Something’s been gnawing at me for awhile about standards-based grading (SBG). Sure, it’s far and above ye ‘ole traditional ABC grading which conflates effort and learning and spits out a mathematically precise but meaningless grade on a ridiculously large 100-point scale. But moving from ABC grading to standards-based grading isn’t easy- it demands change on all levels of education (teaching, assessing, and reporting) and change from all parties involved (students, teachers, and parents). Changing grading is a colossal cultural paradigm shift.
If your school is like mine, it’s a shift that seems to be stuck in some middle-ground grading purgatory. Yes we have standards, and yes we try to teach and assess to those standards. Where the shift seems to stall is with the reporting, which throws a wrench in the whole system. Here’s a typical struggle:
It’s the beginning of the trimester, and we’ve got our standards clearly defined for our unit. We have our assessments planned too, each carefully crafted to hit multiple standards in a meaningful way. And we’re off- teaching, learning, humming merrily along. The first assessment comes along and suddenly there’s a little confusion. What exactly do we mean by “meeting the standard”? “Exceeding the standard”? “Approaching the standard”? Never fear- we collected student exemplars last year, which we can show teachers and students so everyone knows what’s expected. But wait- the students are all trying to replicate the “Exceeding the standard” work, going for that 4, even though most of them need to show proficiency in the standard first before trying to reach above it. Then grades go home and parents are concerned when their students are “only” meeting the standard- that’s like a B right?? So we try to throw in some parent education at that point, to break their bad habit of translating 1s, 2s, 3s, and 4s into letter grades. Finally it’s report card time, and in practice our new standards-based report card turns out to be a lot more complicated than it seemed on paper. What if a student exceeded on this assessment but approached on this one? How detailed should we report out on? Why do these parents keep getting upset with 3s- didn’t we tell them it’s not the same thing as a B??
You get the idea. Like it or not, reporting will always make or break the system, especially in the hyper-competitive, accountability-crazed world we live in. Despite the merits of SBG, the challenges of reporting out standards-based grades (as I discussed here) is unescapable. Even my grading rebel hero who did away with points all together in favor of pure feedback is returning to a hybrid points/feedback system for the sake of efficiency. That’s the reality for both teachers and parents, in addition to the wonderful details, we also crave a simple way of conveying of how a student’s doing (I mean learning!).
So here’s the deal: because we can’t escape our need for a simple grade (letter, number, or otherwise), SBG in its present form falls short of the cultural paradigm shift it demands. Parents keep translating numbers into letters, students keep trying to exceed the standard to get the top grade, and teachers drive themselves crazy trying to agree on the meaning of it all. At the core of these tensions is a simple truth: everyone wants to be successful, but everyone is different, so success should not have the same definition for all. SBG is a huge step forward, but because it’s one-size-fits all it just doesn’t feel right, and our efforts continue to unravel.
How can we complete the shift? I think we need to reach a little farther. SBG shouldn’t stand for standards-based grading, but student-based grading. Instead of criterion-referenced, I believe assessment and grading should be self-referenced. Is this more challenging? Yes, but ultimately I think it’s this extra inch that will bridge the gap and move us to a new culture of learning and grading. Here’s why:
- Differentiated: We go on and on in education about differentiation, but so far I think implementation of this has been only partial. For true differentiation it needs to take place at all educational levels (teaching, assessing, reporting)- and it’s last two where it usually falls short. If all students are going to be assessed and reported on the same standard, then by definition we aren’t differentiating. Student-based grading frees us to adapt to student’s individual learning needs, and reflects that differentiation all aspects of education.
- Learning-focused: In their essence, report cards should communicate what students are learning (or not learning). With one-size-fits all standards, this may not be the case. If a student is way below or way above the standard, the report card isn’t going to be very informative at all. OK, they’re below the standard- but has the student made good learning gains this semester? Yay- they’re above the standard- but is the student continuing to learn or are they twiddling their thumbs? Student-based grading focuses assessment and reporting on the learning that’s actually taking place, whether it’s above, below, or at the standard.
- Goodbye norm-referencing: Even though standards-based grading claims to be criterion-referenced, if you use points it’s really not. Students (and parents) will always pay more attention to the letter or number at the top than the standards or feedback below. Even if you get rid of these on assessments, for efficiency’s sake you’re going to use points of some sort on a report card- and then the norm comparison begins (Johnny got more 4s than Billy!). Student-based grading means the report cards are different for each student. Students are being graded on the standards and benchmarks that are appropriate learning goals for them. With individualized report cards like this comparing Johnny and Billy isn’t easy- but that’s the point- we shouldn’t be comparing them in the first place.
- Keep it simple: After thinking a lot about grading and points, I keep gravitating back to the simplest solution: the binary method (pass/fail, meets/does not meet). It’s easy to understand and does not fall prey to our instinct to translate numbers into letters. The problem with using binary grading with standards-based grading is obvious: many students will be somewhere above or below the standard, so the grades are oversimplified and less informative. Student-based grading tailors the learning goal to fit the student, so a binary grade works much better- a more specific learning goal allows for a less specific grading system, and with less confusion.
- Success for all: Parents can’t help but want to see As (or whatever your top grade is) on the report card. So if your grading system doesn’t make the top grade a realistic goal for students, you’re going to run into problems. Student-based grading adjusts the learning goals for students based on pre-assessment to give them realistic challenges. So students going for the top grade or parents expecting the top grade is no longer problematic, it’s exactly what they should be doing.
All set to sign up for the student-based grading movement? There’s only one problem… this is just an idea. Sure it sounds great on paper, but I’ve yet to put it into practice (so if anyone out there is doing something similar- I’d love to hear from you!) Moving from ABC norm-referenced grading to student-based grading would be a step further than standards-based grading, because in addition to all that SBG brings to the table, the reporting benchmarks and standards themselves would need to be differentiated. In order for appropriate learning goals to be selected for students, pre-assessment would need to be very well designed. And to top it all off, the report card system would need to be flexible enough to handle individualized report cards. All these challenges however, if met successfully, would do what standards-based grading seems to be currently failing to do: to once and for all shift our grading paradigm from a culture of competitive point gaming to a culture that values individual learning.
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