Friday, September 7, 2018

Why Do Standards-Based Grading? (Part 1 of series)

When I taught eighth grade in California, our administration started talking about implementing standards-based grading. I was skeptical to say the least! I could not imagine how I would manage that type of scoring for 120+ students. I moved away from those initial conversations when I came to Wisconsin to start a graduate program, and I did not find out how things progressed.

Within my graduate program, I began to see the potential of standards-based grading, but I worked in a district that made me realize the process had to be done very carefully. My Wisconsin district had “standards-based” grading. We provided students a score for assessments or assignments within four main standards categories. At the beginning of each quarter I selected two of these categories from a content standards list and two from a list of inquiry skills. When I entered student work into the computer program, I gave it a score of 0 to 4 (with 0.5 demarcation okay) on one or more of these standards. I received no formal training on how to grade students based on this system; I talked informally to other teachers about the logistics and their philosophy on what to do. On report cards, students received both a numerical score in each sub-category and an overall letter grade. I struggled with the idea that a 3, “proficient,” would be turned into a B+ on report cards—I felt that “proficient” should be an A, so I fudged that a bit. Neither the school, the district, nor the eighth grade team had rubrics to clearly delineate what each score meant.

Fortunately, work in that district did not sour me on the process. I continued having conversations with other educators and doing further research. I found several reasons to put forth the effort to do standards-based grading well:
  1. Mindset - Jo Boaler’s practical interpretation of CarolDweck’s Mindset work blew my mind a few years ago. Using letter grades gives students the message that they are an A, B, C, D, or F student. It instills “fixed” beliefs rather a sense that they can get it if they keep working. Supporting a growth mindset has huge implications for student success in school and life.
  2. Engagement and Empowerment – when students see a clear path of learning, and where they fall along that path, they feel empowered to direct their learning. It’s in their hands and personalized to their needs. They become more active learners when their progress is not repeatedly stopped by a letter (therefore, redos also become important).
  3. Feedback – providing clear feedback to students on their work is oneof the most effective instructional strategies at our disposal. Giving a B or an 84% tells students little or nothing about their learning; it tells them about the type of person that they are. I’m pretty sure you’ve heard adults say, “I was a ‘C’ student.” On the other hand, standards-based grading, assuming there are well-articulated and properly used rubrics, provides a means to give relevant and actionable feedback to students. It tells them their effort can result in further learning and acknowledgment of that learning. A colleague once described formative feedback as a mentor and mentee relationship, and I’ve learned more from mentors than through any other means.
  4. Parents and Community – standards-based grading is not an easy sell to parents or communities, but we can certainly communicate it better. Colleges decry the need for remedial classes. Parents do not know how to help their child succeed. Business leaders say that graduates do not have the necessary life/job skills. Having real data about what students can and cannot do helps to address these challenges.
Currently, with new science standards in Wisconsin, local education agencies have the opportunity to rethink a lot about their system. After a long personal journey, I now encourage educators to explore standards-based grading as part of their five-or-so-year process of evaluating and redesigning their science programs. I do warn them, however, that it has to be done carefully, and that it will not be an easy process.

Here are some questions to collaboratively dig into if you are considering or beginning the standards-based grading journey:
  • Why are you doing it? How does it connect to your vision of student learning? A clear, concise rationale will be critical in discussions and communications.
  • Which standards will we prioritize and why? Standards in any subject tend to be too extensive to meaningfully assess them all. Four to six standards per quarter are probably manageable.
  • How are we connecting with the three dimensions of the Wisconsin Standards for Science (or NGSS or other Framework-based standards)? 
  • What does our 3-5 year learning and roll-out process look like? Will it be a PK-12 system? A transition plan will be important. High school generally requires further considerations in this planning, particularly due to college entrance requirements and GPA (though having a traditional GPA is often flexible).
Part 2 will share some examples of SBG efforts in progress in Wisconsin...

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