Learning Curve: understanding grades

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 October, 2012, 3:24pm

Former US president George W. Bush's gaffes have been a great source of amusement over the years. They include a gem he posed in January 2000: "Rarely is the question asked: is our children learning?" The question is entirely appropriate, even if the grammar is faulty.

And it's one that a number of parents are asking as schools wind up their first mid-term break in the new academic year. They are anxious to know how well their children have adjusted to new teachers, subjects, timetables and friends.

Some students may have received a grade that indicates how they have progressed in different subjects. In all my years of teaching, these assessments have always been a topic of spirited discussion among parents and educators, and I expect this will continue.

Should John get a better grade than Jack because he tried harder?

We use grades to communicate a student's achievement, from which his or her grasp of the subject is implied or inferred. But everyone has different philosophies and methods for making their assessment.

Recently, I handed a grade C to a student whose biology knowledge is accumulated in my classroom mainly by osmosis. But another student who has routinely received Es and Ds was also given a C. The first student's grade was a great disappointment and reflected a poor effort, while the second was a source of pride, and showed the progress made.

How will their respective parents interpret these grades? A lot depends on how well the parents understand the factors that the grade is based on. These may vary from school to school, but are generally consistent within each school.

Under the IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) system, grades are always presented as letters from A to E. An A*, for instance, is given for marks from 90 to 100 per cent; and E is for 40 to 50 per cent.

But grades for International Baccalaureate, which are computed on a bell curve, range from one to seven.

To add to the confusion, many schools give both a letter grade and an IB grade. Schools generally include performance in projects, tests and homework in making their overall assessment. A student could score 90 per cent in class tests, but if they have not been diligent in completing homework or projects, it affects the overall grade. This indicates the student needs to develop regular study habits, and become more conscientious about completing projects.

The IB has similar expectations of achievement for all subjects within the experimental sciences, and the criteria are given in the form of levels of performance that candidates should achieve.

A grade of seven reflects an excellent performance. Among other factors, this is based on students displaying a comprehensive knowledge of facts covered and a thorough command of concepts and principles. They are able to use the information and apply principles in a wide variety of contexts. They can construct detailed explanations of complex phenomena and make conclusions.

Indicators include consistently showing perseverance and responsibility in conducting a variety of investigative projects, the ability to work in a team and a grasp of investigative techniques

Grade three indicates a limited knowledge of facts, partial understanding of basic concepts and a poor ability to apply them. The student is inconsistent in applying skills in investigative activities, and only occasionally considers ethical approaches and safety issues.

As the IB organisation notes, very few candidates fall consistently into one grade level or another. So examiners look to place candidates in the grade that most broadly matches their performance, allowing for some compensation across the different aspects.

Knowing the answers to at least a few of the following questions will help parents understand how their child is learning. What are the grade boundaries? What is the class average? Some schools prefer to use the median as a benchmark when the class has students at different ends of spectrum, because the average is skewed by outliers.

Is the grade based solely on unit tests or is it based on a composite of performance in homework and other assignments? And to what extent are these weighted in computation of the final grade? Are all teachers in the school using the same criteria? Does the B given by one teacher mean the same as a B given by another?

Schools generally make such information available, and it is necessary to refer to it when interpreting your child's grade and putting it into the context of how well he or she is learning.

Otherwise, as Bush said in 2004, "Then you wake up at the high school level and find out that the illiteracy level of our children are [sic] appalling." Anjali Hazari teaches IB and IGCSE biology at the French International School