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In Depth: Standards-Based Grading

Wednesday, August 6, 2014 -- Scott Sterling

This month, we’re going to focus on some pedagogical ideas currently taking hold in classrooms. The goal is to give you some ideas worth trying out once the doors open in August. This week, it’s standards-based grading.

What is it?

For many, standards-based grading is just common sense. Instead of grading based on how much homework the student has turned in or, worse, letting behavior factor into grading decisions, standards-based grading assigns grades based on how far along the student is according to the standards compared to where they should be at this time of the year.

How it works

For example, if the student has mastered 85% of the pacing guide, they receive a B. Simple as that. Assessment obviously plays a big part, as well as pacing and differentiation.

What doesn’t play a part is grading for the sake of grades. Homework, even though it might be relevant, is only used for practice and doesn’t appear in the gradebook. In fact, some people find gradebooks superfluous in a standards-based system.

What does carry more weight is any cumulative assessment you do, as it is the only way to judge mastery of the appropriate standards and assess progress. Using formative assessment throughout the unit can still keep students and parents updated on progress and lessen the scrutiny on the post-tests.

The challenges

The first challenge is that standards-based grading is a radical departure from how many adults went through school. They are used to working hard, turning in their assignments, and being rewarded for that effort. Parents and other educators might argue that that is how the world works. Your boss is going to assign something. Either you do it or you’re fired. If you use other real-world, college- and career-ready strategies, you can diffuse this argument. Also, point out that if you turn in substandard work, you’re still going to be fired.

If you don’t assign a numeric value to assignments, students might slack off. To combat this, enact a policy of “revision until proficiency”, meaning substandard work has to be revised until it is satisfactory, to the point where a student might fall behind. If they fall behind, their final grade will reflect their non-mastery of the objectives. It won’t take long for them to figure out that practice and assignments are still important.

Finally, if you are the only standards-based grading advocate at your school, or one of only a few, students and parents can find it confusing to move from your class and your system to a traditional class and system. With a concentration on explaining standards-based grading to all stakeholders early in the year, this confusion should wane. Of course, when it comes to teachers adopting any new strategy—the more the merrier.