Targeting… what?

If only it were always so easy to know what your were targeting


It doesn’t seem very long ago that “pupils should know their target grade and how to get there” was an article of faith. For the first decade of my teaching I was told that this was absolutely critical and that not an OFSTED inspector in the land would miss the opportunity to jump on little Jonny in Year 7 and interrogate him on this. To this end, labels were printed, with target grades and current grades proudly displayed, to be stuck in books. Inside the books you’d find tracker sheets with that target grade highlighted alongside the grade achieved on each and every assessment (at least one every 6 weeks) and comments on what needed to be done to improve. Learning walks were conducted so that little Jonny could proudly say his target was a “level 5 and to do this I need to explain my answer in more detail” in each and every lesson. 

Over the last couple of years I think we have started moving away from this expectations that students should be able to parrot out their target grade for each subject but still much if the culture lingers like a bad smell. I would (and will) argue this isn’t only wasting a lot of time but is potentially harmful.

One reason I would argue it is a waste of time is the sheer meaningless nature of these targets on an individual level. They may (or may not) be useful for judging whether a school is moving on a cohort of students but they don’t work for individual students. These target grades are arrived at by looking at how they did in their KS2 tests and then seeing how other students who achieved that score did in their GCSE. This might be fine averaged out over a cohort but doesn’t take in to account that my poor little Jonny had an off day when he did his tests or that he was nudged along by an over enthusiastic LSA. It is even more meaningless in expecting these grades for English and maths tell us diddly-squat about how they will perform in art or PE and yet those targets are generated. 

The next reason I would argue it is pointless, is that the grade itself tells us nothing about what a pupil needs to do to get there. At least in many subjects. I can only assume that this idea came from English and maths where they seem to have a much clearer criteria for what made a certain grade (at least before the new specifications). Maths teachers seem to be able to say “these maths skills are needed for someone targeting an A but not a C” and an English teacher look at a piece of work and say “that is  B grade response” – it all looks very neat to those of us teaching knowledge heavy subjects.

In Geography, to achieve a B (or a 6 in these modern times) you needed to get about 70% of the marks on offer across two exam papers and a controlled assesssment (now three exams). You did this my knowing a lot of things about Geography and applying it to the question that was asked. You could get a mark for knowing the definition of attrition, describing the distribution of mega-cities or adding some elaboration to your answer on the solutions to desertification. It didn’t matter and was the same whatever grade you were targeting. The difference in grade came down to how much you knew about a lot of stuff and whether you could apply it. 

When we tell a pupil they are “targeting a 6”, what are we expecting them to do with the information? How should they adjust their work? In this case I would suggest it is just a meaningless waste of time.  In the case of telling a pupil their target grade is a 4 or a 3 I would suggest it is actively harmful. 

I know that this target shouldn’t be a lid on achievement. I know that many students surpass their target grades (last year about 1/3 of our department’s students did) but we now have the case in many schools where Year 7 students are being given this target grade for the end of Year 11 when they arrive in Year 7. 5 years with this low expectation hanging over them is going to have an impact.

I’m not even sure that it is useful for me as a teacher to have this target grade for them. In the excellent “What every teacher needs to know about psychology” David Didau and Nick Rose talk about the power of expectations. They cite the study from 1968 by Rosenthal and Jacobson which found that,

If teachers were led to expect enhanced performance from certain students then these students’ performance was indeed enhanced

This leads the authors to conclude, 

The best course of action is to make sure we communicate high expectations to all students and maintain appropriately high standards for everyone – no matter our perception of their ability – to avoid negative self fulfilling prophecies

I have come to the conclusion that as a department we should ignore target grades as far as possible. Instead we should focus on our motto #ExpectExcellence. We need to have a very clear idea of what excellence work looks like and of what knowledge and skills they need. We need to check that students are acquiring this knowledge, developing these skills and are able to put it together to create excellent work. We need to identify gaps in these things and make filling these gaps their targets. 

As for checking that pupils are making progress, I would suggest this comes from knowing your pupils very well. From a combination of low stakes quizzes, less frequent summative assessment and constant questioning and dialogue. It doesn’t come from sticking a number on their books.

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2 thoughts on “Targeting… what?

  1. Pingback: Targeting… what? | Mark Enser | Echo Chamber Uncut

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