Why we need to scrap pupils’ target grades

8th September 2017 at 00:00
There is no evidence that setting objectives for exam results is effective, and these voodoo calculations can damage student outcomes, argues Ben Newmark

Target grades did not exist a decade ago when I began teaching. Today, there is no escaping them. Even for a profession with a tendency towards embracing fads, their rapid rise and longevity has been impressive. But now it’s time to put an end to these voodoo calculations: their use is not just misguided, it’s damaging.

Target grades, for the mercifully uninitiated, are generated from tests children sit at the end of their primary education in English and maths. From an average of these two grades, an acceptable level of progress is agreed, and this is used to set targets for other subjects. The success of the child and, by association, their teachers, is assessed on whether they fail to meet, achieve or exceed those targets.

This is all very silly. There is no robust evidence that target grades lead to faster progress. Evidence on the impact of GCSE target grades based on any key stage 2 data is, for all meaningful purposes, non-existent.

And the closer you look at target grades, the more bizarre they appear. For example, the outcome of those key stage 2 tests could be the result of any one or combination of a huge number of variables. Even if they were an accurate representation of that child’s ability in English and maths at that time, the assessments aren’t intelligence tests and shouldn’t be used as such.

Nor are these exams tests of generic skills. Skills, if they exist at all, are limited to the subjects in which they are taught. What I regard as a good descriptive paragraph in history is different from the sort an English teacher is seeking. While an English teacher may be overjoyed to hear Elizabeth’s dress described as a “glowing rainbow waterfall”, such linguistic extravagance has me reaching for the sick bucket.

There is then the issue that many schools use target grades to differentiate learning. Some lessons even give children different versions of a worksheet according to their target grade. Even if this model were effective in supporting progress from different starting points, by its very nature it can never close gaps: higher-ability students work harder and learn more, lower-ability pupils complete easier work and learn less.

Internalised messages

In classrooms and schools that function like this, the weak can’t catch up with the strong. And, if a child isn’t really low ability to begin with, they can soon become demoralised and drop further behind as they internalise the message that they are not one of the smart kids.

But let’s be charitable. Let’s assume that the basis of target grades lies in evidence from theories in other domains. Let’s assume that it lies in the closest fit: goal-setting theory. This theory was conceived and developed in industrial, or organisational, psychology. In their work in this area, academics Edwin Locke and Gary Latham identified two types of goal: performance goals and learning goals.

Performance goals are outcome-focused with typical examples being the increase in productivity or profits. Learning goals are intended to improve the knowledge or skill of an individual or organisation. While learning goals may eventually contribute to a performance goal, they are different.

Target grades are, in effect, performance goals because they are measures of the standard reached across wide-ranging domains of disciplinary knowledge. They offer no support in achieving them.


Studies by Locke, Latham, Gerard Seijts and others found that specific, challenging performance goals do indeed lead to better performance than easy, vague goals. These findings, however, come with a number of important provisos. If performance goals are to be effective, those working towards them have to be personally committed to them, can’t feel that they conflict with their other aims and must already have the knowledge and skills required to achieve them. Target grades do not necessarily meet these criteria.

Firstly, not all students set target grades will be committed to achieving them, especially in subjects they dislike. This was very clear a few years ago when GCSE resit results still counted. Children quite happy with their original grade were made to retake exams in order to reach the targets imposed on them.

Secondly, though it would probably not be fair to say that all, or indeed most, children see the achievement of a target grade as being in conflict with their other goals, some do see things that way. Children from backgrounds in which academic success is neither common nor valued may have other aspirations. Such children may derive understandable satisfaction from being a caring sibling or a good footballer. Achieving good grades at school, and the work required to do this, might be perceived to be a distraction from these aims.

Locke and Latham (2006) argue that performance goals can be effective only where there is “discontent with one’s present condition and the desire to attain an object or outcome”. If children are content living in the world in which they already inhabit, target grades will be seen as at best irrelevant and, at worst, an implicit criticism of their values.

The final concern with target grades as performance goals is more fundamental. Seijts and Latham find that performance goals can be successful only if those involved already have the knowledge and skills to meet them. If children are made to think about a grade they don’t yet have the knowledge or skills to reach, they may not be able to focus on improving.

This is damning. Students, by definition, are novices lacking the capacity to achieve any grade assigned to them. Seijts and Latham are unequivocal on the consequences: “It is both foolish and immoral for organisations to assign ‘stretch goals’ and then fail to give employees the means to succeed, yet punish them when they fail to attain the goals.”

The career risk

Of course in schools this is not just damaging for students, but for teachers, too. Some schools have linked the achievement of target grades to performance management, which is tremendously unfair.

Targets in a class may be achieved by only a small percentage of children from similar demographics nationally. To successfully meet their appraisal targets, teachers at some schools are expected to achieve this with every child in every one of their classes. Failure is inevitable and such performance-management systems mean that employment at the most disadvantaged of England’s schools is perceived as a real career risk, making the recruitment and retention crisis more acute in schools where good teachers and leaders are most needed.

Despite all these issues, schools often continue to require that teachers know the target of all the children in their classes and that children be able to parrot off these grades at the drop of an inspector’s hat.

Now, school leadership teams must accept responsibility and step up. We have created a generation of leaders to which school management is so closely entwined with tracking progress towards target grades that many simply can’t envisage any other way of running a school. This is no excuse.

Ofsted has made it clear it does not expect children to know their target grades, and that schools should pursue policies most beneficial to their pupils. We should take them at their word, and school leaders should consign such policies to the educational dump where they belong. Nobody will miss them.

Ben Newmark has been a teacher for fourteen years. He now works for Ark Teacher Training and tweets @bennewmark. His views do not reflect those of his employer. This article is based on posts from Ben’s blog, which can be found at bennewmark.wordpress.com. He will be giving a presentation on this topic at the ResearchEd national conference on 9 September

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