Leadership · Curriculum · Lifelong Learning

In a recent twitter chat, I was asked:

“Some districts have transitioned to standards-based grading. What are some pros/cons of this shift?”

There’s no way I could possibly answer that in 280 characters, right?

Grading, feedback, measuring student learning… So many thoughts came to mind.

The question took me back to a time when I experienced a major shift in my practice. A seismic shift to be sure, yet it wasn’t without its challenges.

What an Opportunity!

In 2004, my principal tasked me with going to a district training on a new topic, and then to take the new information back to our school to present it to our staff. Yes, that probably happened all the time, but I didn’t know that back then.

These were my thoughts and feelings:

  • Excited! I can’t believe I get to go to this training! How many beginning teachers (only in their second year) get to do this?
  • Fascinated! What is standards-based grading? I’ve never heard of it.
  • Nervous! I have to present this training material in front of staff members who are waaay more experienced and smarter than me. I had better get the details right!

As a beginning teacher, I didn’t feel like I was ready for this. Yet, are you ever really ready for anything? Looking back, I’m grateful to my principal for empowering me with opportunity in a leadership role.

On February 8, 2004, I attended this district training based on an earlier version of this Ken O’Connor book: How to Grade for Learning. I still have the WORD Document on which I carefully recorded my notes and handouts for my staff presentation.

Where Are We Now?

Not long after the training, my district determined that elementary schools would change from percentage-based grading to standards-based grading, while the middle schools and high schools would continue using percentage-based grading.

As of today, my district has elementary school report card “Student Performance Descriptions” on its website. The section begins with:

“Levels 1 to 4 indicate whether your child met expectations set by the state’s Standard Course of Study.”

Level 4 – Exemplary Student consistently demonstrates an in-depth understanding of the standards, concepts and skills taught during this reporting period.
Level 3 – Proficient Student consistently demonstrates an understanding of the standard, concepts and skills taught during this reporting period.
Level 2 – Approaching Proficiency Student is approaching an understanding of the standards, concepts and skills taught during this reporting period.
Level 1 – Non-Proficient Student does not yet demonstrate an understanding of the standards, concepts and skills taught during this reporting period.

Read it again. Look at the wording very carefully.

This. Changes. Everything.

Change Is Hard

The most challenging parts about transitioning from percentage-based grading to standards-based grading was changing the way we’ve always done it.

Think about the way you did school for many years as a student, as well as the way you may have taught school for many years as a teacher. This shift was more than stirring the pot of tradition. This was an entire philosophical, pedagogical, and mindset shift. And change this challenging with a potential learning curve so steep–that kind of change doesn’t happen overnight.

In fact, standards-based grading even changed the way we thought, expressed, and envisioned the learning process.

Our wording changed big time. Check out these performance-based shifts:

Standards-Based Grading: Quality > Quantity

Measure: How well are you learning the content?

  • From: You got a 90% on one test one time.
  • To: You consistently demonstrated an understanding of “how the surface of the earth changes due to slow and rapid processes, such as… ”  

The Difference in Feedback: Frequency of learning opportunities, specificity of exactly what’s being learned, and learning as an active, continual process as opposed to a reactive, discrete product.

Standards-Based Grading: Knowing Our Standards

Measure: What exactly are we learning?

  • From: We’re learning about plants and animals.
  • To: We’re learning how to “Classify the organisms in an ecosystem according to the function they serve: producers, consumers, or decomposers (biotic factors).”

The Difference in Feedback: When you grade on standards, you have to measure, inform, and verbalize exactly what’s being learned. When you need to know exactly what’s being learned, you frequently reference and double-check the wording of the standards, thus getting to know your standards better overall. After all, isn’t it important for all stakeholders to know exactly what’s being taught and learned?

Standards-Based Grading: Resources Are Not Standards

Measure: What resources are needed to support our learning?

  • From: We’re doing the Forces & Motion kit.
  • To: We’re learning how to “Explain the importance of a push or pull to changing the motion of an object.”

The Difference in Feedback: The challenge with many programs, initiatives, kits, and third-party supplies is that they usually touch on the standards and might supplement general knowledge related to the content being learned, yet it’s rare to find resources that fit specific learning needs like a glove, and especially at a reasonable price. One size does not fit all. In addition, the danger in endearing our approach to well-intended kits, for example, is that the kit becomes a caricature of itself–an outright symbol as thee standard being learned–and not regarded simply as a resource to support individual learning needs for specific standards.

Standards-Based Grading: Percentages Are Not Learning Outcomes

Measure: How well did we demonstrate our learning?

  • From: You got an 85% on the weather test.
  • To: You consistently demonstrated an in-depth understanding of “Recognizing the earth as one of many moving parts of the solar system.” You are approaching an understanding of “Recognizing that changes in the length and direction of an object’s shadow indicate the apparent changing position of the sun during day although the patterns of the stars in the sky, to include the sun, stay the same.”   

The Difference in Feedback: When you take multiple standards and average them out into one percentage grade, you don’t communicate what was learned in each standard. For example, a student can be really great at multiplying three-digit numbers, while not performing well when multiplying fractions or decimals. To “get an 85% on a multiplication test” communicates neither the in-depth understanding when multiplying three-digit numbers nor the challenges in approaching understanding of multiplying fractions and decimals. It’s simply: “an 85% on the math multiplication test.” In fact, it communicates that the student multiplies three-digit numbers and fractions and decimals at the uniform rate of 85% correct, for each part of the whole test. When you measure performance and learning by individual standards, you have clarity in exactly what’s being taught and learned, and, therefore, can communicate strategies for learning outcomes more efficiently and effectively.

Standards-Based Grading: Scaffolding for Differentiation 

Measure: How equitable are our practices and learning experiences?

  • From: You got a D- in science.
  • Toward: For six weeks of the quarter, you did awesome. Yet, the last three weeks didn’t go so well. Exactly what do we need to review?
  • To: You consistently demonstrated an understanding when “Comparing daily and seasonal changes in weather conditions and patterns,” and you are approaching an understanding of “How global patterns such as the jet stream and water currents influence local weather in measurable terms…”

The Difference in Feedback: Hearing that you got a D- in science may be disheartening. More importantly, it’s not true. Averaging performances over all nine weeks produces an average–not necessarily an accurate picture of learning outcomes. And what if one-third of the content wasn’t presented in a manner most conducive to this learner’s needs? The quicker teachers can articulate feedback in specific, standards-based manners, the quicker differentiated strategies may be explored and implemented. The quicker we identify what students need, the quicker we can give students what they need.

For example, in our fifth grade science professional learning team (PLT) meeting, we noticed trends across our classrooms with students needing support with our weather standards. Specifically, weather concepts in standard 5E13 are especially challenging because they’re so abstract. This standard is hard to teach and learn. What if our initial supports and second exposures included models for students to touch, manipulate, analyze, critique, and with which to have a little fun? What if we could provide hands-on opportunities to convert abstract concepts to tangible, concrete, everyday items? What if we actually need to recreate a day at the beach (in our classrooms) for students who’ve never been to the beach so that we can better live, learn, recall, apply, and transfer knowledge about the differences between sea breezes and land breezes to new learning opportunities in the future?

Points to Ponder

  • Above, I stated specific standards when providing feedback. As a classroom teacher, I might consider paraphrasing standards, converting them into student-friendly learning targets.
  • Why is it important to know exactly what we teach and learn? If our standards and curricula eventually become second nature, we might invest less time in planning, allocating materials, and seeking background knowledge, so that we might have even more time to invest in meeting the needs of the whole child. Connection before content. Maslow before Bloom, indeed.
  • As a connected educator, I get to learn from many famous thought-provokers. These people are out-of-the-box thinkers and not afraid to break with tradition. As an elementary school teacher who used standards-based grading for well over a decade, my perspective on seemingly trivial topics appears differently than those of secondary educators still using percentage-based grading. Therefore, when someone tweets: Let’s throw out grades all together! or Feedback is the best and only way to make learning better! or Let’s adopt standards that better align with our core values of rigor, equity, and expectations! it’s not so radical and shocking to me. In fact, those approaches align so much better with standards-based grading than they align with percentage-based grading. Peeling back certain layers of the traditional schooling system may very well unveil more opportunities to do learning meaningfully.

What do you think about all of this?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, comments, and experiences. 

What are your thoughts? Comment here!

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