Is it Time to Review the Common Grade Scale?

It’s mid year report writing time for teachers across NSW, and Australia.

The Australian Government requires teachers to provide written reports to parents twice a year. We must include comments for each key learning area or subject, and we are required to grade all our students against state and national standards on an A-E scale for effort and achievement.

One of the things I value about the report writing cycle is that it forces me to stop and reflect on each student as an individual. In order to report, I need consider where each student is against state and national standards, not just against my class standard. I need to consider not only what they’ve learned but how they learn, and set goals for each students future learning. While this is something I aim to do all the time, teaching is a busy job. I like that the reporting cycle forces me to take the time out to do that.

However, even though I’ve been using it for years, I find the A-E scale problematic.

The Common Grade Scale for Primary and Junior Secondary Students

A The student has an extensive knowledge and understanding of the content and can readily apply this knowledge. In addition, the student has achieved a very high level of competence in the processes and skills and can apply these skills to new situations.
B The student has a thorough knowledge and understanding of the content and a high level of competence in the processes and skills. In addition, the student is able to apply this knowledge and these skills to most situations.
C The student has a sound knowledge and understanding of the main areas of content and has achieved an adequate level of competence in the processes and skills.
D The student has a basic knowledge and understanding of the content and has achieved a limited level of competence in the processes and skills.
E The student has an elementary knowledge and understanding in few areas of the content and has achieved very limited competence in some of the processes and skills.

In the 70s, when I was in Primary school, a C grade was considered poor. In the Australian Common Grade Scale, C is considered sound and therefore should reflect the achievement of most students. This means we are constantly having to reeducate parents and students about the gradings. Year after year we reassure parents that a C is not a fail, and in fact means that their child is progressing well towards the expected grade outcomes.

The Common Grade Scale does not reflect the way teachers usually  provide feedback. Throughout the year, we focus on where each student is at, their strengths and areas for development. We set goals for further learning and differentiate our instruction. We are so used to looking at students as individuals on a continuum of learning. It feels wrong, and awfully final to pigeonhole them as A, B, C, D and E students.

One of the intentions of the Common Grade Scale was to allow parents to know how their children were achieving compared to national standards. A C should be the same standard, regardless of whether the student is at school in Sydney’s North or in a remote community in Western NSW. However, as much as we try, it is very difficult to get it right. It is  so easy to be influenced by the cohort you teach, and by the school you work in. If the cohort has a lot of high achieving students, students who are average, may appear to be achieving poorly. Similarly, if a cohort is weaker, then some C grade students might appear to achieving at a higher level than they actually are.


This year  I’ve  been considering how Bloom’s taxonomy fits in with all of this. When you look at the language that describes the different levels of the Common Grade Scale, it seems that sound achievement would only involve students working at the bottom 2 levels of Bloom’s taxonomy – knowledge and understanding. The grade descriptors only start talking about applied knowledge when it comes to the higher grades. This leads me to  question how well  the Common Grade Scale can really be used to describe student achievement. Bloom’s taxonomy is a fairly common planning tool for teachers.  I find it odd that the Common Grade Scale would consider all those higher order thinking skills to be above what is expected for sound achievement.

Critical and Creative thinking is now embedded in the new Australian Curriculum. Perhaps this is as good a time as any to review the way we report on student achievement.





5 thoughts on “Is it Time to Review the Common Grade Scale?

  1. Tim says:

    Hi, interesting post. Just wondering what you think of the use of the common grade scale as a feedback tool to children in class? This is happening in our school and I know some parents in my child’s class (year 1) are skeptical of the use for fear of effects on motivation, self esteem etc, especially given they are 6 and 7 year olds.

    • Hi Tim, thanks for commenting. That’s an interesting question.

      To be honest, I don’t think the common grade scale provides effective feedback at all. I think the labels are unhelpful and they are too broad.

      I teach a student with limited skills in literacy. She is in Y2, but reads and writes at an emergent, Kindergarten level. She works on an individual program and has made significant gains. In spite of all her progress and achievements, I am forced to give her a grade of limited. This doesn’t allow me to acknowledge her growth and progress as a learner, and can only be discouraging for her and her parents. I can’t see how a grade like that helps anyone – we all know that she struggles and works at a Kindergarten level. Instead it seems to suggest that regardless of all her effort and achievement she is a failure. Its exactly the opposite of the message I want her to have about herself as a learner.

  2. Tim says:

    I agree, its not the sending the right message at all. I worry about the grading for feedback in daily tasks in the classroom because as children do, they love to compare themselves to each other. Apparently they are told not to share their grades with others but that sounds a bit like wishful thinking. I know of one child who went from being very an enthusiastic and confident learner in prep to one who now questions their ability in reading and spelling, even though he’s at a level that is just above average for his year. There surely has to be a better way to assess them than give them arbitrary ranks. What I would like to know but can’t seem to find out is whether this is also a requirement under the new curriculum or if this is just something our school does in addition to the parent reports each year.

    • I’ve never heard of the common grade scale being used in that way. It sounds like a school initiative to me. As I understand it, the common grade scale is mandatory in the twice yearly school reports, but that’s the only requirement I’m aware of. I’m in the NSW public system. I’m not sure about the requirements for other states or systems.

  3. Tim says:

    Thanks Corinne for the information. I’ll speak to the teacher about it and see what they have to say. Keep up the great blogs!

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