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.
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?”
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?”
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.”
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.”
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?”
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?”
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:
- “Your system over-emphasizes testing!” Yes, but so does yours.
- “Your system misjudges student achievement!” Not really.
- “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.”
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.
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.