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Descriptions of the legal system for assessment - Denmark

Even before the start of the Folkeskole in 1814 assessment was a part of the existing schools. This was done by the Bishop who visited the schools on a regular basis to assess the performance of the pupils, the teachers and the teaching materials as well as the buildings. This system was continued until 1814 when the state/municipalities assumed responsibility for the schools. Gymnasier with upper secondary education training were started in 1903, and these schools were under state administration until 1980, when they were transferred to the counties.

It should be noted, that Denmark up to 2003 has not had a national curriculum with detailed schedules for different grades and subjects for any level of education. In fact, it has traditionally been a strongly held belief that the absence of a national curriculum improves the quality of education, as qualified teachers ‘own’ their curricula and syllabi. The legislation enshrines a system which gives responsibility to the municipalities, the schools and the teachers. The latest act of 2003 says: ‘The municipal council shall lay down the targets and frameworks for the activities of the schools. The municipal council shall supervise the activities of the schools’. However, the act of 2003 also reinforces the legal basis for the Minister of Education to oversee the system and to: “lay down general rules regarding measures to further good order in the schools’ and to ‘request any information that he/she deems necessary for the performance of these tasks from the municipal council and the county council”. Further, from 2007, 10 national tests covering a wide range of subject and grades will be gradually introduced together with national proficiency standards for the tests. These tests will be supplemented by a ‘toolbox’ with teachers guides for use of test results and supplementary assessment materials for teachers’ daily use. Municipalities shall further submit an annual quality report, and a national committee for supervision of quality in the Folkeskole will oversee test results, quality reports and will have the possibility to make spot-checks in municipalities and publish examples of good practice.

Assessment of individual children was made in the form of verbal statements until 1850, when the Danish scientist H.C. Ørsted (who discovered electromagnetism in 1820) invented a six-step marking scale with numerical values going from 7 to minus 23 in progressively increasing numerical differences towards the lower end. The scale values were: 8, 7, 5, 1, -7, -23. The mark 5 was set as the average value. The argumentation behind the increments towards the lower end was that lower marks should imply a punishment when the average was calculated. The Ørsted scale was used in the Folkeskole and the Gymnasium (primary and secondary education), while institutions of higher education maintained different marking systems. The scale was changed in 1871 to give a higher degree of differentiation by adding two mark values between each of the six existing steps resulting in a 16-step scale. Thus the above average values were 8, 7 2/3, 7 1/3, 7, 6 1/3, 5 2/3, 5.

The industrialization of the Danish society meant a rising demand for young people with at first lower secondary and later, upper secondary education and thereby higher achievement in the Folkeskole, and gradually the average of the grades started to rise. Thus the grades at the lower end of the scale were almost never used. In addition, in the first part of the 1900’s the use of negative mark values was criticised. Therefore in 1943 the Ørsted scale was changed by deleting two marks at the lower end of the scale, which had been added in 1871 and were never used, and by adding 7 to the numerical values for the total scale, which then went from 15 to minus 16 with an intended average of 12. However, the average grade kept rising to reach almost 14 in 1960, leaving only three grades above average, resulting in teachers’ daily practice of using small and large ‘arrows’ up and down between the official marks.

The need for a new scale was obvious, and in 1963 a new ten-point scale called the ‘13-scale’ after the highest mark was introduced. Average is defined as 8 with numeral intervals of 1 to both sides except for the high and the low end, where increments of 2 are used to stimulate pupils to strive for the highest grade and to avoid the low grade end. After the Folkeskole Act of 1975 grades are only given when the pupils reach lower secondary school in Year eight. At the primary level, assessments are given in the form of written statements two times a year.

The 1970’s saw a fierce debate about the grading scales, in which progressive teachers and the political left wing argued for either the abolishment of grading or the use of internal assessment with verbal feedback only, or for the use of criterion-referenced or even objective-referenced grading scales. A committee was established, which finally, in 1976, proposed a four-step criterion-referenced scale (from A to D) with an added sixth step (0) for pupils achieving beyond the expected criterion. Letters were used to make the calculation of an average impossible. The proposal was, however, rejected by the Parliament, and the ‘13-scale’ has been in use up to 2007.

The ‘13-scale’ has been considered a success as it was generally recognised as well defined and because the average has never slipped towards the good end. However, a committee was established by the Ministry of Education in 2003 to evaluate the ‘13-scale’ and to consider alternatives with special reference to the systems used within the EU countries (ECTS). The result has been that a new scale, called the ’12-scale’ linked to the ECTS-scale is established for use from 2007.

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