Standards-Based Grading

I work with several schools and school districts in various stages of moving to standards-based grading, from those in the beginning exploration stages to those in full implementation.  Parents, and particularly parents of students who are accustomed to getting high grades, are interested in knowing how standards-based grading will affect grades.  More to the point, they want to know “Will it be harder for my son or daughter to get an A?” 

It is impossible to predict the effect on grades for individual students and teachers.  Some teachers operating under traditional grading systems hold students to high academic standards, generating course grades largely uncontaminated by factors unrelated to the academic standards identified in the district’s stated curriculum.  Likewise, some students receiving high marks for performances that, for high school students for instance, equip them to succeed in entry level college course work without remediation.  For these teachers and students, the move to standards-based grading is likely to result in little change to the number of high marks awarded and received.

However, national data suggest that grades, at least at the high school level, often overstate students’ knowledge and skill levels.  ACT, The College Board, and numerous independent and university-sponsored research reports chronicle the disillusionment and expense suffered by students who enter college with GPAs of 3.00 or higher unable to do college work.  Upwards of one-third of college students across the nation have to enroll in remedial courses costing colleges and taxpayers, according to one report in The New York Times, between $2.3 and $2.9 billion annually.  And graduation rates of students who take remedial courses in college are dismal, somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 out of 4.  For such students, students who receive high marks for work that does not prepare them for life after high school or performance unrelated to essential academic standards (extra credit, class participation, etc.), course grades could very well be lower and more accurate.  Giving students grades that misrepresent their readiness for further study in the interest of high GPAs does them a great disservice.  The goal isn’t to get in to college.  The goal is to do well and graduate.

 We also know that there is another side to this coin; that is that some students who know course content and skills at high levels receive lower grades than their academic performance merits because they choose not to comply with extraneous expectations of their teachers, expectations that are sometimes whimsical and rooted in a need to control.  How many students have had their marks reduced because they turned in a paper that was not double spaced or that was enclosed in the forbidden plastic cover?  How many students receive grades lower than their academic performance deserves because of the devastating effect of a zero for a missing assignment, an assignment the student did not need to do to demonstrate mastery of the targeted content or skill.  How many students receive low grades on assessments because expectations were unclear and they studied “the wrong things?”  For such students the move to standards-based grading will enhance their chances of earning high marks.

Two additional aspects of standards-based education and standards-based grading result in increased student achievement (which is, after all, the goal)–formative assessment and trend scoring.

Formative assessment, an indispensable component of standards-based grading, ensures that students get opportunities to learn from mistakes made early in a learning sequence and demonstrate improvement, before the final score for the skill or content objective goes in the grade book.  Trend scoring means that final course grades reflect students’ mastery of key knowledge and skills at the end of the learning sequence rather than an average of what they knew when learning began and when it ended.  Research consistently shows that these two strategies, formative assessment and trend scoring, are the most powerful strategies for increasing student achievement over which teachers and schools have influence. 

How does standards-based grading impact student achievement?  Research is unequivocable with regard to the answer to that question.  How will standards-based grading impact your son’s or daughter’s GPA?  Well, that depends doesn’t it.



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