Standard Based Grading

Q: Why are we doing standards based grading? What was wrong with the old system?

A: We are doing standards based grading for one primary reason: to clarify what our students' grades mean.

To illustrate the lack of clarity in a traditional grading system, consider three different students, all of whom earned a 75% C in their traditionally graded science class.

Student 1

Homework: 100%

Tests and Labs: 50%

Overall Grade: 75%

Student 2

Homework: 50%

Tests and Labs: 100%

Overall Grade: 75%

Student 3

Homework: 75%

Tests and Labs: 75%

Overall Grade: 75%

While these three students all have identical grades, their understandings of science are likely quite different. Student 1 may have the most questionable understanding of class concepts, as he only averages a 50% on major assessments. Student 2 might very well be a quite gifted scientist, but it seems she's not very good at turning in homework. Student 3 is likely legitimately struggling to master the content, as his consistency suggests this grade is a good representation of what he actually understands.

Put simply, Standards Based Grading aims to clear up the uncertainty about what grades mean. The goal is to do all we can to make sure that a grade is the best representation of what a student actually knows in the content, and not a measure of anything else.

Q: But what if my student has always gotten A's? How will this affect them?

A: It depends on how your student achieved those A's. If your student was receiving lower A's because he or she was turning in all the homework but getting B's on major assignments, it is possible his or her grade will go down. In this new system, homework no longer works to cover up for lower assessment scores. Conversely, if your student studied diligently to learn the material at the highest level, and therefore had very high marks on all assignments (practice and performance) then this new policy should have no negative consequences at all. Regardless, though, your student will benefit by being more in control over his or her grades than ever before. This control can be seen in three ways:

  1. Your student can now retake assessments to earn the highest marks possible (assuming all homework is completed and they work with the teacher…more on this point below). The old policy only allowed for students to earn up to 70% on retakes.

  2. Your student now has a clear list of standards and performance indicators detailing exactly what he or she needs to master in the course. Instead of knowing that the next unit is on genetics, for example, students have much more specific information at their fingertips about exactly what they need to know in genetics.

  3. Your student can focus purely on understanding concepts to the greatest extent possible, instead of how many points he or she has accrued over the course of a semester.

Q: So why does homework not count in the grade?

A: Most homework assignments don't count for a grade because they are assigned as practice. Practice can't be a good measure of what we have already learned, because we engage in practice to learn it in the first place.

The quickest way to illustrate this is to think of a math class where a series of problems have been given as homework after the day's lesson. The teacher should fully expect the students to struggle with these problems, because they only just learned how to do them. It simply isn't fair to make how well a student does on these assignments a permanent part of his or her grade. After all, one student might get only 50% of those problems correct, but after just a bit more instruction the next day in class, he might master them.

Also, some homework actually can count for a grade, if it's not practice work. The distinction is best understood as one between practice assignments and performance assignments, not between homework and class work. Some homework (a lab write-up, literary analysis paper, or take home test) could be for "homework" but count for a grade. Some class work (quick pre-writes, worksheets, note-taking) should be considered as practice work and not count for a grade.

Q: But my student needs to be held accountable for homework, otherwise she won't do the work! Why is letting students off the hook for doing "practice" work the best solution here?

A: Students are still accountable for homework, just in different ways. With standards based grading, students can retake any assessment to improve their grade. The only caveat is that they must do all of their homework and work with their teacher to earn this privilege. Homework is seen as a means to the end of deep learning in the content area, not the end itself.

Second, students aren't off the hook for doing practice work, the evidence simply doesn't show up until students take a performance assessment. We know that in order for homework to be effective practice, two things need to be true: First, it needs to be directly linked to class content, and second, students need quality feedback that is more than simply a numerical score (8 out of 10, for example). As part of our efforts to implement standards based grading as effectively as possible, our teachers are working to find ways to respond to student work as meaningfully as possible. This effort has become a primary focus of our Wednesday morning meetings.

Q: My student is struggling to hit the highest marks in class. It seems that to earn a "4" on an assessment, he or she has to do something that wasn't even taught. Is this fair?

A: No. It certainly is not the intent of our teachers here to make earning a 4 a mystery. In fact, the purpose of standards based grading is to make earning high marks as clear as possible, even if it isn't easy for students to do so. Establishing clear guidelines for how to achieve a 2, 3, or 4 is a prominent focus of our Wednesday morning meetings. Teachers are developing rubrics to help identify exactly what students need to do to achieve the different marks on any given standard. If you have questions about exactly what it takes to achieve a high grade, please contact your student's teachers.

Q: If the purpose of Standards Based Grading is to clearly communicate the highest level of learning students have achieved, why are you averaging assessments together? Why not just take the most recent, or the highest score shown on each standard?

A: This was a very difficult question for us to answer as we devised the policy. Ultimately, we decided to average scores because we didn't want any one assessment to have too much weight on the overall grade. Taking multiple measures of student learning on specific learning targets and finding the mean between them is simply the most reliable summary of a student's level of mastery we have at this time. As time goes on, if we find a better way to do this, we will certainly consider revising the policy. But please remember, your student can always retake assessments if he or she wishes to improve his or her grade, even when averaging.