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Introducing grades in primary school can negatively affect pupils' academic performance
Assigning marks in Grade 7 can affect not only pupils’ performance in school, but also how they experience the transition to lower secondary school.
Norway’s current law says that grades cannot be used in assessing primary school pupils.
This practice is enshrined in the Education Act, the law that applies to primary and secondary education. The Act states that numerical grades may first be introduced at the lower secondary level that starts with Grade 8.
However, some teachers grade pupils’ schoolwork in Grade 7, in the belief that this will make their transition to lower secondary school easier.
A Norwegian study, in which pupils were interviewed, revealed that some teachers offered them numerical grades in Grade 7.
Academic grading in Norway
- 6 – Outstanding competence
- 5 – Very good competence
- 4 – Good competence
- 3 – Fairly good competence
- 2 – Low level of competence
- 1 – Very low level of competence
What effect does grading actually have?
“Studies show that overall, grading in 7th grade can have a negative effect on students' experience of transitioning to lower secondary school. In particular, it can impact their future academic performance. Therefore, it is both correct and important that the Education Act stipulates that assessment in primary school should be conducted without the use of grades," Gro Marte Strand says.
She is an associate professor at NTNU’s Department of Teacher Education.
Strand is responsible for a survey in which pupils, parents, teachers, and school leaders related their experiences and perspectives on the transition from primary to lower secondary school.
Dread lower secondary school
Strand discovered that a number of pupils were dreading starting lower secondary school, and many were especially nervous about getting graded.
The pupils who did not get as good marks as they had hoped for when they were offered to try that form of assessment in Grade 7 were the most worried.
Many pupils had the impression that lower secondary school was going to be "super difficult” and that they had to know everything already from the first day of school. This may be because the students came from primary schools where the teachers were perpetuating negative myths about lower secondary school.
One of the teachers at the lower secondary level comments:
"That’s what makes a lot of kids dread lower secondary school. In Grade 7, pupils were given a tonne of homework, and then the teachers would tell them 'OK, now you have to follow along and sharpen your skills, because in lower secondary school, I’m telling you, you’ll be graded'. And when our pupils started lower secondary school, they talked about grades from day one. And so I asked them, 'Where did you get all these ideas from – what’s made you so focused on grades?'”
Teachers should be upbeat about lower secondary school
Strand emphasises that teachers in Grade 7 should speak positively about lower secondary school and prepare pupils for what actually awaits them.
Instead of scaring the pupils, primary school teachers should be reassuring pupils about their transition to lower secondary school. They should make the students feel confident that it is something they will be able to handle.
A positive approach would help pupils experience greater continuity between the educational levels. It would support the pupils’ desire to learn, a characteristic that teachers should foster as students transition to lower secondary school. International studies indicate that pupils’ sense of mastery and motivation has a tendency to drop right after they start lower secondary school.
Strand sees a link between student motivation and how the focus of the lower secondary school affects new pupils’ efforts and achievements.
Before pupils in 8th grade face assessment situations, they need time to get to know their classmates, as well as the school’s routines and expectations. This process can have a positive impact on pupils' achievement, motivation, and goal attainment in the long run.
To achieve continuity, teachers in lower secondary school need to have a good understanding of the primary schools the students come from. However, currently, schools and municipalities have no legally mandated obligation for collaboration between the primary and lower secondary levels.
An obligation to cooperate is needed
Public planning documents from the Norwegian Ministry of Education and the Directorate for Education address the transition between Kindergarten and Grade 1. Kindergartens and primary schools have a statutory obligation to work together to ensure that the transition is as smooth as possible.
The consultation draft for the new Education Act is expected to include a corresponding obligation for cooperation between lower secondary and upper secondary schools starting in 2024.
However, a similar obligation between primary and lower secondary schools will probably not be introduced.
“Studies show that the transition to lower secondary school can be just as challenging as other transitions in pupils’ school career. Some people might say that primary and lower secondary schools are likely to work together anyway, because they’re usually in the same school district, but it’s not that simple,” Strand says.
Strand believes that it is necessary to introduce an obligation for collaboration. This can help improve the quality of transitions in different municipalities.
“The most important thing teachers can do is to collaborate closely and systematically so that they’re well acquainted with each other’s schools and practices,” Strand says.
Stress about grades
Many lower secondary school students said that they wore themselves out trying to achieve the highest marks of 5 and 6.
They knew that it was enough to do their best and that they should focus on learning at their own pace. But they felt pressure, especially from their fellow classmates.
A pupil told Strand at the end of Grade 10:
“I’ve noticed that the effort I’ve put into my school work has influenced my teenage years a lot, mostly in a negative way. I’ve become really tired, and it’s affected me a lot mentally.”
Strand emphasises that this kind of unfortunate achievement-oriented learning and student culture can occur when students become preoccupied with grades as early as in primary school. They have already established expectations.
“We know that if adults pay a lot of attention to the grade itself, rather than to the pupil’s learning and development, it can contribute to pupils becoming more concerned with their performance and comparing themselves to others rather than learning,” Strand says.
She believes that attention should be directed towards the pupils' learning and development instead.
Strand argues that teachers in Grades 7 and 8 need to be aware of this finding. They need to teach pupils that the most important thing is effort and individual progress, not the grade achieved.
Achievement-oriented student culture
Already in Grade 1, teachers must work diligently on assessment and promote a learning-oriented student culture. The effectiveness of this work will influence the culture that pupils bring with them to lower secondary school.
“If students come from an primary school that has had a achievement-oriented culture, it becomes more challenging to shift this towards a positive learning-oriented attitude in lower secondary school," Strand says.
Teachers need to ensure that an achievement-oriented student culture does not develop when pupils start in Grade 8. This is particularly important since pupils face three national tests during the first weeks after the summer holidays.
Having fewer assessments in the first half of Grade 8 could help pupils avoid an experience like the one this pupil describes:
“They said at the beginning that there wouldn’t be that many tests in the first half of the year. And then I think, oh my god, how many tests will there be from now on when there have already been so many tests?"
Having fewer assessments might also contribute to a smoother transition to grades.
"This is primarily because students often encounter so much new content when they start lower secondary school. Many of them simply do not have the capacity to perform academically during this period," Strans says.
Allow pupils to find joy in grades
The Education Act only requires grades to be given for mid-term and final assessments. This means that teachers do not need to give marks on all the work pupils do in Grade 8.
The mid-term assessments given in Grade 8 are formative assessments. Only the end-of-year overall achievement and exam grades count as a final assessment and form the basis for applying to upper secondary school.
Starting lower secondary school is a big transition. It is important that classmates have time to get to know each other and feel safe before they have to start performing academically. Pupils usually take about six months to adjust to the secondary school routine.
Strand emphasises that grades must be introduced in the correct way after pupils have spent some time in Grade 8. This is a task for the teachers at the lower secondary school. In this way, students can look forward to starting with grades and find it motivating.
About the study
Strand’s study is based on literature reviews and findings from three qualitative sub-studies where she followed a cohort of 165 pupils through the transition from two primary schools to the same lower secondary school. The lower secondary school has 450–500 pupils and belongs to the same district in a larger Norwegian city.
Strand followed the students for almost four years, from the end of Grade 7 until the completion of Grade 10. She thereby managed to capture how the pupils experienced starting lower secondary school over time.
She conducted 90 interviews with pupils, parents, teachers, and school leaders. She was present at parent meetings, the schools’ transfer and planning meetings, the first week of school in Grade 8, and school days that were used for data collection.
The students also shared their transition experiences in letters they wrote on three occasions.
The literature reviews are based on other research-based literature (books, articles, chapters and reports), mainly from western English-speaking countries since few studies exist from the Norwegian context.
Strand, G. M. Overgangen til ungdomstrinnet (The transition to lower secondary school), Scandinavian University Press, 2022. (Summary in Norwegian)
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