Why target grades miss their mark. Part 2.

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The dearth of research on the impact of target grades on the performance of pupils in English schools is no mystery. As I described in an earlier post they began as Fischer Family Trust ‘expected grades’. They evolved into target grades because this is what schools thought inspectorates wanted, and assumed their current guise after Michael Gove abolished the Contextual Value Added (CVA) measure.  This process wasn’t really overseen by anyone, which meant nobody thought it was their responsibility to work out whether or not they were effective in helping children learn.

This is unfortunate. Target grades have now become deeply embedded in the culture of many schools and domain specific research on their impact is necessary if we are to work out whether they are desirable or not.

In the absence of research conducted in English schools I am indebted to Ryan Campbell for pointing me towards studies on the impact of Performance and Learning Goals on businesses.  While I am aware that there are likely to be issues in applying findings from one area to another, I am hopeful some inferences may be illuminating.

Goal-setting theory was originally conceived and developed in industrial/organizational psychology.  Studies by psychologists such as Locke and Latham identified two types of goal; Performance Goals and Learning Goals.  Performance goals are outcome orientated with typical examples being the increase in productivity or profits, or a reduction in wastage.  Learning goals are intended to improve the knowledge or skill of an individual or organisation.[1]  While learning goals may eventually contribute to a performance goal they are fundamentally different.  Target grades in English schools are, in effect, performance goals because they are measures of the standard reached across wide-ranging domains of disciplinary knowledge and offer no support in achieving them.

Studies by Locke, Latham, Seijts and others found that having specific, challenging performance goals did indeed lead to better performance than easy, vague ones.[2]

This might appear to support the use of target grades, but these findings came with a number of important provisos.  In order for performance goals to be effective, those set them had to be personally committed, couldn’t feel that they conflicted with other goals they may have and had to have the ability to achieve them. Target grades do not necessarily meet any of these three criteria.

Firstly, not all students set target grades will be committed to achieving them, especially in subjects they dislike.  As teachers we hear this regularly, with “you only care about getting grades so the school looks good’ a depressingly familiar refrain.  This was manifest a few years ago when re-sit results counted, which resulted in children happy with their original grade made to retake exams in order to reach targets that had been imposed on them.  The failure of children to buy in to the grade set for them may partially be because of a lack of consultation and, interestingly, early on the FFT recognised this and recommended that the data they provided be used as the basis for a conversation between parents, teachers and pupils, which then generated what was described as an ‘agreed target grade.’  This approach could be criticised by saying those with low aspirations will set inappropriately low grades, but it is important to remember that any positive impact of setting challenging targets might is negated if those involved are not committed to them.

It would not be fair to say that all, or indeed most, children see the achievement of a target grade as in conflict with other goals they may have.  That said, I do feel that some do see things this way.  Children from backgrounds in which academic success is neither common nor valued have other goals which are very important to them.  For example such children may derive immense and understandable satisfaction from being a caring sibling, a good footballer, a vivacious party-animal or a cheeky and popular local character.  Achieving good grades at school, and the work, might be perceived to be in direct opposition to this; studying hard can mean not doing other things from which these children build self-worth.  Locke and Latham (2006) are clear on this in writing that performance goals can only be effective where there is “discontent with one’s present condition and the desire to attain an object or outcome.”[3]  If children are content living in the world in which they do, target grades will be seen as at best an irrelevance and at worst an implicit criticism of their values.  Of course, such issues don’t affect all children so perhaps it might be argued that it isn’t an argument against target grades in general, but just a suggestion they be applied to those who see no conflict between achieving them and other life goals.

My final concern surrounding target grades as performance goals is more fundamental.  Seijts and Latham find that performance goals can only be successful if those involved already have the knowledge and skills required to meet them.  They use the example of The American Pulpwood Association to illustrate this, which issued performance goals to pulpwood crews, resulting in increased attendance and productivity.  Crucially, this only worked because the loggers already had the knowledge and skills to effectively fell and process trees.  It was motivational because they had the basics down already.  Seijts and Latham explain this is because before the processes needed to perform well have been automated, mastering the required knowledge and skills will fully occupy cognitive resources – the imposition of an external performance goal is a dangerous distraction.  The implications for target grades are very clear; if children are guided to think about reaching a grade they don’t yet have the knowledge or skills required to reach, they will not be able to focus as clearly on the steps they need to make to improve.[4]

This is damning to target grades.  Students are novices in their fields of study.  By their very nature as novices they lack the knowledge and skills required to achieve the grades assigned to them.  Seijts and Latham couldn’t be more equivocal on the consequences of this:

“The assignment of ambitious goals without any guidance on ways to attain them often lead to stress, pressures on personal time, burnout, and in some instances unethical behaviour.  It is both foolish and immoral for organizations to assign ‘stretch goals’ and then fail to give employees the means to succeed, yet punish them when they fail to attain the goals.”[5]

For those of us who work with children and target grades this might well make for uncomfortable reading.  Although concerned with businesses there are clear parallels in the manner in which target grades are assigned and the consequences of this.  Very recently heard of a schools that issues detentions  to students who fail to achieve their target grade in tests and, am sure few teachers are unaware of instances of ‘bending the rules’ or even outright cheating on coursework and controlled assessments.  Such instances, while of course not excusable, are certainly understandable; teachers are as much victims of the target grade system as their pupils are.  They too are not always given the means to attain their performance management goals, typically based on target grades, and they too can be punished when they fail.

Of course, good schools do provide children with the support to reach their targets but these very helpful ‘learning goals’ which I’d like to discuss in much more detail in my next post, are subverted by the performance based target grades that hang so distractingly and pointlessly over their heads.

Citations

[1] Locke and Latham.  New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory.  Current Directions in Psychological Science. Vol.15. Number 5. 2006 P265-266

[2] Locke and Latham.  New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory.  Current Directions in Psychological Science. Vol.15. Number 5. 2006 P265

[3] Locke and Latham.  New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory.  Current Directions in Psychological Science. Vol.15. Number 5. 2006 P265

[4] Locke and Latham.  New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory.  Current Directions in Psychological Science. Vol.15. Number 5. 2006 P126

[5] Seijts and Latham.  Learning versus performance goals:  When should each be used?  Academy of Management Executive, Vol 19. No 1. 2005. P124

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