No more ABCDE for your ABC?


Judging by the test results, the learning outcomes in Australian schools are at best stagnating in absolute terms and declining relatively to other OECD countries. This is a problem for our “smart country”, and will become even more so as it is coinciding with the rapid and unprecedented expansion of the tertiary sector. At no previous time in history have we been sending more underprepared and underqualified high school students to get university degrees, which, as a result, will slowly but surely start devaluing like the Weimar-era mark or a Zimbabwean dollar. No wonder there is a constant drive for obtaining additional, higher credentials, since one has to stand out from the masses; when everyone has got an undergrad qualification, Master is the new Bachelor. The only ones who win out of it are universities, which treat the degree mill as an opportunity to print money. There is little indication to an average student today is better educated than thirty years ago.

In this context of “Building the Education Devolution” (how have those $20 billion in “school halls” and “computers in schools”, by the way, contributed to improving the school results?), I don’t know if replacing the way we mark school children should be a priority:

If elected, Labor planned to appoint a panel of principals and teachers with experience in using progress measures and tools to lead the process of putting progress at the centre of education.

“I will also ask this group of principals and teachers to consider whether we need to focus more on progress in school reports, rather than the more blunt A to E measure that we use now,” [Labor’s education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek] said, adding that it would “give a more accurate measurement of change over time than achievement-only measures”.

Whether or not the current system is measuring wrong things and therefore should be replaced with a more accurate and relevant one is an interesting debate to have, but one suspects any such reform would also be good for muddying the waters and making any meaningful comparisons across time and across different jurisdictions near impossible. This is as good a way as any to disguise failure and decline, but most parents would probably appreciate the education system improving its performance rather than finding different, more convenient ways of measuring it.

But if we get rid of the traditional A to E grading system, what could replace it? (I’m old enough to remember Very High Achievement and so on. And what happened to Fs?)

Sky’s Chris Kenny suggests a new scale of “woke, uber-woke and supra-woke”, which presupposes that teachers will completely succeed in eradicating the wrongthink, otherwise we would also need a fail grade of “fascist”.

Quilette’s Claire Lehmann, on the other hand, proposes, “New grading system to range from A- to A++++” This could certainly satisfy the new non-competitive educational outlook where everyone gets a participation prize and no one is left out because that would be bad for self-esteem. Claire is joking (I think), but the result of this sort of a grade inflation is the creation of a cohort which scores A++++ on self-esteem but can’t read and write, producing young adults with an inflated sense of self-importance and no skills. This, in turn, makes for a dangerous collision with real life.

If, as Plibersek suggests, we should focus more on “progress” and “measurement of change”, why not treat school children as countries or companies? Imagine a school report card: “Johnny’s growth rate in the second quarter was quite disappointing at 0.5%. He is dangerously close to entering a learning recession. Compared with the same time last year, when Johnny’s growth rate was a more robust 2.5%, while it suggests that the underlying essentials are sound, there is a need for a correction. Objective for the next quarter: Make Johnny Great Again.”

Another option is to mark students on the new LGBTIQ scale, with T being perhaps the top mark. According to gender counsellor Dr Elizabeth Riley, “Trans children are in every school, they’ve been around since the 1800s … If a school has 1000 students, 10 of them will be trans, whether they go on to transition or not.” But there is good news – “Experts claim the move [to train teachers to spot transgender kids] has contributed to a 236 per cent surge in the number of kids wanting to change sex in the past three years.” Just imagine if teachers could improve literacy outcomes by 236 per cent.

Whatever happens, we can be assured that by the time today’s 5th graders reach the university, 95% of them will be Honours students, and the other 5% will be automatically awarded PhD.