Oslo bucks ban on grading children

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Norway is one of the few countries in the world with what amounts to a ban on grades for school children. Education officials in Oslo are now once again openly challenging the national regulations against grading the young students’ work, and that’s raising a fuss.

The state regulations prohibit grades in the form of letters (A,B,C etc) or numbers for children during the first seven years at school. The theory, reports newspaper Aftenposten, is that students will become “overly focused” on the grade itself instead of on teachers’ evaluations of their work and recommendations for how they can improve.

Most other countries, however, issue report cards with grades, and the international Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) recently recommended that school children should gain a better understanding for what grades mean.

Tough transition
Education officials in Oslo, meanwhile, have long worried that the transition from elementary school to what’s called ungdomsskolen (the equivalent of junior high- or middle school), where grades suddenly are issued, can be hard to handle for youth who’ve never been graded before. The city’s center-right coalition government thus wants to issue some form of grades to 12-13 year olds in the seventh grade. The Conservative Party (Høyre) wants to introduce grades from the fifth year at school.

The local authorities in Oslo were turned down, however, when they applied to the Ministry of Education to be allowed to run a pilot project on issuing grades. Now they intend to get around the law by orally informing at least the seventh-graders what they would have received, if formal, written grades were allowed.

That’s set off alarms within the state education ministry, where the Socialist Left party (SV) has political control. SV is firmly opposed to grades for school children, and claims it’s “extraordinary” that the Oslo authorities want to circumvent regulations. Lisbeth Rugtvedt, SV’s state secretary in the education ministry, concedes that issuing oral grades is a “grey area” and that the county administrator must determine whether it’s legal.

Testing their limits
Torger Ødegaard of the Conservatives, who’s in charge of education in Oslo, seems willing to test the regulations. Starting this autumn, 10 Oslo schools will be able to issue the oral  “advisory” grades in the core subjects of Norwegian, English and math for seventh-grade students. Oslo’s Conservatives also rocked SV’s social democratic values recently by introducing the concept of some “elite” classes in Oslo schools, to encourage gifted students in such areas as music, for example. They’ve also urged allowing gifted students to skip one or more classes when they are qualified to do so. The social democrats traditionally have advocated the same education program for everyone, with additional help for less-gifted students, not those who excel.

The teacher’s union, Utdanningsforbundet, has asked its members to refrain from issuing what the Norwegians call karakterer to children before they reach the seventh grade. “I think it is a serious matter when Ødegaard encourages our members to break the education statutes,” Steffen Håndal, central committee member from Oslo, told Aftenposten.

While the unions oppose Oslo’s grading initiative on a national basis, union representatives in several Oslo schools support it. “The teachers are extremely determined to promote the students’ welfare and progress,” Ødegaard said. “They know better than anyone that it’s critical for students to get the best possible feedback, and they want what’s best for the students. We will get this to work.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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