Student Reports: More Worthless Than a White Crayon

Here’s a timely reminder of why I hate writing reports, for all you Aussie teachers who, like me, are getting ready to undertake the mammoth and unnecessary task. Are you at a school – like my wife’s – choosing to not write comments this time around, opting instead for letter-grades only, plus face-to-face parent-teacher conferences?

Student Reports: More Worthless Than a White Crayon.

Why ‘Grades’ Are A Useless Form Of Feedback (And Do More Harm Than Good)


So, ‘smart’ kids are no happier than others. Besides, why does society value academia so highly anyway? School systems think standardised testing will somehow improve learning and that assigning grades and report cards will somehow improve learning, but a large body of research suggests quite the opposite. Kids need feedback that will help them improve. But what do we actually want students to get out of their education? What are we trying to achieve?

A teacher’s take on why schools should scrap ‘grades’, and instead give students real ‘feedback’…

Grades are a useless form of feedback, and do more harm than good
Alfie Kohn outlines here some of his arguments against ‘grades’:
Grades tend to reduce students’ interest in the learning itself
Grades tend to reduce students’ preference for challenging tasks
Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking
Grades aren’t valid, reliable, or objective
Grades distort the curriculum
Grades waste a lot of time that could be spent on learning
Grades encourage cheating
Grades spoil teachers’ relationships with students
Grades spoil students’ relationships with each other

In this article, educator Chris Crouch gives his three key reasons for his anti-grades stance and why they’re not only potentially harmful to learning, but plain useless and unreliable:
• Grades are inflated
• Grades remove intrinsic motivation
• Grades are poor communicators of student learning

What are we trying to measure, and how do we measure it?
I read yesterday that the world’s ‘smartest’ kids are also the ‘saddest’. Yikes. That goes against the age-old, ‘go to school, get a good education, become smart, get a great job, have a great life’ model that is drilled into us from when we’re young. Surely we don’t prioritise good grades and academic results above the chance for a happy childhood? Although that would be in line with the ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality that is rife in today’s society. It got me thinking about our push for “results, results, results” in schools, which then got me thinking about how we define and measure “results”.

Of course we want our students to get “results”, but how do we measure the success of education? And besides, what are we actually trying to achieve? I’ve blogged previously about Ken Robinson’s ideas about education and suggestions that we focus too heavily on the ‘academic’. I quoted him as saying “The whole point of education is to get people to learn. If there’s no learning going on, there’s no education going on.” He says that the role of teachers is “to facilitate learning”, to “mentor, stimulate, provoke, engage”. I’ve searched Victoria’s education department website as well as Victoria’s curriculum website and Australia’s National Curriculum website and Australian government’s education department website. Surely, as the four key organisations that determine what my students learn, I will have been able to figure out what I’m expected to be doing when I teach. I couldn’t actually find anything of any use, other than “High quality school education supports productivity and improves the educational outcomes of children, increasing the likelihood that they will attain skills and be in employment” ( My reaction – what the heck does that mean? Let me get this straight… If my students get a job when they finish school, then their education has been a success? Can other people see how ridiculous that sounds? Well, I’m no closer to learning what kind of ‘results’ I’m looking for, other than the specifics listed in curriculum documents. Perhaps that is actually what we’re hoping for? Children that develop a long list of skills and understandings that will lead to them getting a job? In America, don’t the Common Core Standards aim to develop “college and career readiness”? I’m starting to see a pattern.
Kindergarten prepares kids for Primary School,
which prepares kids for High School,
which prepares teenagers for Tertiary Education and work.

>Is this honestly what our education system is/does?< 

Above I listed lots of reasons given by Crouch and Kohn as to why grades are not only useless, but damaging to learning. Even if we ignored that for a moment, how can teachers grade a student’s learning if we don’t actually know what we or they are hoping to achieve, let alone how to measure it?

So what feedback will improve student learning?
I’m not arguing for a kumbaya, sit-around-the-campfire and sing all kids praises regardless of effort. I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t measure success or attempt to measure a learning program’s effectiveness. Some argue that these days, we’re overly politically correct, praise kids too often and are setting our future generations up for failure but taking away things such as competition and opportunities to build resilience. I’m not suggesting we scrap ‘grades’ and reports and replace them with gold stars for all. I do believe, however, that teachers need to actively give their students real feedback – Feedback that report grades or exam scores do not provide.

Many ‘pro-graders’ argue that grades do give ‘feedback’ to teachers, students, parents, schools and systems are about how kids are going with their learning. I suppose they do somewhat, however as Ken Robinson has mentioned, we assess learner success “across a very narrow spectrum of achievement”. Curriculum documents essentially provide teachers with a whole repertoire of skills and understandings that their students are expected to master. That’s what we assess against. That’s what we use to assign grades. That’s the feedback we give.

I’ve mentioned John Hattie in a previous blog post, in regards to his work on “effect sizes” in relation to “feedback”. Long story short, I don’t see reports/grades anywhere on his list of factors which improve student learning outcomes. A few factors are sort of related, such as “Student Self-Reported Grades” which states that a student’s expectations of their own learning and the push for them to exceed those expectations, “Formative Evaluation” which basically refers to the assessment used to inform teaching and learning, and “Feedback” information for teacher and more importantly, the student, on where they’re going, how they’re going and where to next. Note that this last factor does not mean feedback given to a parent about what their kid has done at school for the last six months! Here, Hattie says that feedback (not grades!) “leads to increased effort, motivation or engagement to reduce the discrepancy between current status and the goal, it can lead to alternative strategies to understand the material, it confirm to the student that they are correct or incorrect, it can indicate that more information is available or needed, it can point to directions that the students could pursue, and it can lead to restructuring understandings” (*pp2-3).

This research has shown that descriptive feedback, which conveys information on how one performs the task and details ways to overcome difficulties, was far more effective than evaluative feedback, which simply informed students about how well they did and, consequently, carried a connotation of social comparison without giving any guidelines on how to improve” (^p32). Further, “receiving a grade was also generally associated with lower self-efficacy and more negative affect” (^p33).

Although they’ve been around since the 1700s, it might be time to give grades the flick. In fact, the fact that they’ve been around for so long is probably even more of a reason to get rid of them. If anyone is able to give me some arguments for grades that out-way the downsides I’ve discussed, I’m more than happy to hear your side!

This has been my longest post to date, so thankyou for sticking with it – If you stayed until the end! 🙂

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Some good links relating to this topic:

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Common Core For Dummies

An Australian teacher’s take on America’s Common Core State Standards…

I’ll start by saying I know nothing about the Common Core State Initiative, other than the often negative posts I read whilst blog-browsing (Read some heartfelt anti-Common Core posts here, here and here). So, here’s what little ol’ me down here in Australia has figured out so far…

What is the ‘Common Core’?
Most USA states have adopted the Common Core Standards which are purported to prepare students for their future – college and career. It has set new assessment benchmarks and specifies what children are expected to know and what skills they should master by the end of each year. Am I right so far?

Well there’s obviously been a great deal of backlash over the Standards and I’m in the process of figuring out why. I had a click around the Common Core website and it actually very much reminded me of Australia’s new National Curriculum. So, I’m clicking around thinking this aint so bad. In fact, I found the ‘anchor standards’ quite interesting and there isn’t anything too wrong with hoping for a consistent education for a country’s children, is there? So what’s the issue?

What’s the problem?
Could it be that, like most things to do with education at a political level, it has been written by businessmen, and politicians with no real grasp on the purpose of education, let alone what actually goes on at a classroom level? Is there an underlying issue that it has been developed to make money for the private sector, such as text book publishers, education business and so on? That doesn’t seem like enough to get so many American educators so furious. After all, sadly for education, that will always be a problem, until governments set their egos aside and allow teachers, parents and students to write the curriculum!

Is it the tests?
In Australia, we have so-called NAPLAN tests which students take every two years. These tests do virtually nothing to improve their learning, particularly as they are so infrequent and it takes many months for them to receive their scores after each test. Oddly, one of the primary uses of the NAPLAN data is to compare schools against other schools. Again, what does this do to improve student learning – and let’s not forget that that’s the whole reason we do this thing called education!? From what I’ve read it seems like one of the foundations of the Common Core is the rigorous testing schedule. Exactly how often kids are made to sit tests I’m not sure, but from my experience, biennial NAPLAN tests are more than often enough! Any American teacher reading this, exactly how often are your students expected to sit standardised tests? Standardised tests lead to stressed and depressed students as well as teachers. The whole ‘game’ of learning becomes about the test score. Teachers end up ‘teaching to the test’ in an effort to raise grades. Tests do little if anything to improve student learning and some say the assigning of grades actually damages learning.

Is it ruining education?
Aside from the fact that in most countries, standards are developed by people and companies that know little about education, and the downsides of tests, what other issues are there? Standards that are too rigid leave little room for creativity and teaching off-the-cuff or based on students’ passions, interests and most importantly, their learning needs. I’ve heard that the Common Core sets the standards, but it’s up to each state to develop their own curricula based on the standards, but I don’t know how that works in practice? Does the Common Core leave room for differentiating, or teaching students at their point of need, or is it the case that all year 4 students will learn the year 4 standards regardless of whether they should actually be learning year 3 standards or extended to year 5 or beyond? Is it a one-size-fits-all approach? Consider though, that pedagogy has a greater impact on student learning than curriculum. Could teachers say, oh well, these are the standards I have to teach to, but I can make it my own. Or has that been taken away too? Finally, do the standards focus on skills, understandings, applications, etc, or is it about rote learning?

So, I guess the question remains… Will the Common Core improve learning for all American students?

 Like I said, I don’t know much about these much-talked-about standards, so maybe some fellow bloggers can enlighten me, and as always, share their 2 cents!

 –  Teachling <WordPress> <Tumblr>

More from Teachling:
A teacher’s take on “How Children Learn”…