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.