US vs. UK: Who Grades Students?

When I began teaching in the UK, I discovered that the word “grade” belongs on that List of Words That Change Meaning Dramatically When You Cross the Pond, along with “vest,” “pants,” and “rubber.”

What’s the difference? Well, in the UK, a “rubber” is an eraser, and in the US…

Oh! You mean for “grades.” Well, in the US, “grades” are given by teachers. They aim to assess the quality of your work throughout an entire term. In the UK, your “grades”—the ones that matter to universities—are your scores on a handful of high-stakes exams.

In the US, the scores you get from your teachers form the bulk of your permanent academic record; in the UK, those scores don’t even appear.

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In my experience, both American and British educators react with utter horror to the opposite system. And, weirdly, many objections are mirror images of one another.

Objection #1: Your System Drowns Students in Testing

The American shock: “Wait… so years of work come down to a single test? Doesn’t that put tectonic pressure on the kids, and give them a distorted, blinkered view of education as nothing but glorified test prep? How do you convince them there’s more to learning than test scores?”

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The British horror: “Wait… so you’re giving meaningful tests every few weeks? Doesn’t that put kids under constant pressure, the perpetual threat of judgment—25 hours of testing, spread throughout the year, instead of just 4 hours at the very end? How do they ever find time to learn?”

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My take: Both accusations ring true, because both systems are testing-driven. True, the word “test” carries different connotations—in the US, it’s less definitive and final, more a landmark signifying the end of a topic. (Many teachers allow you to raise your score with corrections or retakes.) But ask the students in either country, and they’ll tell you: the tests are what count.

Objection #2: Your System Misjudges Student Achievement

The American cry: “There’s so much a test can’t capture! You’re trying to judge years of work by a single day—and not only that, but you’re employing a narrow, time-pressured measure of achievement. Your universities are basing their decisions on a woefully incomplete picture.”

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The British lament: “So your grades are just in the hands of… whoever happens to teach you? What if my teacher is particularly stingy, or overly generous? How do you ensure fairness across the system? Your universities are basing their decisions on whims and opinions, not real data.”

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My take: Neither accusation holds water here.

Yes, the British tests are imperfect. But I find they’re a hell of a lot better than most of their American cousins. There’s no multiple-choice to be found; every question requires a written answer. Also, they assess specific curricula and skills—far more akin to AP tests than the nebulous, intimidatingly vague SATs.

As for the American system: yes, Brits, some teachers are arbitrary, inconsistent graders. But each kid’s transcript includes dozens of grades. Some may be unfairly high; some, unfairly low; some (probably most) about right. Average it all together, and you’re likely to get a pretty fair assessment of student achievement.

How can such different systems give equally valid results? Well, teachers, think back to your last round of exams. Did any students bomb after doing well all year? Did anyone ace the exam after tanking all year? Or—as always happened with my classes—did your final exam scores show a shockingly clean alignment with exactly what you’d seen from students all year long?

Neither system is perfect. But both are perfectly functional.

 

Objection #3: Your System Warps the Student-Teacher Relationship

The American diatribe: “In your system, teachers are powerless. They’re glorified test prep tutors, with no opportunity to inspire, or to share their love for the subject. All that matters is the standardized test. How can they leave any impression on the students’ lives? How can they forge any meaningful bond?”

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The British harangue: “In your system, teachers are despots. They write and grade tests themselves, with no external check. Won’t this allow them to bully the poor students, whose academic futures they singly control? And wouldn’t this turn students into ghoulish hyenas or terrible sycophants, gnawing and sucking at their teachers for any extra points they can get?”

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My take: Partial truths on both sides here.

First of all: Yes, Brits, that’s exactly what happens in the US, and yes, it’s awful. Students feel cheated by teachers, and teachers feel hounded by students—not always, but often enough to cause headaches. I’m not sure this is the fault of our grading system, though. Instead, I blame our litigious instincts. We’re all salesmen and lawyers at heart. If there’s an advantage to be had, we’ll press for it, no matter what the institutional framework. “Deference to authority” is not the American way.

Second: Yes, Americans, I don’t think the Brits quite share our image of the “inspirational teacher.” Just compare the websites of Teach for America (US) and Teach First (UK), organizations with nearly identical missions of sending bright, ambitious young people to teach in the nation’s neediest schools.

The British version begins: “How much you achieve in life should not be determined by how much your parents earn.”

The American version begins: “Change and be changed.”

Whatever your feelings on such soaring rhetoric, it’s clear that Britain has a slightly narrower vision of a teacher’s role. Teachers aren’t expected to enmesh themselves in students’ lives—and perhaps it’s the students’ loss. But again, I don’t think this is a question of grading systems. It’s culture. The British are not a terribly sentimental people: the “stiff upper lip” remains a cultural ideal (albeit a fading one). “Change and be changed,” with its mushy American hug-it-out emotionality, is a simply un-British notion.

So, yes, American and British teachers relate differently to their students. But I don’t think it’s the fault of the grading systems.

 

The Actual Difference: Singular vs. Plural

So, to recap, I’ve covered three mutual objections that Americans and Brits might levy against each other:

  1. “Your system over-emphasizes testing!” Yes, but so does yours.
  2. “Your system misjudges student achievement!” Not really.
  3. “Your system warps the student-teacher relationship!” From your perspective, perhaps; but it’s an issue of culture, not grading system.

Where does that leave us? Can these two systems, which feel so fundamentally different, actually be equivalent—even interchangeable?

Of course not! Don’t be silly.

To grasp the essence of the difference, look no further than the names of the countries. Both are “United,” but one is a singular “Kingdom,” and the other is a plural patchwork of fifty distinct “States.”

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Brits expect standardization and nationalization. They expect their country to act as a single unit, evenhanded and fair. Their entire college application system, for example, runs through a centralized hub. You can apply to precisely six schools, including either Oxford or Cambridge, but not both. If you’re an American thinking, “How strange—that’s like if you had to pick between Harvard and Yale!” then you don’t realize the half of it. It’s more like if you could only apply to one school in the entire Ivy League.

In the UK, everyone surrenders minor personal preferences here or there for the sake of cohesion. They don’t think twice about it. It’s what “United Kingdom” means to them.

America is different. We remain individualists, frontiersmen at heart, and we expect local control. When teachers find themselves forced to deliver scripted curricula, following every step of a prescribed course, it almost always leads to revolts. We expect to write our own tests and grade them however we like, serving our own private visions of how our subjects should be taught. We take a diversity of approaches for granted. “Of course your algebra class wasn’t precisely the same as mine; we went to different schools!”

I’m not trying to take sides on Common Core here; in my view, it represents a fairly modest degree of nationalization. But the bitter opposition against it speaks to our powerful American belief that education is a local matter.

It’s strange being an American in the British system. I often find myself objecting to the quirks of how British exams are scored. “If a question is posed in degrees, an answer in radians gets no credit? That’s so silly!” “Saying a probability is ‘1/6’ is fine, but ‘1 in 6’ receives no points? That’s so unfair!”

(Both these examples are from last Friday. This happens all the damn time.)

In moments like this, my colleagues don’t know what to make of me. Following such conventions is second nature for them. It takes no effort. It’s as if I said to them, “What’s that stupid symbol you guys use for 7? I’ve always drawn a little devil face instead! It’s mathematically equivalent!” Well, okay Ben, that’s fine, except you can’t teach that to your students because no one will have any idea what the hell they’re talking about.

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I stumble over my own convictions, my ingrained belief that I shouldn’t have to bow to anyone else’s approach. Teaching is full of a thousand arbitrary decisions, forks in the road where either direction is really fine. I’m accustomed to picking my own path, according to my own taste. It’s strange, now, needing to pay careful attention to the road signs, lest I steer my students against the flow of traffic.

Which system is better? I don’t think there’s a definitive answer, any more than it matters whether a country drives on the left side of the road or the right. What I’m learning, though, is this: Whatever country you’re in, you’d better make sure you’re driving on the same side as everyone else.

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33 thoughts on “US vs. UK: Who Grades Students?

  1. As usual, I love your posts here.

    I haven’t been to the UK in years, but I spent a summer there when I was 20 in 1986. (I couldn’t afford to do the tourist thing, so I wrote letters to every British company that advertised in Chemical & Engineering News asking if they would hire me for the summer — I was a chemistry major with some lab experience — and surprisingly, one in West Bromwich, of all places, actually did. An added benefit is that no one in West Bromwich was sick of Americans yet, because basically none had made it there before.)

    Anyway… it made a lasting impression on me that one guy I became friends with, who was my age, was doing some kind of lower-ranked academic program (a “sandwich” of alternating years of job experience and university? something like that?) because he had done uncharacteristically poorly on his *mumble* Levels (I always forget which is which). He was a very intelligent, curious, well-read person, but had underperformed because he was an emotional mess because his mother had died a few weeks before. I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t look at the rest of his record instead, but everybody explained to me it just didn’t work like that. Soooo…. advice: don’t let your mother die right before the tests, or it will permanently throw off your whole education. ??!! From an American point of view it seemed completely insane.

    • I’m from Australia, from a state which has a similar “only your last two weeks of school actually count” approach. (Yes, just as we did with our parliamentary system, we also mix-and-match the US and UK systems for education.)
      From that, special consideration is a big thing — you get extra points for, say, taking a class over the phone (for subjects where the school doesn’t have enough students to run something specialised), or for having achieved very highly in music or sport in your last two years (acknowledging that that takes time away from academics), or from being from a low socioeconomic level school, or from having some sort of disability that impacts your learning, or from, say, bereavement or divorce during your final two years. So it does sort of work out (or at least we hope it will).

    • This has improved since 1986. There is more credit if something awful happens before a test. You can retake an exam later, or resit a year and apply a year late, and you can call the university and explain what happened. Some subjects have multiple testing points (maybe six tests over two years), although we can’t make our minds up on whether or not we like this.

      There have been studies that students who have hayfever perform significantly worse in exams over their whole education.

      A levels (also AS-levels) are taken at 18 and determine whether you get into university, not everyone takes them. Most people take between 3 and 5.

      O levels (now GCSEs) are taken at 16, nearly everyone takes them, typically between 5 and 12 subjects, including maths, English and science(s).

  2. Wait till you teach in Pakistan. There are educational institutions that use British system and those who use the American system. I went to school which used the British system of Annual (aka Final) exams; followed by college using the same system; followed by Uni that used the CGPA and the American system of semester work. Nightmare to switch from 12 years of British system to 3 years of American grading system!

  3. I studied abroad in the UK (at UCL) last semester. For the end-of-semester exams, UCL has a list of past papers available online. The papers overlapped so much that I memorized how to do all seven or so problem types that appeared on them.

    I could do this rather than force myself to understand deeply what was actually going on. I got every question on my Representation Theory exam, but I don’t deserve an A in that course.

  4. As an American college student with British family (my cousin literally just finished her GCSE’s today, and it’s all I’ve been hearing about for months), I’ve always thought the best solution is basically “both.” That is, a system like the American system, where your in-class work, tests, and so on “count,” but with some variant on end-of-year exams that are more standardized or national.

    I like the American awareness of things other than education. I like that a teacher can recognize “this student doesn’t test well, but he’s still really smart” and grade accordingly (with test corrections, participation and homework grades, and so on). I also like that it really forces students to be studying regularly; it’s a lot easier to neglect your work when your only important assessment is two years away than it is when you have a test in two weeks. So I think there are important facets in the American system that the British system ignores.

    However, my issue with the American system is that we *still* try to standardize it–it just doesn’t work. Colleges definitely need a way to directly compare two students from different schools with different backgrounds. But right now, they’re turning primarily to the SAT or ACT, which are some of the more pointless exams I’ve taken (and have been proven to not correlate with your future grades in college). I think if we replaced tests like the SAT with standardized tests that were subject-specific (like the GCSE’s, or the Regents exams New York public school students take), we’d get a way to measure a student’s knowledge and compare it across students that would be more fair than the SAT. And you would still retain the additional information of students’ grades that can be very valuable for a student who just isn’t the best test-taker.

  5. Interesting post, which exam board gives zero credit if you complete in degrees instead of radians? And isn’t it 5 universities on the UCAS these days?

    • This is IB, actually, so maybe not the best example; you’d get method marks but no answer marks. And you’re right; UCAS is 5. Dunno why I was thinking 6.

      • It used to be 6, it changed at some point between me finishing school and becoming a teacher.

        A level is that marking scheme too, I misunderstood and thought you meant no credit at all.

        I’m dying to know what Americans call vests?!

        • What I call a “vest,” you’d apparently call a “waistcoat.” (There are others things I’d also call a vest that you’d call by other names.) What you’d call a vest, I’d call… I dunno, like a women’s shirt. Tank-top, maybe.

        • Ah, I see. I’ve always thought of a vest as short sleeved garment that goes under a t shirt or shirt!

        • Key fashion correction:

          A vest is an undergarment, one must not be seen out in only a vest
          A vest top is an outergarment; this may be worn in public, and is sometimes shortened to vest. They may also look identical to an (undergarment) vest. This is not the point.
          A string vest is basically holes sewn together and are worn mostly to break the fashion rules.

  6. Interesting post. I always got the impression that Common Core was a lot more prescriptive than the UK National Curriculum. Would you say this is not the case?

    • Yeah, my impression was that CC is somewhat looser, but I’m teaching at a private school rather than a state school, and haven’t actually taught the Common Core yet, so I’m thoroughly unqualified to make such comparisons.

      • Common Core is not a curriculum, but a set of standards. There are all sorts of curriculums sold that use CC standards, but that’s the publisher, not the CC itself. Ditto the exams. It also happens that a few companies have created exams that most states are purchasing (some as is, others with state-by-state variations). So many states are having the same exams and the same curriculum, but it’s not actually mandated by the CC itself.

  7. Question: which system will you find in real life?

    In real life you are mostly judged by appearance, first time encounters, and one time interview.

    • Yeah. Also your resume, which is some combination of substantive achievement, spin/salesmanship, and strategic choice of projects/jobs that will sound impressive.

      Neither grading system is terribly similar, although the American college application perhaps is.

        • Sure, sorry!

          What I mean is that neither the British exam scores nor the American whole-semester grades are very similar to a resume. But the American college application (where you have to present a portfolio of activities that universities carefully scrutinize for evidence “leadership” and “community-mindedness”) is perhaps more similar to a real job application.

  8. In fact different universities (and often different subject areas within universities) in the U.K. use different systems (even leaving aside the significant differentces between the English and the Scottish education systems). Some universities (though relatively few) stick to the standard model of final exams upon which everything, or nearly everything, depends. Most include varying degrees of continual assessment (more or less the U.S. meaninging of “grading”), which can take many forms. Some have replaced final exams completely.

  9. Regarding teachers creating their own exams: I’m not sure how much that happens anymore. In FL, where I live and my daughter has been in school from 2-4 grades so far, teachers don’t create a single darn thing (except maybe art and music; I don’t know who creates the projects). She has never brought home anything created by the teacher. Ever class in her school gets the exact same materials and exams, all purchased as a whole curriculum. (So much the same that in one school, the teacher said her class was behind in math but she couldn’t do anything about it because she had to go lock step with all the other classes, so the kids were just going to essentially miss out on learning that stuff since they couldn’t get it the first time around.)

    She’s in an advanced class now (and a different school/district). The materials in that class are also identical, they just don’t repeat things much at all and have higher expectations. There’s apparently some leeway for the order in which things are done (as she repeated some assignments when she switched classes), but only in specials (which is anything other than math and reading/writing/language arts/English).

    One major reason is the end of year tests. Everything about the school, starting in 3rd grade, is about passing those exams, which are only in reading/writing/math for elementary children. So that’s all that matters–being able to answer the kinds of questions that appear on those exams, because everything depends on it.

    I personally think this is absolutely horrible. I don’t know if it’s just Florida, but I rather doubt it. My daughter is getting bored with school and sick of this kind of uncreative teaching. She’s going into 5th grade and her enthusiasm for learning is quickly going right out the door. 😦

  10. Pingback: When Education Becomes a Knowledge Set Instead of a Lifestyle | Sonlight Homeschooling Blog

  11. Hi,
    Just a quick one on the 1/6 vs. 1 in 6 thing. There’s a really important reason why 1/6 is acceptable and 1 in 6 is not. 1/6 recognises that all probabilities are numbers between 0 and 1. I could rewrite it as 0.1666666… because 1/6 is a fraction which is a valid way of writing a number. 1 in 6 isn’t a way of writing a number. It’s a colloquial way of discussing probabilities but doesn’t recognise that the probability is a number which is probably an important part of the curriculum on probability.

    • Yep, ‘1 in 6’ is wrong in the same way that ‘pretty unlikely’ is wrong. We answer maths questions with numbers and equations, it’s not a conversation.

      With degrees and radians. If my publisher asks me for a recipe written in English and I give her a recipe written in Welsh, it doesn’t matter how good the cake is because I’ve answered in the wrong language. [In the current batch of exams you would lose one mark for this, so it’s not like you’d be outrageously punished for the wrong units]

    • For the record, I find these arguments fantastically unsatisfying!

      When we answer math questions, we are absolutely engaged in a conversation! (Emma, that’s exactly the point of your Welsh/English analogy.) It’s a conversation with certain formal constraints, but a conversation nevertheless. An equation is a sentence. (“These things are equal.”) A number is a noun. The answer “1 in 6” is an absolutely accurate and easily interpreted way of expressing the correct idea – so it isn’t in any meaningful sense “wrong”!

      Losing one mark for radians vs. degrees is fine, I guess. It reflects priorities I don’t share, but which I recognize as valid.

  12. I did course work in school as well as exams.. Maybe the Welsh are different to England? I dunno.. we are in most ways. We dont have to pay a bomb for Uni for one thing. But I seem to be disagreeing with you. In my options, Media studies, History and drama, we did course work and practicals as well as a final written exam. I had to write an essay on the differences between a welsh and us travel agency site for my Welsh Baccalaurette. Idk. Like I said there are a few differences depending on which country in the UK you’re in. It’s not all arrogant Saes b*st*rds.

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  14. This is a very surprising post for someone who has not been to a public school, I’ve yet to ever see anything like this happen. If anything, in middle school we use to be given some extra credit points (normally worth around a quarter of homework grade) time to time. But this is a very good observation to the community schools of America and British.

  15. Personally, i think that british teachers do inspire students being one myself. I think they are more determined to make sure we are inspired and enjoy maths since they know out future is in the hands of one test

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