Standards-based Grading

Imagine if you will, that we don’t give students a numerical grade based on attendance, class participation, and demonstrated knowledge. We stop making them accumulate points and we stop letting them fixate on the letter grade.  Instead, we give them grades based on what they know, how well they demonstrate that they meet the learning outcomes. We focus on learning, what the students know, and how they can improve.

This is the intriguing idea behind standards based grading, advocated by Robert Marzano and Tammy Heflebower. They complain that the semester grade doesn’t really communicate how well students are doing. Students and parents can interpret it as “good” or “bad” and there is no more depth. And students fixate on getting a higher grade instead of learning more, which is what they are in school for. To replace this, Marzano and Heflebower’s article, “Grades That Show What Students Know,” makes four recommendations:

Replace the omnibus, average grade with a series of graphs that show progress on student grades. This encourages students by showing students how they have improved, and it helps teachers see what each student knows. Instead of providing one percentage for each standard, provide students grades based on this scale:

  • 4 – more complex content
  • 3 – target objective
  • 2 – simpler content
  • 1 – with help, partial success with 2 & 3 content
  • 0 – with help, no success

If you can’t do away with the omnibus grade, provide the measurement grade and a converted percentage. They acknowledge that social pressure may still require teachers to present a grade, so they propose this conversion system:

  • 3-4 = A
  • 2.5-2.99 = B
  • 2-2.49 = C
  • 1.5-1.99 = D
  • 0-1.49 = F

Assess students in more ways. If you are not reliant on testing you can assess students’ ability to meet the learning outcomes in a variety of ways: discussions with the students, observing the students who may not know you are assessing them, and an assignment designed by the students.

Allow students to update their scores on earlier standards. If students show improvement during the second quarter on a standard from the first quarter, update the student’s “grades” for the first quarter.

Some of these ideas are idealistic and they could very easily run into issues with how grades are reported to parents, but they are interesting ideas. Even though I have never tried this and I am not sure if I ever would, these ideas do offer great insights and ideas. Catilin Tucker and Sarah Donovan (here and here) have tried these ideas out. Here are some of the ideas that I have taken away from their experiments with standards-based grading:

Schools still require grades, and some require you to share your grades with your students online.  Catlin Tucker completely redesigned her grade book. Instead of each category being an assignment or test (or the total score from a rubric for a paper), her grade book listed the learning objectives for each standard (or each category from the rubric). She then used 0-4 grades for each assignment. This is an excellent way to communicate to students and parents what students know, and to help teachers focus on grading with the standards.

Sarah Donovan used two different approaches.  During the term, she listed a score of 0-2 in the online grade book: 0= missing, 1=turned in, 2=revised. This encouraged students to revise earlier work and focus on learning and taking comments into consideration. Some students, though, still panicked about there being a 1 and not a 2, even after turning in the revised assignment. During the term, she also relied heavily on narrative feedback and conferences with her students so that they knew what they needed to improve upon and where they we’re doing well. At the end of the term, she had a conference with each student to discuss what grade best suited their progress through the standards.

You must communicate this clearly with parents, students, and your principal. A 0-4 or 0-2 grading scale will cause panic, so you need to make sure everyone knows what you are doing and why you are doing it.

These methods require teachers to provide good feedback. Feedback is hugely important for improving all grades, but this seems to require it more than other approaches. This is something that I know I can improve on, and so I will try to focus on other teachers’ ideas for sharing good feedback in future posts.

Interestingly, they may also require less grading. Catilin Tucker said she didn’t need to grade everything now that she was focused on standards instead of an average. It let students fail and have bad days, and it allowed them to struggle and improve.

These methods encourage students to engage with the material. Sarah Donovan’s emphasis on learning and revision force students to look at the narrative feedback and see where they can improve. Like test corrections, it helps students see, correct their mistakes, and learn the material better.

It helps students enjoy the material. Sarah Donovan shared a letter from a parent. The parent said that now the student was enjoying books again, after several years of classes not helping her do so. All of the feedback also helps you learn more about and make connections with students to help encourage their emotional health, personality, and interests.


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