Each week brings some new idea that teachers are supposed to implement, while still preparing lessons, grading papers, and keeping their classrooms in some semblance of order. Amid all these challenges, a call to change grading policies can seem particularly unrealistic.
One grading practice that is gaining popularity is standards-based grading, which involves measuring students' proficiency on well-defined course objectives (Tomlinson & McTighe, 2006). Although many districts adopt standards-based grading in addition to traditional grades, standards-based grading can and should replace traditional point-based grades.
My school, Montrose High School, is located in a small but rapidly growing rural community in southwestern Colorado. We serve a community that is primarily white but that has a significant Latino population. After spending the last three years implementing standards-based grading in my high school math classroom, I have discovered seven solid reasons for replacing point-based grades with a standards-based system.
Reason 1: Grades Should Have Meaning
Each letter grade that a student earns at the high school level is connected to a graduation credit, and many classes reflect only one step in a sequence of learning. So what does each grade indicate to students, parents, and teachers of later courses in the sequence? When I first considered this question, I realized I had no answers. When I was pressed to describe the qualitative difference between an A, B, C, D, or F, my answers were vague. So, I developed a much more focused idea of what I want my grades to mean:
- 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.
Reason 2: We Need to Challenge the Status Quo
Many notions I had at the beginning of my career about grading didn't stand up to real scrutiny. The thorny issue of homework is one example of how the status quo needed to change. I once thought it was essential to award points to students simply for completing homework. I didn't believe students would do homework unless it was graded. And yet, in my classroom, students who were clearly learning sometimes earned low grades because of missing work. Conversely, some students actually learned very little but were good at “playing school.” Despite dismal test scores, these students earned decent grades by turning in homework and doing extra credit. They would often go on to struggle in later courses, while their parents watched and worried.
Over the past three years, I have radically changed how I formally assess homework—I don't. Of course, it is essential for students to do homework that is tied closely to learning objectives and for students to see those connections (Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001). Systematic and extensive feedback on assignments sends students the message that they can and should do homework as practice. A typical homework assignment for my students consists of a small collection of problems, each of which is linked to a learning objective. At first, I make those connections for my students, but eventually they make them on their own.
When I assign homework, I discuss with my students where and how it applies to their assessments. My goal is to get students to constantly ask themselves, “Do I know this? Can I do this?” To my surprise, my homework completion rates have remained steady over the past three years. Some students don't do all of the homework that I assign, but they know that they are accountable for mastering the standard connected to it. Of course, not every student who needs to practice always does so, but I am amazed and encouraged that students ask me for extra practice fairly regularly.
Reason 3: We Can Control Grading Practices
One of the biggest sources of frustration in schools today is the sense that we are at the mercy of factors we teachers cannot control. We cannot control student socioeconomic levels, school funding, our salaries, our teaching assignments, increasing class sizes, difficult parents, or a host of other important issues. However, we can control how we assess students.
When I approached my principal and district officials with the idea of using an experimental grading system, I received support and encouragement from all of them. In addition, a number of colleagues have been intrigued and want to make standards-based grading work in their classrooms.
If a teacher must use a point system to satisfy an administrative mandate or to use a particular grade book, that teacher can still use a standards-based system. The crucial idea is to use a system that is not based on the inappropriate use of averages. The system must not allow students to mask their level of understanding with their attendance, their level of effort, or other peripheral issues.
I have found that avoiding point values that might appear in a traditional percentage-based system is helpful because parents and students can get confused if they see numbers that look like what they've seen in the past but refer to a different scale. Teachers who have to assign points can avoid this confusion by using completely different numbers. A point value in the range of 1 to 10, for example, would not have the strong associations of a point value of 85, and thus would not be as easily misinterpreted.
Reason 4: Standards-Based Grading Reduces Meaningless Paperwork
Since I adopted standards-based grading, my load of meaningless paperwork has been drastically reduced, which provides time for more important considerations. Standards-based grading enables me to get the most from every piece of paper students turn in.
Writing feedback only on selected homework problems saves my time when marking papers while still giving me a sense of where students are in their learning. These homework assignments and other formative assessments help me judge the progress of the group as a whole before deciding how to proceed.
I don't assess student mastery of any objective until I am confident that a reasonable number of students will score proficiently, and that makes each assessment mean much more. Students who are still struggling after a significant portion of the class has demonstrated mastery can retest individually. The bottom line is that when I review any set of papers, I walk away knowing a great deal more about what my students know than I ever did before.
Reason 5: It Helps Teachers Adjust Instruction
Imagine two different grade books for the same set of students, as shown in Figure 1. Which one of the two better illustrates what students know and what they still need to learn?