Grading- a policy analysis

grading policy vr image

Published in Independence Vol 43 No 2 October 2018, p18 Is it time to re-think how we grade our students? Ross Phillips, Senior Dean of Learning, Research and Innovation at Strathcona Baptist Girls Grammar School thinks it is. He suggests that an analysis of policy might help to ensure that the practice of communication of […]

Share This Post

Published in Independence Vol 43 No 2 October 2018, p18

Is it time to re-think how we grade our students? Ross Phillips, Senior Dean of Learning, Research and Innovation at Strathcona Baptist Girls Grammar School thinks it is. He suggests that an analysis of policy might help to ensure that the practice of communication of performance in schools is one that best supports student learning.

GRADING is a practice that is ubiquitous in our schools. It is even a federal government requirement. However, grading should not be an unquestioned element of modern schooling. There are different approaches to grading and different views on its impact. Grading has not always been a part of school practice and perhaps will not always be. In an educational environment where there is constant effort to find ways of improving learning and raising achievement it is important to question how that achievement is measured and reported, which is often through a process of grading.

Grades for performance in class is an example of a policy that operates within schooling. There are national policies on grading through the Australian Education Regulation 2013 which requires that all schools award grades to their students for each subject they study (Federal Register of Legislation, 2018). There are grading policies at the school level as well; such as how the grades are represented (letters, adjectives and percentages are common forms of grading) and what is graded, for example, tasks or the subject as a whole. This is taken to another level at the VCE with the ATAR, which is a ranking, effectively grading each student for their performance at school across all subjects.

Many concerns can be raised about grading including: what are the effects on the learning of different categories of student, does grading encourage students to work harder, does the pursuit of grades distract from the pursuit of deeper understanding, does grading discourage lower performing students, what does grading do to encourage a love of learning?

Typically, policies are seen as
approaches for dealing with problems
in society. For example, we could
imagine a group of educators faced
with the problem of communicating
student progress. After much
discussion they develop a series of
categories called A, B, C, D and E in
which they group the students based
on their test results. Those students

who perform very well on the test are awarded an “A”; those who do very poorly an “E”. Over the years this practice spreads across the globe as an efficient and universally understood system. In this model of thinking, the problem (communicating student progress) exists prior to the policy and the policy works to solve the problem. This article takes a different approach by applying the model of policy analysis developed by Carol Bacchi (Bacchi, 2009) to the national policy of grading.

Instead of an approach to solving a pre-existing problem, Bacchi asks us to consider a policy as something that helps to shape the problem. For example, in Australia there has been recent discussion about how when a woman is attacked walking home, the response reported in the media includes messages about not walking alone or not walking at night. This represents the problem as being one of women needing to take more responsibility for their safety. However, this solution is just a way of representing the problem. This is demonstrated by the observation that when men are attacked it is more often the character of the attacker that is criticised. Other responses to violent attacks could represent the problem differently – as a law and order problem, a masculinity problem, a transport problem, a security problem. The policy of grading represents a problem in a certain way – “We must have grading otherwise how would we know if our children were “A” students or “B” students? However, “A” students, or “A grade” work did not exist before the policy of grading using letters was invented.

Bacchi sets up six questions to be used in analysis of policy:

  1. “What’s the ‘problem’ represented to be in a specific policy?
  2. What presuppositions or assumptions underlie this representation of the ‘problem’?
  3. How has this representation of the ‘problem’ come about?
  4. What is left unproblematic in this problem representation? Where are the silences? Can the ‘problem’ be thought about differently?
  5. What effects are produced by this representation of the ‘problem’?
  6. How/where has this representation of the problem’ been produced, disseminated and defended? How could it be questioned, disrupted and replaced?” (ibid)

Beginning with the first question. There is a national policy that schools must provide parents of students in Australian schools with grades (A to E or equivalent) for each subject at least twice a year. If that is the solution then it appears that the problem is one of communicating student performance to parents. Grades in their various forms communicate how each student performed in the assessment for that class. It is assumed that everyone achieving an A performed at a similar standard, as did all those awarded a B. The implication is that what matters is that parents know how their children compare on these assessments with the other students. Alternative policies can be imagined, such as that the learning achieved that semester needs to be reported, or character, competencies, etc. The fact that student performance on common assessment against standards is mandated, shapes the problem that this policy has been put in place to deal with.

The second question of analysis Bacchi describes as archaeology It is about uncovering the thinking that underpins the policy. For example, in a policy requiring grading of all students, there is a presupposition that grading gives information that is meaningful to parents, and perhaps that it is fair, or at least consistent. It suggests that a grade of performance is more important than other information that can be given. But what are grades measuring? Grades might be seen as indications of ability, achievement, effort, potential and so on. There is an assumption that those who give and those who receive grades share an understanding of what they mean. In reality, grades might reflect a combination of factors such as health, mood, personal circumstances at the time in addition to achievement or ability.

Question 3 reminds us it is not inevitable that this grading policy should exist. Grading is not known to have existed at all prior to the early 1700s where students were awarded numbers 1 to 4 based on their effort and achievement at Cambridge University (Schneider & Hutt, 2013). The use of grades expanded in the 1800s but often they were kept secret from the students to avoid competition. An example of this early grading in US colleges comes from William and Mary College where students were graded as “first in their respective classes”, “orderly, correct and attentive”, “very little improvement” and “learned little or nothing … on account of excessive idleness” (Schneider & Hutt, 2013). These grades reflect not only performance but a presupposition that learning is a function of effort. Throughout the nineteenth century as increasing numbers attended school and efficiencies were sought to deal with education of a population rather than individuals, classes became sorted into age groups and report cards were sent home to parents. With mass education and significant numbers moving between schools, a more standardised system of grading was sought. By World War One most American schools were grading in one form or another and these grades were increasingly being used beyond the classroom. Some began to fear that this tool that was developed for educational purposes was becoming detrimental to learning, with some describing the grade as having a cash value. The social efficiency movement (Schiro, 2013) in schools in the early 20th Century sought more objective means of reporting on students. Bell curves were used to assign grades in an effort to match the quantitative precision that seemed to be achievable in the psychometric testing such as IQ in a world where dealing with large numbers turned education, along with many processes in industry, into a production line that required measures for quality control.

Through this development, an assumption has developed that grades provide accurate and reliable measures of ability and achievement. Earlier more intimate and individualised learning was replaced with mass education that needed an abstract marker to replace the personalised contact that functioned in earlier years when student numbers were small.

But the problem represented as how to communicate student performance to parents has gaps. Question 4 challenges us to consider the claim that grades are an accurate measure of performance, or do they favour some groups of students more than others, such as those with parents with time, resources and motivation to support their children in their pursuit of high grades. Is grading by teachers fair, or can biases come into play? While some students may be motivated to work harder by a grading system, others, particularly those achieving poor grades may be demotivated, making grading problematic for fostering learning. Above all though, we should think about the importance of the problem. Is communicating student performance on tests the most important thing we should be reporting to parents? What if a student is starting from a low base because of some prior disadvantage and is now moving forward quickly, is currently on a “D” but at this rate in two years would be on an “A”? In this case, does it help the student to be told he has a “D”?

Question 5 asks policy analysts to consider the effects of the policy representing the problem in this way. One that I am concerned with in the grading of performance is that as it has derived from a need to sort large numbers of people by performance efficiently, it may have the effect of overlooking the talents of some that are not picked up by a testing system developed to crudely filter the masses. Those with fewer family resources and investment in education would be disproportionately affected. The effects of the policy may also be to filter out of particular pathways students who at times in their educational career have not performed strongly according to their grades but as a result of situational aspects that are temporary, or students that are equally able but need more time to develop to the extent of their peers. The focus on grades also narrows the focus of the learning to being about what is on the tests. The student may have learnt many valuable things but not get the opportunity to demonstrate that learning on the tests. Perhaps also, students who would otherwise learn important things and foster their curiosity are instead steered away from this in an attempt to gain high grades for the test. The interest in the content and learning may be overwhelmed by a pursuit for a grade.

Given all of these challenges, Question 6 asks us to reflect on why the representation of the problem continues, and if it is problematic, how it could be disrupted. In the grading model, whose ubiquitousness is relatively new, it is important to consider who benefits. More often than not those who become teachers, policy makers and others invested in the educational institutions benefited from grades at school. As the grading system was developed to deal with the necessity of objectively categorising vast numbers of students there are reasons to keep the status quo. However, new technology, a new work order, and a focus on all students learning rather than sorting students who are good at learning from those who are not, may be enough to enable a more personalised approach to reporting back to parents, and those who need it in the wider world.

Bacchi’s approach to policy analysis has helped provide a framework for beginning to understand grading policy and its effects on our students. It enables us to examine a social structure that has been created by policy, a structure that is so ubiquitous it can appear to be beyond question. Grading has evolved from its early beginnings nearly three centuries ago to a relatively pervasive and standardised system by World War II. With new technologies and goals of schooling, what will come next? Analysis of policy might help to ensure that the practice of communication of performance in schools is one that best supports student learning.


Bacchi, C. (2009), Analysing Policy, AU: Pearson Higher Education

Schiro, M. (2013), Curriculum Theory : Conflicting Visions and Enduring Concerns (2nd ed.) Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications

Schneider, J., & Hutt, E. (2013), Making the Grade: a History of the A–F Marking Scheme, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 46(2), 201-224, doi:10.1080/00220272.2013.790480

Federal Register of Legislation, (2018), Australian Education Regulation 2013 [online], available at: [Accessed 22 Jul. 2018].


Strathcona Baptist Girls Grammar School is a day school for girls, located in Canterbury, an inner-eastern suburb of Melbourne, Victoria. To discover more book for a School Tour.