Grades are Unnecessary!

Eckhard Klieme is an education researcher and professor at Goethe University Frankfurt, as well as the director of the Educational Quality and Evaluation Department at the German Institute for Educational Research (DIPF). The interview was conducted at this year’s Jacobs Foundation Conference at Marbach Castle on Lake Constance, Germany.

The conference brought together leading scientists from a variety of disciplines to discuss current and future research on cultural and linguistic heterogeneity in education.

At the conference, leading researchers discussed cultural and linguistic heterogeneity in education.
Is my child better off in a school that gives grades or one that doesn’t?
I don’t think grades are necessary, and there is considerable evidence that they have a counterproductive effect on learning. They don’t really provide informative or useful feedback; they’re just comparisons. However, grades are relevant for the selection process at the end of each level of schooling. At that point it is reasonable and necessary to give grades, since one of the social functions of schools is to provide a basis for making decisions about the next step in a student’s educational career. But when it comes to actual teaching and learning, there’s no need for grades during a child’s first eight years in our school system. Instead, teachers should be encouraged to give more detailed feedback.

Grades are based on a variety of factors. Are good or bad grades more likely to motivate students?
I have unpleasant memories of my Latin teacher, who for years refused to give me an A in Latin because he thought it would make me less motivated. It’s common for teachers to use grades strategically – as a punishment or reward, or to give students something to aspire to. That’s not how they should be used, in my opinion, because it’s not transparent – for students themselves, or for their peers or parents. In good schools, teachers regularly meet with students and parents to discuss the student’s progress.

Thinking specifically about Germany: Which is fairer to the student – centralized or locally controlled school-leaving examinations?
I favor a modular system of examinations and certifications. We need some centralized elements so that teachers can compare their assessments with national standards. But we also need local elements, because they can be adapted to the individual learning situation and take into account student-specific observations and indicators. The ideal would be to use a weighted average of credits earned over several years of schooling, along with the results of a standardized, centralized examination and a local examination – perhaps oral or interactive.

But it is neither sensible nor fair to use only the kind of standardized test we see in the United States (sometimes even with multiple-choice questions), which is administered all over the country at the same time and plays a major role in admission to higher education.

Now for an international comparison: Why are schools in Germany better than in the United States, while American universities are better than ours?
I don’t necessarily believe that German schools are better. Germany’s PISA scores – for 15-year-olds – are higher, but when it comes to elementary school students the situation is reversed. It appears to be only our secondary schools that are better than schools in the U.S. Many experts, particularly American experts, attribute this to the level of teachers’ qualifications and the quality of secondary-school curricula.

With regard to universities: It’s impossible to compare them, since Germany doesn’t have the same system of research universities, teaching universities and colleges as the United States does. And no reliable studies have looked at the performance of university graduates in different countries. An American community college is comparable to what we call a “Berufskolleg,” or trade school, and universities like Stanford and Harvard, which also confer bachelor’s degrees, are a level above our regular universities.

German higher education has huge issues when it comes to support for students and the quality of teaching. Comparing seminars at German universities and in the Netherlands or England, I feel almost embarrassed to represent Germany’s higher education system. At my university in Frankfurt, for example, seminars can have as many as 60 students. That would never be acceptable in England or the Netherlands because it lowers quality.

How might the situation be improved?
We need to make fundamental changes – in university facilities and resources, and in how we view the role of teaching. We need new approaches. Instead of having students spend a lot of time in lectures, we should post lectures online, and then professors could devote more of their time to interacting with students. We need more interactive learning or a combination of different types of learning. In addition, we’re not where we should be when it comes to the use of media and our digital infrastructure.

As for schools: Students need to learn how to evaluate themselves, rather than waiting for someone else to give them a grade. And then they should use teacher feedback to adjust and correct their own perceptions. As we focus on competence, it is important to understand what competence actually means. As a high school student, I should be capable of setting goals and assessing my progress, which will make me a more self-directed learner. But this requires different kinds of assessments and feedback – fewer grades, more competency grids and similar tools, and above all opportunities for teachers and students to meet and discuss the student’s progress.

Are teachers receiving the training they need?
Germany has made a significant amount of progress in this area. The Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of Germany’s states has developed standards for teachers’ skills, based on the actual demands of their job: classroom teaching, lesson planning and evaluation, but also the ability to collaborate with others to improve schools and education as a whole. And now we also have the new “Quality Offensive in Teacher Training.”

Why has Germany made such slow progress in improving its PISA rankings?
I don’t think progress has been slow at all, at least during the first decade. Improving a single student’s skills through the learning process is very different from improving a system that is constantly adding new cohorts. This is a very slow process, if it can be done at all. Unfortunately, policymakers and the general public in many countries, including Germany, don’t realize how difficult it is to change an education system. It takes time. We introduce new school types with the assumption that everything will be better a few years later. But it’s not that simple.

In fact, we have achieved steady progress for more than ten years, in all three areas that were measured. Improved student achievement was first observed in science. Then mathematics scores improved, followed by reading performance.