Why are school grades important

Expert interview: why do we need grades at all?

Prof. Dr. Dr. Werner Wiater has held a chair for school education since 1987 and is also Vice President of the University of Augsburg. Previously he was a. High school teacher for French, Catholic religion and education in North Rhine-Westphalia. He is the father of three children. In the interview he talks about grades, performance and parental home.

Professor Wiater, why do we need grades? Grades are exposed to many reproaches: they would demotivate, exert pressure, select.
I could add to this much-used list of arguments. But I could just as well make a list of arguments in favor of grades: grades provide information about the current level of performance, they make the level of performance of one student comparable with that of another. They motivate when a student has been able to demonstrate his or her skills in a subject. We're not getting anywhere like this.

So the key question is: do we even need grades?
Different groups of people answer this question differently. From the point of view of school pedagogy, one ultimately has to consider what the school is for. The school actually has to do two things that are dialectically related to one another. On the one hand, it is intended to promote the personal development of children; on the other hand, it has a social function: it prepares children and young people for the high demands of the knowledge society with all its advantages and disadvantages. So we have personality development on the one hand and performance education on the other.

What are the consequences?
Of course, you can design a school that dispenses with all assessments. You can give every child a nicely worded degree. But what happens then? Then the institutions for which the school is actually supposed to prepare in the field of achievement education will take their own entrance exams. But how do we justify that children spend a large part of their life in school for many years? In the area of ​​personality development, too, grades must be viewed differently and not be harmful. Personal development means that I am given challenging tasks in order to even be able to discover where my abilities and my development potential lie. A statement about whether you put it in numbers or write verbal assessments, however, cannot avoid saying: The boys and girls at our schools are just different with regard to the three fields that are relevant for grades: learning style, learning ability and willingness to learn.

Such statements, including grades, are often given great importance. How do you judge that?
For elementary school children, grades have taken on a meaning that can no longer be justified. They get this importance because some parents' houses, who can only imagine high school as a secondary school for their children, already consider a “satisfactory” to be a catastrophe. Grades have only a very limited prognostic value. A grade can only capture what a student has shown in the fields of learning style, ability to learn and willingness to learn. Not more.

What can we say to the parents?
The transfer to high school is a good example of this. Why are there students who are recommended to transfer to grammar school in the 4th grade, but then suddenly have difficulties in a certain situation? In a very interesting long-term study from 2009, Helmut Fendt examined educational trajectories. In it he demonstrated that changes in the parental home, for example, play a much greater role in a child failing at school than performance or willingness to learn. After the 4th grade I can only say: If the framework conditions do not change significantly, if the dangers in adolescence, which exist everywhere, do not have any serious effects, then there is a likelihood that someone will go through this secondary school without any problems. But I can't draw any conclusions about my further educational career from going to high school. That cannot be verified with empirical research.

Then it is not the grades that are the problem, but how they are dealt with. How should we deal with it?
In my opinion, three things are particularly important. Firstly, intensive work with parents from the first day of primary school: the teacher gives the parents feedback on their observations on the development of the child at regular intervals. The teacher also talks to them about how they support or possibly burden the child. Second, parents need to realize that there are other ways to continue primary school than just high school. This fixation on high school is a disaster! In the Bavarian school system it is already possible without major problems to obtain all qualifications across all types of schools. One must not put a strain on a child's mental and physical health if they can also achieve the same degree in other ways. Thirdly, we should speak much more skill-oriented rather than deficit-oriented about the performance of children. One child may be particularly successful in abstract learning processes, another may have skills in other areas that are worth developing.

Teachers, too, can do a lot to reduce the pressure on grades and use grades correctly. What can that look like?
What is decisive is the basic attitude with which I, as a teacher, approach my students. My interest as a teacher must be that the student succeeds. I want to help the student so that he can meet the learning requirements. The student has to notice that too. If this is the case, then I can also say to the student: It didn't fit. It is crucial that the teacher does not judge, but doesactically endeavor to prepare the performance tests as best as possible, for example through additional exercise materials.

You are addressing the design of performance surveys here. How do I design a good and fair performance survey?
A good teacher will keep reminding himself of known principles. What the students are asked in a school assignment must correspond to what was done in the classroom (except for basic knowledge). This also applies to the weighting: If I have dealt with something in detail, then it must also be given the corresponding share in the school assignment. The sequence of tasks should rather go from easy to difficult. In addition, teachers should consider which alternatives they can use in the performance surveys. The variety is great. From the MODUS school trials, there are expanded options for performance records, which are now also anchored in law, for example direct performance templates. The student is even more actively involved in determining his or her performance. Well-known forms are the portfolio or the learning diary. Here the pupil can show how he proceeded, what interested him, where he found it easy or difficult. It is also very important to me that grades should not serve as a means of discipline. Grades must provide evidence of what knowledge or skills someone has acquired at a specific point in time on a specific subject. This includes separating learning and performance phases in the classroom.

Which criteria can I even use for grades?
The decision as to which grade a student receives must be based on an objective criterion. This criterion is usually set in the curricula. They say which competences should be acquired in a subject at the end of the school year. This results in a competence-oriented planning of the lessons and the individual performance surveys. I then combine that with an individual reference system. With this I signal to the student that I have noticed a learning progress that he has shown and that I am also helping him to keep getting better. It is possible that the student gets a “defective” rating anyway. But this feedback is necessary.

A bad grade is always negative for the student.
Not necessarily. It is important not to look at the individual grade, but to keep an eye on the basic orientation and to communicate this to the student. Parents and teachers need to see whether the child is generally coping with the requirements. Many students only make a lot of themselves when it becomes interesting for them. Nobody learns continuously with all their strength reserves. To expect that is inhuman.

Humanity also means justice. Is there a 100% fair grade?
There is no justice in this world at all. There is at most one procedural justice. To assume that grades can be fair is overwhelming. At most, there is an effort not to do anyone injustice. Grades cannot do more than that. In addition to the individual grade, the following applies: All in all, the assessments of all teachers who take a diagnostic look at a student from different perspectives reflect quite well overall how productive a student is in the school form and where he has his skills and competencies. (17.02.2011)