Standards-Based Grading: Better Feedback and Deeper Thinking
Karen A. McCay
11 January 2017
Every September teachers are inundated with lists of initiatives to implement with their students. These lists are often contradictory and come from stakeholders, who do not necessarily trust one another’s agendas. Each state has its own agenda. Then the new federal agency, with a new secretary, will have an entirely new agenda in 2017. Several private corporations stand to make a fortune in the wake of these changing agendas. Local districts have their own agendas, and so does each individual campus. Individual teachers see unique challenges in their own classrooms (and even for individual students), so finding a way to actually teach the students in our classrooms each day to mastery level with high expectations can feel overwhelming. One method of balancing all agencies’ initiatives WHILE meeting the needs of individual students and teaching with high expectations is to use standards-based grading rather than a traditional grading method. First, teachers can focus on more meaningful feedback rather than numeric grades on assignments and allow students to revise. Second, teachers can assess with differentiation and allow constant educational growth. Finally, teachers can allow completely open critical thinking models by allowing students to modify activities as long as the activities still align with learning goals.
Better Feedback and More Meaningful Grades
Breaking down the standards we need to cover each year and mapping them into manageable units can create a culture of growth toward goals during each unit of study based on specific, meaningful feedback from instructors. Instructors still develop lessons and work based on the standards, but when it is time to grade, they discuss the work with students and grade it more holistically as they ask students how the work documents their growth and/or mastery of specific learning outcomes. Teachers can also give students chances to re-do work on trouble areas. Stephanie Pinkin (2016) explains, for example, how we have often wasted time in education when a student masters eight skills out of ten by having them re-do all ten. Why? Under standards-based grading, 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.” When students have either shown in writing or in speech how their work documents clear mastery on a level 1, 2, 3, or 4 (or sometimes simple/complex, beginner/advanced) of a unit standard, the instructor checks that standard off for the student. Students may continue to work on other areas.
Patricia Scriffiny (2008) has used standards-based grading since 2005 and explains how she determines a letter grade at the end of each unit based on the proficiency of her high school math students:
- An A means the student has completed proficient work on all course objectives and advanced work on some objectives.
- A B means the student has completed proficient work on all course objectives.
- A C means the student has completed proficient work on the most important objectives, although not on all objectives. The student can continue to the next course.
- A D means the student has completed proficient work on at least one-half of the course objectives but is missing some important objectives and is at significant risk of failing the next course in the sequence. The student should repeat the course if it is a prerequisite for another course.
- An F means the student has completed proficient work on fewer than one-half of the course objectives and cannot successfully complete the next course in sequence.
Differentiation for Growth
Differentiation is also easier under standards-based grading because lessons can be altered, materials can be altered, and even assessments can be altered more quickly because none of them are essential to the unit. Students’ grades are based solely on documentation of mastering standards, so however they accomplish their goals is acceptable as long as it is an educationally appropriately practice. If a struggling learner needs an educational assistant and time and a half, then that accommodation is acceptable. If an accelerated learner wants to do a problem-based learning task with a mentor and creates a product for the Science Fair, that accommodation is also appropriate, as long as both assignments also address the standards in the unit and are acceptable to the classroom instructor. Josh Work (2014) discusses the ease of differentiation when using standards-based grading in the middle school setting: “Students are measured on their proficiency of content standards. Some demonstrate early mastery and are able to move on to more difficult concepts, while others may require reteaching. Teachers are able to easily identify those students who may need some support in order to demonstrate proficiency.” Grouping students and allowing them to pursue their path through the unit ensures everyone grows at a faster pace.
Standards-based grading frees teachers to differentiate with more creativity, allowing students to invent and innovate in the 21st century. They can demonstrate their mastery through Youtube videos, Ted Talks, real-world problem-solving opportunities, competition-based learning, and more traditional methods. Having a menu of 3-5 choices as a starting point at the beginning of a unit may help students get started in this more open model of learning. As they become more comfortable, students will present their own ideas for approval, and all instructors have to do is guide students as they look at standards as their targets and then choose activities as the vehicles to get them to their destinations.
Standards-Based Grading Yields Critical Thinking
Standards-based grading, like any other initiative, takes time. Teachers may need to maintain a lot of control early in the process as they develop comfort with the new system. The grades, however, are more authentic. As Stephanie Pinkin states, “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” (2016). As they become more comfortable with the new grading system, itself, and the direct feedback based on the standards, instructors will naturally allow more differentiation in their classrooms on all levels. And as they start thinking more creatively about what might document mastery of a specific standard on a level 3 or 4, their students will start to think critically about what a level 3 or 4 might look like. Students begin to envision what a deep level of mastery might entail, and they begin to create deep connections with their content. They seek out new resources, including experts in fields of study. They ask their parents to help them find resources beyond their communities and bring them into their schools. Then other students engage with those resources, and the entire school is enriched by impassioned thinkers, who were motivated by their own goals to learn. When we show the students the standards and then let them start thinking about how the get to the highest level of mastery, they become detectives and critical thinkers because they are doing investigative work they have never had to do before: they are writing their own curriculum.
Standards-based grading is a very effective initiative for assuring that all teachers in an entire school provide consistent, clear feedback, which is based on the standards. It is not, however, the only way administrators can make sure that feedback happens. Whatever system we implement, we must ensure that WE provide ample feedback to teachers on their performance as they utilize their new skills. We should provide solid trainings, follow-up sessions, walk-throughs to catch teachers doing things right, timely feedback that can help teachers tweak one or two things at a time, and observations, which help teachers target specific concerns they want to address as they develop comfort with their feedback system. Our staff members, like our students, need meaningful feedback, or they won’t improve.
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OR More Resources:
A Brief Overview of Standards-Based Grading
Rick Wormeli Discussing Standards-Based Grading
The Most Recent Marzano Research on Standards-Based Grading
A Standards-Based Grading Site with Report Card Samples
Dean, C. B., Hubbell, E. R., Pitler, H., & Stone, B. J. (2012). Classroom Instruction that Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement, 2nd Edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Goodwin, B., & Hubbell, E. R. (2013). The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Pinkin, S. (2016, February 22). Putting Standards-Based Grading into Action (Education Week). Retrieved January 4, 2017, from http://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2016/02/22/putting-standards-based-grading-into-action.html
Scriffiny, P. L. (2008, October). Seven Reasons for Standards-Based Grading (Educational Leadership). Retrieved January 2, 2017, from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership/oct08/vol66/num02/Seven_Reasons_for_Standards-Based_Grading.aspx
Work, J. (2014, December 04). 3 Peaks and 3 Pits of Standards-Based Grading. Retrieved January 4, 2017, from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/peaks-pits-standards-based-grading-josh-work