Competition on a national scale

Is knowing how you rank in relation to your peers on national examinations good for your motivation?

Starting line on athletics trackImagine you are studying for a qualification, and are told that the mark you achieved for your most recent assessment is among the top 10% in the country. How would you approach your studies from that point onwards? Would you strive to work harder, keen to stay ahead of your peers? Or would you take it easy because you were already coasting merrily towards the qualification? And how about if you were told that your performance placed you among the weakest 10% of candidates?

Grading by rank at KS2

On July 17, the government announced that it is considering changes to assessment at Key Stage 2 (DfE, 2013). Within these proposed changes is a new approach to reporting the performance of individual pupils, who would be ranked against their peers nationally and graded into deciles. The top 10% of pupils would be graded as the first decile, the 11th to 20th percentile as the second decile, and so on. This is what we call cohort referencing, in which a pupil’s grade depends on the quality of their performance relative to their peer group. An alternative approach is criterion referencing, in which the grade is based on the individual’s performance against specific benchmarks and is unaffected by how the rest of the cohort performs.

Key Stage 2 National Curriculum Assessment

Pupils sit exams at the end of Key Stage 2 (age 11) in Maths and English. In the current system, pupils receive level 3, 4 or 5 with an additional level 6 test available by request for high-ability pupils.

The outcomes are published by the DfE, which expects a minimum of 60% of pupils from each school to achieve at least level 4 in both subjects.

Under the new proposals, a new floor target – based on a scaled boundary mark – would be introduced for the purpose of school accountability.

Performers and learners

An obvious concern is that the proposed cohort referencing may have a negative impact on the confidence, motivation and performance of the pupils who are ranked in the lowest deciles. Of course, it could also be argued the other way – that competition may cause flagging pupils to strive to increase their ranking.

The research literature about achievement goals might give us some insight here. One popular theory is that there are three broad types of achievement goal, which individuals hold to varying degrees (Elliot, 1999):

  • Mastery goals: Those with mastery goals focus on the intrinsic properties of what is being learnt, and on ‘mastering’ the material. They are resilient to setbacks, often seeing failure as a necessary part of the learning process. Mastery goals are sometimes referred to as learning goals.
  • Performance approach goals: those with this goal seek opportunities to outperform their peers. They are motivated by competition and the opportunity to show their ability, rather than the content of what they are learning.
  • Performance-avoidance goals: those with a performance-avoidance orientation are not confident about their ability and may seek to avoid situations where they may perform poorly relative to their peers. They may even withdraw effort in order to protect their self-esteem, the logic being ‘I can’t look stupid if I haven’t tried too hard’.

You have probably worked out where I’m going with this now… Looking at these three goals, you can see how a cohort-referenced approach to grading might interact with the achievement goals held by pupils. It seems probable that individuals with different goal orientation would respond differently to information about their performance. Those who hold performance-approach goals may be motivated by the proposed grading system, seeing it as an opportunity to demonstrate their superiority. There is some evidence that performance-approach goals can boost effort and performance in pupils who feel confident (see Dweck, 2000, for a summary of achievement goal research).  

However, those with performance-avoidance orientations may be deterred. They could be nervous about the potential outcome, and therefore predisposed towards withdrawing effort and protecting their self-esteem. Those with mastery goals may be fairly unaffected, although the loss of a clear structure of levels, which is part of the current system, may make it harder for them to ascertain whether they have ‘mastered’ the material they are trying to learn.

The achievement orientation of a pupil depends partly on their traits, beliefs and self-confidence. I’ve presented them in a simplistic way, as if they are mutually exclusive traits into which all human beings can be sorted. But of course, life is more complex than that.

The adoption of these differing goals or orientations is associated not only with differences between individuals but also with the classroom environment and the attitude of teachers (Deemer, 2010). This means that a cohort-referenced system is likely to promote certain types of achievement goals in addition to interacting with those already held by individual pupils. Essentially, this form of grading is likely to encourage the adoption of performance, rather than mastery, goals by framing achievement in the national context. It shifts focus from benchmarks to competition.

Fostering performance-avoidance goals is clearly undesirable. But performance-approach goals may be less problematic. Interestingly, the consultation suggests that information about which decile an individual pupil is in should be made available to teachers and parents but not to the pupils themselves. There is clearly already some sensitivity around the impact that such information may have on motivation and self-efficacy.

Whether or not a move to cohort referencing will have unintended consequences for pupil motivation, either positive or negative, is a complex empirical question to which we don’t yet have the answer. But looking back to the questions I posed at the beginning of this ramble I would wager that I would receive a variety of answers… and that suggests to me that a cohort-referenced approach to grading will work better for some than for others.

Stuart Cadwallader


  1. Deemer, S. (2004). Classroom goal orientation in high school classrooms: revealing links between teacher beliefs and classroom environments. Educational Research, 46(1), 73-90. 
  2. Dweck, C. (2000). Self-theories?: their role in motivation, personality, and development. New York: Psychology Press.
  3. Department for Education. (2013). Primary assessment and accountability under the new national curriculum. Retrieved August 15, 2013, from
  4. Elliot, A. J. (1999). Approach and avoidance motivation and achievement goals. Educational Psychologist, 34(3), 169-189.

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