If you’ve been to an education conference recently, you’ve heard about standards-based grading.
It’s easy to see why many schools are looking for alternatives to traditional grades. “Standards-Based Grading.” The very name conveys authority, importance, and fairness. After all, who would choose a system called substandard grading? Or opinion-based grading?
Before I’d ever heard of SBG, I had noticed that many students were starting the year missing some grade-level skills. Few of my high schoolers were clear on comma rules. Most of my middle schoolers struggled to tell a verb from an adjective.
But when I looked at their files, many had been getting A’s year after year. How could this be?
It didn’t take long to identify the culprits. Bonus points. Group projects. Homework assignments completed by parents. Teacher-made assessments that weren’t aligned to standards.
The reported grades were based on a hodgepodge of assessments. Once everything was averaged together, the final grade held very little meaning.
A Standards-Based “Solution”
Not in my class, I thought. I was determined to eliminate the “fluff.” My grades would be fair and accurate. If my students didn’t know their parts of speech…It would be a rough year. But by June, I told myself, they’ll be thanking me.
The thing was, they didn’t thank me. The parents who thought their children were on grade level weren’t excited to learn otherwise. And rather than being inspired to work harder, many of my struggling students got frustrated. Some just gave up.
Looking back, I think I acted a bit like a cartoon villain. I saw a complex and difficult to navigate system. “Look at this messy, disorganized forest. You can’t tell what’s what in here. If we just clear out all this nonsense, I could put up some nice, orderly condominiums.”
In my enthusiasm for order and consistency, I had failed to appreciate the humanity and institutional memory woven into the existing system.
These days, when I read about standards-based grading, it sounds an awful lot like that condominium complex I wanted to build.
The Problem with Traditional Grades
To be clear, I’ve come to appreciate the humanity and institutional memory built into traditional grading systems. But I’m not saying they’re perfect. There are plenty of problems with traditional grades that do need to be addressed.
The Gatekeeper Model
In the gatekeeper model, education is about access. Students who succeed in school move on to the next grade level. The “best” go on to honors classes and better schools. Ultimately, their diplomas earn them high-paying jobs.
This model sends the message that competition is more important than learning. Many of us get frustrated when our students are too fixated on grades.
“Don’t they know it’s the learning that matters?” we ask ourselves. All the while, we’re sending the message that grades matter more than learning.
The gatekeeper model creates an adversarial relationship with our students. They all want A’s. When we don’t “give them an A,” some see us as the villain.
Students need to see teachers as coaches who help them reach their goals. When we are responsible for rating and sorting, the conflict of interest can interfere with teacher-student relationship building.
Grades Aren’t Fair
A traditional grading system aims to treat all students equally. But it doesn’t treat them equitably. Students who start the year above grade level can coast to a good grade. Students below grade level struggle just to pass.
Neither student is best served by such a system. The advanced student needs a challenge. The struggling student needs a way to feel successful.
What’s worse, few grading systems accurately reflect performance. In the same school, two teachers can give two different tests on the same unit. One may allow retakes, while the other forbids them. It’s common knowledge among students that some teachers are “easy graders” while others are more strict.
Grades Don’t Motivate
A common misconceptions in education is that grades motivate students. But studies show the opposite to be true.
Extrinsic motivators, including grades, can have a short term impact on motivation. They’re most effective for increasing compliance and for simple tasks.
But extrinsic motivators have minimal, or even negative, impact on creativity, problem solving, and deep learning. Over the long term, grades have been shown to negatively impact students’ motivation and interest in school.
What Standards-Based Grading Gets Right
Standards-based grading is a system designed to address the weaknesses of traditional grades.
Students don’t receive traditional letter grades or averages. Instead, standards- based report cards list each learning standard. Students receive a score of 1 through 4 on each standard.
Embedded in this system is the idea of mastery learning. If a student isn’t proficient in the first quarter, they can keep trying to master the standard. The teacher reassess the student next quarter, and they can upgrade their score at any time.
In addition, teachers are forbidden to count non-standardized assessments in their grades. Homework completion, class participation, public speaking. All of these “cloud the waters” of standards mastery.
Some of these changes were inspired by real problems with our grading systems. And it’s true that averages and percents are a poor way to measure understanding.
One student may do all their homework, participate in class, and bomb all their tests. Another aces their tests, plays Fortnight in class and makes no attempt at homework. In a traditional system, these very different students end up with similar grades.
It’s also true that traditional grades do a poor job of measuring growth. Let’s say you’re unprepared for a fractions test in November. By December, you’ve mastered that material, but the class has moved on to decimals. A standards-based grade would change to reflect your new level of understanding.
Where Standards-Based Grading Comes Up Short
Clearly, standards-based grades have the potential to increase accuracy. But what if the purpose of education isn’t just to accurately rate and sort students? What if the problem with school lies elsewhere?
Standards-based grades seek to elevate grades. Make them more official, more important. Advocates assume that this will lead to better learning outcomes. But this assumption is highly problematic.
The SBG movement is, in essence, a reaction to high-stakes tests. Standardized tests measure mastery of standards. But these tests only take place once every school year.
So schools rely on teacher assessments to anticipate test performance. When grades don’t align with the tests, it raises questions.
But standards-based grading raises other questions, and creates a host of new problems.
Standards-Based Grading Turns Schools Into Test-Prep Factories
Standardized tests are a necessary evil. Some would do away with them completely. But they do serve a purpose in promoting school equity.
Standardized testing as we know it began with No Child Left Behind. The act included a mandate to address racial and socio-economic achievement gaps. Sadly, testing hasn’t fixed these inequities. But at least it’s given the issue a name. And an objective way to measure the gap.
But the purpose of testing is not to teach students to take a test. Schools should take a “Field of Dreams” approach to testing. If you build a supportive, engaging and rigorous school culture, test scores will come.
Instead, SBG seeks to redesign schools around standardized tests. And while tests are important, they are just one indicator of educational quality.
As educators, we should be aware of testing. But we should also be wary of how we allow testing to dictate classroom assessment and practices.
The Real World Isn’t Standards-Based
Schools today face a bigger problem than accuracy of grades: relevance.
If schools are to prepare students for the real world, there is reason to worry that we are not fulfilling that purpose.
Increasingly, employers are frustrated that college graduates are not ready for employment. Many companies are turning to boot camps and other alternate forms of higher education. And many students who struggle in school find success more easily outside the classroom.
When I graduated from college, I was shocked at how little people cared about what I knew. Much more important was who I knew. And what I produced.
Many students are great at networking, collaborating, and public speaking. Others have a knack for ‘getting things done.’ Schools undervalue these students and their strengths. But many still go on to successful careers. As a teacher, I always looked for ways to validate and celebrate the strengths of these students.
Standards-based grading moves in the opposite direction. Instead of expanding the definition of success, it narrows it. In doing so, SBG overlooks students who strengths are “non-standard.”
Standards-Based Grading Magnifies Inequities
SBG does nothing to address the inequity of traditional grading systems. In fact, it makes the problem worse.
In a traditional system, students below grade level struggle on tests. But they could find other ways to succeed. Supportive teachers would grant extra credit or award points for classwork and homework.
While not perfect, such a complex and nuanced system of grading sends the message that there are many pathways to success. SBG eliminates these options without fixing the underlying problem. This increases pressure on struggling students while giving high-fliers a free pass.
Is Mastery Learning Practical In Today’s Schools?
If a student in a standards-based school fails a test, they can take it again. When a paper isn’t up to standards, they re-write it.
There’s something satisfying and authentic about this. If at first you don’t succeed, try try again.
But how does this work in traditional schools? Teachers and students are still expected to cover the same curriculum content.
So instead of grading a test and moving on, a teacher has to grade the same test over and over. Meanwhile, they’re moving on to other units and other assessments. For teachers already overwhelmed with paperwork, it quickly becomes unmanageable.
And what about students? While SBG gives them multiple attempts, it doesn’t create more time. So while they’re studying for a retake, the next big test is right around the corner. And what about addressing gaps from prior grade levels? Many students are frustrated at what they feel is a less humane approach to grading.
Schools that want to teach for mastery need more than a new grading system. They need a new way to sequence learning. One such model is The Three Bridges Design for Learning. Three Bridges balances curriculum coverage, personalized learning, and inquiry-based learning to provide all students a realistic avenue to success.
Alternatives to Standards-Based Grading
Given the limitations of both traditional and standards-based grades, what are educators to do?
Instead of making instruction more standardized, we need more opportunities for differentiation. Instead of rating and sorting students more accurately, we should de-emphasize the role of grades in our schools.
Here are four ways to improve grading practices without standards-based grading.
1. Give Everyone an A
Maybe you’d like to do away with grades, but your school won’t allow it. Consider handing out all A’s as an act of civil disobedience.
On my first day of grad school, our professor, Dr. Martinez, announced that we would all earn A’s in his course. At first I was shocked. Was this just a ploy to curry favor with students?
But in the end, we all learned more as a result. It alleviated our anxiety and allowed us to focus on learning. Rather than trying to figure out what he wanted to see in our papers, we challenged ourselves and explored topics we were interested in.
With a traditional approach, we make demands of students and reward our top students with good grades. With the ‘upfront A’ approach, think of the A as an investment. Trust all your students to succeed, and give them the A as a down payment.
2. Give Credit for Effort and Productivity
There’s no reason why effort should not be reflected in a student’s grade.
I once worked at a school that gave separate grades for academics and for effort. But we weren’t given guidance on measuring effort. Most teachers just made the effort grades up. Students and parents paid them little mind anyway.
When I changed schools, I started factoring effort into the academic grade. To do so, I had to ensure that the grade was objective. And students needed to know how their effort grades would be calculated.
I gave my students 75 minutes of class time per week on Khan Academy. I expected 50 productive minutes. (Khan academy recorded their productive time). I divided their productive minutes by 50 to come up with their grades. 50 out of 50 earned a perfect 100. 25 out of 50 earned a 50%.
This gave me a fair and objective measure of their effort during class time. Each week counted as ¼ of a test grade. I could assure students that even if they struggled on tests, they could earn at least an 80 in my class, provided they put forth the effort.
3. Recognize Growth, Not Just Achievement
Standards-based grading gets close to identifying the biggest challenge for schools today. How do we maintain high standards while addressing individual student needs?
But SBG doesn’t create a realistic solution. If a 5th grader starts the year reading at a 2nd grade level, they can’t succeed by standards-based measures. They can grow to a 4th grade level, but they still won’t meet grade level standards.
But if we look at growth, two years of progress in one year is a major success! We need to stop celebrating advanced students who make little progress. And we need to elevate students who start the year behind but move closer to grade level.
4. Give Up Grading Altogether
The best solution might be to do away with grades entirely. This removes the problems of both traditional and standards-based grades. It allows teachers to focus on teaching, and students to focus on learning.
Many of the arguments in favor of grades have been disproven. Grades aren’t an accurate predictor of future success. They don’t motivate students. And they don’t help students understand their strengths and needs.
So why haven’t more schools considered going gradeless? There is a lot of inertia. Many schools still believe grades motivate students. And many students (and parents) see grades as a ticket to a better high school, college, or career.
I hope that one day, schools will move beyond thinking of grades as a motivator or measure of success. But in the mean time, consider a workaround – A’s across the board!
Creativity, Collaboration, and Conceptual Learning
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