"I think we can do better than the traditional forms.": Geoff Masters.

"I think we can do better than the traditional forms.": Geoff Masters. Photo: Supplied

Grading students from A to E in their twice-yearly reports can fail to help them reach their academic potential, a leading education researcher says.

Australian Council for Education Research chief executive Geoff Masters said the traditional grading system was poor at lifting the performance of the brightest students and those struggling to meet expected standards.

And the system did not necessarily provide an accurate picture of what students knew and could do at school, he argued.

''It often fails at both ends,'' Professor Masters said. ''It fails the least advanced students by telling them they're poor learners year after year, and it often fails the highest-achieving students by not stretching and challenging them.''

He said many schools still used some form of the traditional grading system, and called for an alternative that provided more detailed information about students' academic abilities, progress and improvement during the school year.

Research had shown the best-performing students could be up to six years ahead of their least advanced classmates, Professor Masters said. Students' progress was often obscured by grades that ''pigeonhole'' them - particularly those behind expected standards.

''I think we can do better than the traditional forms of assessment and reporting we've been using,'' he said. ''But I think it's a big challenge.''

Many teachers tailor lessons to meet the academic abilities of their students in a technique called ''differentiation''. Professor Masters said a similar approach should be taken when presenting reports and assessments to students and parents.

''We often fail to recognise and even celebrate the good individual progress students are making, even if they're still some years away from where we would expect them to be given their age.''

He said his views on assessment should not be interpreted as supporting lower standards.

Rachael Sowden, from the NSW Federation of Parents and Citizens Associations, said the grading system used in NSW had the potential to be ''very subjective'' and it could damage children's self-esteem.

''We've always had concerns with the grading system, right from when it was introduced,'' Ms Sowden said.

''What we would say is, do children in primary school need to know they are an E?''

Melbourne University education professor John Hattie said many schools still used traditional grades, but some had introduced more sophisticated reports charting students' progress more comprehensively.

Professor Masters said schools should still provide reports on progress at the end of each semester, but he thinks ''simply telling students how they're performing in relation to expectations in their year level is less useful than providing them with more detailed information about where they're currently at in their learning''.