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Is it time to scrap numerical grades in Finnish primary schools? One teacher says no

The new education curriculum encourages primary schools to move away from traditional numerical grading systems in favour of qualitative assessments.

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Image: Henrietta Hassinen / Yle

Guidelines in Finland’s new education curriculum are recommending that schools phase out familiar numerical grades to assess student performance and adopt more qualitative approaches such as written and oral feedback.

The guidelines are just that – recommendations – so schools are free to continue to use numerical grading systems.

However in Finland municipalities have the final word on when numerical grades should be used. In most cases, students begin receiving grades in the fourth or fifth grade, and even later in some schools, including in Helsinki. Existing regulations require the use of the traditional grading system by the time students reach the eighth grade at the latest.

Call for earlier use of grades

The proposal to abandon numerical grades in favour of verbal assessments has its defenders and detractors. In some quarters, there has been a call for students to be graded even earlier in their school careers. Writer and teacher Arno Kotro is one such proponent.

"My suggestion is that we use numerical grades from perhaps the fourth grade and alongside that we could provide verbal feedback in clear language, especially about how to improve their performance. Verbal evaluations should always be given along the way, also," Kotro wrote in a Statistics Finland expert publication.

Kotro expressed surprise at some "advanced primary schools" in the Helsinki region in particular, which he said have completely turned away from giving numerical grades and were instead providing learners with "diverse verbal evaluations".

"It sounds good but in reality it is very vague. When you ask a parent how a child is doing in school, the answer is 'I don’t really know'," he declared.

Kotro said that he was overwhelmed by the bundle of written reports given to his fourth-grader.

"The first one was a traditional report, but the information value was nearly zero: all of the subjects simply had a 'pass'," he remarked

Education Agency still weighing situation

Currently there is a wide regional variation in when teachers begin grading students’ performance and more schools in the capital region than elsewhere are moving to adopt the new recommendations.

The National Agency for Education says that it has so far not made a decision about firming up the recommendation into a regulation. The organisation said that it is currently gathering data about schools’ practices and evaluating the curriculum.

"When we have completed our analysis and knowledge base, then we will have to look and see whether we need other measures," said Education Agency director Jorma Kauppinen.

However he said that he could not provide a timetable for the agency’s decision.

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