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Target grades: Good or bad for student performance?

Target grades: Good or bad for student performance?

7 min read
  • The science of learning

Many schools set target grades, which are estimates of what grades students could achieve. It is often done with the intention of inspiring and motivating students by offering them a glimpse of what we think their potential is. But do these target grades actually help or hinder performance? 

Let’s take a closer look at how target grades are calculated and the pros and cons of using them…

How are target grades calculated ?

In secondary schools, target grades are sometimes produced by Fischer Family Trust (FFT), who create these grades using pupils’ Key Stage 2 results, whilst also taking into account what other students from similar backgrounds achieved in their GCSEs. 

In the majority of schools, these grades are then used to set a goal for what students should achieve by the end of Year 11. However, other schools use these grades as a benchmark and target grades are given using teachers’ professional judgement. 

In 2019, the FFT conducted a report to see how their data was used in schools, surveying around 3,000 teachers. Interestingly, they found that: 

  • 62% of schools use Key Stage 2 grades to set target grades, but schools rated as “outstanding” by Ofsted are more likely to use it as a benchmark. 
  • 13% of schools do not use target grades, with “outstanding” schools being less likely to use them.
  • If teachers ran their own school, 19% would choose to not give their students target grades.

4 advantages of using target grades

1. Sustains motivation 

Target grades, if used well, can help students feel more motivated to improve their grades. This was found in a study where researchers followed students throughout the year and recorded their actual grades compared to the target grades that were set by the students themselves. The researchers found that students who had a bigger gap between their target and midcourse grades had a greater intention to study. This increased intention meant that some individuals also improved on their final grades. However, there were a lot of individual characteristics that also played an important role. For example, those who had a Growth Mindset were more motivated to revise.

In general, having target grades can help students work towards their goals. In another study, researchers found that if students were given unconditional offers to university, they were 23% more likely to fall short of their predicted grades. Therefore, having a grade to work towards can be useful for students to stay motivated.

2. Encourages students to have high self-expectations 

How students think about themselves can have a big impact on how they behave. If students’ target grades are set at the right level, meaning they are challenging yet achievable, it can help students have high self-expectations.

In this curious and quirky study, participants spent 5 minutes thinking about the attributes of a professor before answering questions from the game Trivial Pursuit. The researchers found that those who were encouraged to think like the professor had more correct answers. Could it be that having a higher target grade could help students see themselves in a different light, and as a result prompt them to have increased self-expectations of what they can do. 

3. May improve students’ performance

In a previous study, researchers surveyed over 5,000 students, asking what grades they hoped to achieve during their GCSEs. The researchers found a positive relationship between students’ optimism and the grades they achieve. In other words, when students want a grade that is higher than what they’re predicted, they tend to do better in their GCSEs. This could mean that having target grades, whether they are self-generated or created by the teacher, could help improve students’ performance. 

Similar findings were also found in another report, where teachers created target grades. Researchers found that when college students were given target grades based on their average GCSE grades, the overall pass rate increased within 2 years from 95% to 98%. However, the college also restructured their programme to ensure that teachers had clear roles in supporting their students to meet their targets. Therefore, it is not only important to set target grades: you need to also provide support in helping students meet those grades.

4. Raises teachers’ expectations for their students 

When teachers are given students’ target grades, it may raise their own expectations for their students. One explanation for this is the Pygmalion Effect, which is the phenomenon that people are more likely to achieve and live up to someone else’s high standards.

To test this, researchers told teachers that some students were identified as “high achievers” and would flourish over the year, which was not true: the students were picked at random. They found that by the end of the year, these students had larger gains in their academic performance. The researchers explained that this was due to teachers having higher expectations for them, which resulted in students altering their behaviour. 

Having higher expectations for students can also mean that teachers ask more challenging questions — providing them with the necessary support they need to meet these expectations. Therefore, having high target grades could help students do better academically.

However, it is important that target grades are set right and pitched correctly. If not, it could have a negative effect on students’ performance. Let’s take a look at some disadvantages of target grades… 

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4 disadvantages of using target grades

1. Set too low

previous report found that KS2 grades were moderate predictors for GCSE. Therefore, using KS2 grades might still be an inaccurate way of producing target grades. This could mean that if a student’s target grade is too low, it can lead to them not pushing themselves to work hard as they believe they have already achieved their potential.

This also links with the Golem Effect, the opposite of the Pygmalion Effect. This effect describes how having low expectations of someone can lead them to performing worse. Therefore, if students have low target grades, they might feel like that they can’t achieve any better, which could lead to them being more distracted and not working as hard.

2. Set too high 

Target grades might also be set too high for students. In the report by FFT, they found that the proportion of teachers reporting that the target grades were too challenging was:

  • Over 50% for Humanities, Maths and Science
  • 60% of English teachers
  • 70% of language teachers

Therefore, it is very common to have target grades that are too challenging. But can this be a bad thing? Well, research suggests that if expectations are unrealistically high, it can have a negative effect on students’ achievement. It could result in students feeling demotivated as these targets are overwhelming. Therefore, it is very important that target grades are set accurately.

3. Poorly communicated 

When target grades are given, their purpose might not be properly communicated with the students which could result in worry for them. Currently, the FFT found that 38% of schools give these grades in Year 7 or 8 — however, only 14% of senior leaders believe that this is the appropriate time.

One reason for this is that some students could feel that they are underachieving as they still haven’t had the time to work on their skills. Therefore, it could be better to introduce these target grades to students at a later time.

4. Causes some teachers stress 

Some schools have performance-related pay for teachers, which would therefore mean that teachers’ performance is rated on the basis of whether students achieve their target grades in some schools. In general, some research suggests that performance-related pay fails to motivate teachers, and it might cause teachers stress. This is even more likely with many target grades being rated as “too challenging”. 

Classroom tips

Overall, research suggests that having goals can be useful in motivating students to achieve their potential. However, using target grades does have its limitations. Some alternatives to this include…

1. Developing metacognitive skills 

Metacognition is the extent to which an individual is aware of their thoughts and their ability to choose an effective thought process. Some benefits to developing metacognitive skills include: 

  • Improving academic performance
  • Reducing stress associated with exams
  • Improving problem-solving skills

Therefore, encouraging metacognitive development can help students stay more motivated. You can do this by encouraging the use of good questions that allow students to think deeply about that task. It can also be helpful for monitoring students’ progress as they go along. To read more about this topic, see this blog.

This, used in conjunction with target grades, means that students will hopefully know what grade they could achieve and how they can go about doing so.

2. Encourage students to set their own goals 

As shown in one of the previous studies, when students make their own target grades, even if they are too optimistic, they tend to work harder and achieve better grades. This could be because they feel more ownership over their grades and are then more confident in meeting these targets. Therefore, an alternative to presenting target grades to students is to encourage pupils to write what grades they wish to achieve in their exams, but also privately sharing target grades with teachers.

Final thoughts

Target grades are often used in schools as a motivational tool for what students should achieve in their exams. Using them has shown advantages, including improving students’ and teachers’ expectations. 

However, they can be set too low or high, which can have a negative effect meaning students don’t work as hard or feel too much pressure. We think target grades by itself are neither good nor bad, but as with most things, its success is in how it is applied. If accompanied with a focus on developing their skills and knowledge it could work well. Without it, it becomes an arbitrary target that forms a tick-box exercise.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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