? And if he doesn't want to does that mean that I have to take my revenge on him because I am as one with the subject?...Some think their teaching is a calling. That they should convert their students to their subject, no matter who those students are. They don't care what a child's little gifts are, how a child excels, what makes that child feel special. These are the things on which a person can build his identity, his sense of worth - things which will help him feel confident in his choice of a partner or a political party, because he will make his choice in the full knowledge of who he is."
Here we have clearly overstepped the bouds of 'what' and entered the realm of 'why and
The teacher continued "The question of why and how could be put differently: 'Why are we in this relationship as student and teacher'. I could look at students as 'pagans' to be converted to my subject. Then any given student is only of interest to me in as much as he of she relates to my topic.
I could consider students as underlings to be kept under stress. Then I don't have to
communicate with them, I don't have to know them personally, I don't even have to look at
them. I can expect them to complete difficult assignments that I myself might have trouble
doing. I'll pretend I'm
We adults are the ones who never learned how to use more subtle methods of convincing one another. We never took the time to make it clear to one another what we believe. I could keep on listing how a teacher can regard his students, about the roles teachers force themselves and their students to play without explaining why to the children and without knowing why themselves."
Grading gains its significance as a part of the process of teaching and learning. It plays an important role in concentrating skills. It exists to help reach educational goals, and takes on the form of the goals the school, the teacher and the parents want to reach. Those goals can result in preparation for an exam, a mastery of any given subject, and in the production of a child who is unable to make independent decisions, and has a chameleon's values. A teaching system can encourage independence, or dependence. It can develop confidence, or destroy the little self-esteem a child has. We might even be working towards both - a child with no independence up until graduation, and a young adult who can develop new concepts in college, or who can think independently about political and economic questions.
Look through the following words and phrases. This is an incomplete list of expressions that ran be used as synonyms for grading: calling somebody to account, testing, measurement, classifying, ranking, sorting, screening, evaluating, judging, recognizing achievement. Think about what feelings you get from these expressions, and think about which one you would prefer to have applied if you were a student.
Have a pleasant discussion!
Electronic Resource Centre for Human Rights Education:
Critical Choices for Hungary