Putting Standards-Based Grading Into Action

EdWeek

Oh, how I long for the days when I felt actualized as an English and language arts teacher who based my grades on homework, classwork, tests, and projects. The numbers were simple, and a cumulative average was easy to calculate. Since reading the works of Ken O’Connor and Rick Wormeli, I have been plagued by the daunting and yet fulfilling challenge of making standards-based grading work and thrive in my classroom. The benefits and challenges of this process make it complicated, so I constantly reflect and revise my practice. I am encouraged as I hear other teachers begin to lean towards a standards-based method of grading, so I know this plight is worth the challenge.

To begin, let me share my interpretation of aligning my grading to standards, instead of assignments. Standards-based grading aims to communicate how a student is performing against a set of essential standards. A student is “judged” on what she knows, not how many assignments she has completed. Her grade is a reflection of her knowledge, and thus, is ever-changing. A student may score “proficient” on a standard one day, and “near-proficient” a week later—and her grade will reflect that change. Standards-based grading challenges many grading practices teachers feel very strongly about: assigning zeroes (which I no longer do), accepting “late” work (which I now always do), and allowing re-dos and re-takes (which I allow without limits). So why have I dedicated a large amount of my time and energy this school year to this alternative method of grading that calls into question so many of the grading practice norms we have relied on for decades?

Simply put, standards-based grading makes sense. It is the most accurate and honest grading method I have encountered thus far in my teaching career. Its benefits far outweigh its challenges.

So, what are some of the concrete benefits of standards-based grading?

  • SBG allows me to provide feedback to students on individual skills. Students are able to see a grade report that has all of the skills we have been working on, broken down, and not dependent on each other. This way, they are able to tackle the individual areas they need to improve upon, instead of re-doing all of a test or assignment they may have demonstrated mastery on in some areas.
  • SBG reports levels of mastery more current than those in traditional grading practices. Grades are entirely flexible—not a single number is set in stone, and the numbers constantly adjust up and down as students conquer and wrestle with new skills and content. When students, parents, or other stakeholders see a grade report from my classroom, they can count on seeing an evaluation of students’ most current knowledge.

One of the largest benefits of SBG is that I am beginning to see is that my conversations with students and parents shift from “Well, what can she do to bring up her grade?” to “What are the skills and areas she should be practicing more to help her learn better?” Since implementing SBG, I have had so many more conversations focused on student learning, and fewer conversations focused on attributing a set of numbers to what a student knows.

Needless to say, changing my grading methods and practices to becoming more standards-based has not been without some great challenges. SBG is difficult when teaching processes and skills. I teach reading and writing, which are ever-developing and multi-faceted processes for students, and this makes assessment especially difficult. Even when relying more on standards than assignment completion when reporting student progress, assessments still tend to feel inauthentic and inaccurate, and are only a snapshot of a student’s performance at one point in time.

In addition, even with the implementation of SBG in my school, I still have to report student progress through numbers. Assigning a number to a student’s skill level or content knowledge still feels too subjective and forced. And what’s worse is I still have to report a final grade for students as a cumulative average. I can break down this number into skills and individual content as much as I want, but at the end of the marking period, I still have to come up with one percentage to represent all of a student’s knowledge of the content covered in my class.

Implementing SBG has been a bit of a culture shock for both students and parents, simply because it is entirely different from everything they have ever known about grades. Focusing on more quantitative and individualized feedback requires some flexibility, open-mindedness, and a lot of trust in teachers. Though this shift in mindset is certainly an initial challenge for parents and students, it is a necessary one. The benefits and progressive thinking behind SBG far outweigh the challenges of implementing the practice. We have gone long enough assigning subjective and arbitrary numbers to student performance, and it is time that our communication of student progress reflects student learning, and student learning only.

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