You see red. You’re blinded, momentarily, by the injustice of it, and then you see it all very clearly: you worked hard; you spent sleepless nights analyzing lexis, planning grammar lessons, understanding frameworks for teaching receptive and productive skills, preparing and adapting visually pleasing lesson materials; you’ve fretted over the ICQ that you missed, or the CCQ that missed the point, but in the end, you did it, you passed every teaching practice, you passed all your assignments, and you were praised by your trainers. And you’ve already been teaching for years!
You got your CELTA certificate, but you didn’t get the grade you deserve, the B or the A. Instead, you got a Pass.
There must be some kind of mistake!
Justice and Meritocracy
I’ve heard one version or other of the above numerous times as a CELTA trainer, and while I’m the one (along with the other trainer) who helps determine the candidate’s grade, I can understand the feeling of injustice when a strong candidate gets a Pass grade instead of a Pass. Paradoxically, it is the transparency of the course that is the greatest source of this feeling of injustice: candidates watch each other teach, attend each other’s feedback sessions, and so stronger candidates can clearly see how much stronger they are than some of their peers. If a higher grade rewards higher achievement, it’s only logical for this to lead to a higher grade, right? That’s the whole basis of a meritocracy, isn’t it? After all, meritocracy is the system that founds, and gives legitimacy to our whole educational system, right?
And yet, at the end of the course, they get exactly the same grade: a Pass.
Where is the justice in that?
Initiation and Meritocracy
In order to understand the CELTA grading system, it’s important to understand the purpose of the qualification, and balance that against the merits of a purely meritocratic grading system.
Cambridge designed the CELTA to be suitable for both practicing teachers and first-time teachers. Indeed, teachers with decades of experience find it to be just as challenging, and fruitful, as those who are entirely new to the profession, if not more so. Experienced teachers are faced with the prospect of unlearning years of fossilized mechanisms, habits, and instincts, whereas novice the teacher presents an easier inscribe blank slate for their trainers and the program.
The aim of the CELTA course, and its grading system, is to allow all successful candidates to come away with a valuable certificate in hand. In order for this to happen, all of the final grades on the course need to be valued—a low grade would create a tier system in which candidates who have not made the necessary progress in the limited amount of time available on the course could see themselves penalized on the job market.
Less Pressure, Higher Value
This would have two significant negative consequences: pressure to achieve higher grades would be much higher, possibly leading to heightened levels of competition (on a course that puts a premium on teamwork and collaboration) and certainly distracting candidates from the primary objective of the course, which is to improve the quality of their lesson planning and teaching. Secondly, it was sap the very value of the certificate, because weaker candidates would find themselves in possession of a less-valued certificate. The knock-on effect would be decreased demand for the certificate, which would in turn further decrease its value for candidates.
Cambridge solved this problem in a very original way: they simply eliminated low grades, by grouping both strong and weak candidates under the same rubric. In other words, on the CELTA course, there is no such thing as a low grade. in other words. Consequently, the Pass grade encompasses both weak passes and strong passes.
Pedagogy, Marketing, and Meritocracy
From a pedagogical and developmental perspective, this makes sense. Consider that the CELTA is an intensive course, and consider that not everyone makes progress at exactly the same rate. A weak pass can become a strong pass with a few extra weeks of training (or on the job); a strong pass may show the upper limits of what some candidates can achieve, even when given more time to achieve their potential. For an employer, the fact that there is no low grade on the CELTA course actually simplifies things: all other things being equal (which they’re not—see below), anyone with a Pass grade should get an interview.
From a marketing perspective, this also makes sense: because there is no such thing as a low grade on the CELTA, all the candidates come away with a certificate that is respected and valued.
Which beggars the question: in that case, what are Pass B and Pass A grades for?
Consistency and Impact
The purpose of the higher grades (Pass B and A) is to reward candidates who were not only strong but who performed exceptionally well on the course. If you look closely at the grading rubric (in the CELTA syllabus, to be found here), the first thing you’ll notice is that the descriptors are almost entirely identical, aside from a few extra adverbs here, and a few less there. These adverbs include “sometimes,” “thoroughly,” “well,” and “generally.” Here are a couple of examples:
To be clear, all Pass candidates and above are expected to have met all the courses’ assessment criteria (also available for your perusal, in the syllabus). Most trainers’ and assessors’ take on the higher grades (both A and B) is that there is a difference in consistency and effectiveness with which they meet these criteria. How regularly (primarily looking at the second two-thirds of the course) do candidates hit those criteria? And when they do hit those criteria, how effective are they in having a positive impact on their TP students?
Long-Range Consequence of High Grades: Mostly Zero
The relatively low number of candidates who get higher grades reflects how difficult it is to perform well with consistency and with a consistently high impact on your learners. It doesn’t, however, indicate to what degree teachers will continue to develop, nor does it foreshadow future success in the ELT world.
Proof positive of this is the relatively low number of CELTA trainers who didn’t get high grades on the CELTA. Most of those I work with got a simple Pass—a proportion, I dare say, which matches the proportion of Pass grades overall.
So what is the point of having these higher grades? For the simple reason that many people are motivated by higher grades, and will consequently work harder to get them. Cambridge has basically tried to square the grading circle, and get the best of both worlds with the CELTA course: no low grades, for a universally appreciated certificate, and high grades for the grade-motivated (not to say grade-obsessed).
But I still feel so frustrated…!
And yet, candidates continue to feel they have been treated unfairly when they see much weaker candidates, who worked much less hard than themselves, getting exactly the same grade. They complain that they have been undervalued and that their job prospects will be hindered by a lower grade.
This is why, at all selection interviews, I take extra time to warn candidates about the CELTA grading system. I let them know that both high-achieving and low-achieving candidates who meet the assessment criteria will be awarded a Pass, and so they should look for their “value” as teachers in the (written and oral) feedback they receive from their trainers, as well as, more importantly, the positive impact they are having on their students in the classroom.
With regards to the supposed “boost” to their career which would come from having a higher grade, I tell them that I am aware of absolutely no schools or institutions that have a screening policy that puts one CELTA grade above another. Employers are aware of the grading system on the CELTA course, and, more importantly, they look at a far greater number of factors than the CELTA certificate when considering a candidate. The CELTA gets employers interested in you. It is the rest of the package that helps you get the interview, and eventually the job.
Which is why…
In spite of harping on the grading system at the interview, though, some people still feel upset when they get their Pass grade. Clearly, the message wasn’t getting across at the interview (which is understandable, since there are so many other things of import going on at the CELTA interview).
Which is why I wrote this blog post… :)
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