The Case for Standards-Based Grading

Seems like on most days when I hit social media, I’m bombarded by the same chatter—grades are “meaningless,” “don’t measure learning,” and “are corruptive.”

And the comments don’t stop there. There’s negative chatter about all forms of grading practices, including standards-based grading.  While I agree that outdated and ineffective grading practices like using a 101 point scale, averaging assessments, and labelling work with letter grades needs to be chucked, it’s too bold to suggest that all grading is rotten and should be cast down in one gigantic swoop.

When rebuking standards-based grading is included in conversations about grading reform, it is going too far. Now, I’m not going to judge anyone for wanting to overhaul a dangerous system in which letter grades are used as carrots and sticks to garner obedient behaviour from students. I also sympathize with educators who must summarize all learning into a percentage or symbol at the end of learning. I, too, have felt pangs of regret at report card time and wondered how I could be so cruel as to categorize students in such a way. But I also know that when standards-based grading is implemented properly, the road to report card-ville has fewer potholes than before. In fact, it is because I am implementing standards based grading practices, that generating a grade seems to have less stinging and more calming effects now. 

So, I wonder if the negative perception of SBG and the subsequent grades that are a result of such a practice, is because some educators have been exposed to harmful versions of it, perhaps practices that teeter on ethical malpractice or maybe are misaligned with what the intention of SBG should be, or there could be top down decrees  that once pigeon-holed them into using SBG in ineffective ways and undermined their practice, resulting in a overall feeling that SBG is both ineffective and as abhorrent as points and grades in themselves. I also wonder if, once upon a time, an educator was instructed how to do standards-based grading and the instructions were incorrect, rendering the objective of SBG as a means to go “gradeless,” as ineffective as traditional grading practices from yesteryear.

Standards-based grading is not harmful to students and, in fact, it could be the path to making grades become more acceptable again, but it requires some finesse to get there.  It can be empowering for students, develop a culture of risk-takers who have agency over their learning, and can catapult one’s classroom into a more inclusive and equitable sphere.  

The standards are our guideposts. It is our responsibility as educators to teach to those guideposts because that is our job and this is the curriculum we have been instructed to present, but that doesn’t mean educators have to compromise student voice & choice, opportunities for students to excel at their own pace, and giving agency over to the students. In fact, I think it can illuminate it.  Standards and standards-based grading doesn’t need to be the enemy.

The way I’m going to approach this is to explain how educators can kick up their SBG game a notch or two, reflect & overhaul their current practices, and refine it for greater impact, further reach, and renewed confidence in SBG.

Labelling with levels of proficiency

Standards-based proficiency levels should be used to track progress and to guide students along the continuum of learning. Proficiency levels used alone on assignments and projects don’t help students. If the intention of using proficiency levels is to eliminate the detrimental ego-inducing effects points and grades have on student’s self-esteem, attaching a proficiency level in lieu of those points and grades will produce the same effect. Proficiency scales are more accurate because there are fewer levels and it allows educators to align assessment criteria in a clear way, but if we slap levels alone on student work as we would a “Good job” sticker, “C+” or a “6/10,” there will be no change in achievement because students see little need in doing better, particularly if we label assignments and then expect students to see the need to improve by their own volition and on their own time. That’s because levels cannot replace what constructive feedback/feed forward and follow up learning opportunities can.

Process over product

Standards-based grading proper is about assessing the extent by which a student can show that they know the content and can do the skill. If we use proficiency levels to label products, we are misaligning the purpose of SBG.  Learning opportunities should not function as things or work students turn in for our assessment. Nowhere in SBG land should we hear that students have received a “Developing” on a lab, a “Proficient” on a worksheet, or “Extending” on a project.  Instead, the lab could be evidence of how the student can “Observe, measure, and record data (qualitative and quantitative), using equipment, including digital technologies, with accuracy and precision” (Science 8), the worksheet could be evidence of how the student can “identify Francophone communities across Canada” (Core French 10), and the project could be evidence of developing “Social Studies inquiry processes” (Social Studies 11).

Standards are action words that need unpacking using Bloom’s taxonomy. The verbs in Bloom’s taxonomy can support our understanding of the expectations of the standard.

Timing is everything

I hesitate to reveal levels of proficiency prematurely. Gather the evidence, provide opportunities to use feedback and then discuss the levels with students at poignant points in time like interim or report card time. The incessant ping of the grade book machine (or whatever platform you use to communicate assessments to stakeholders) has terrible effects on kids and parents.  If stakeholders expect evaluations every day or two, they will hang on to their computers for that notification. Instead of chasing learning or skill improvement, students anticipate, fear, or become anxious about the forthcoming assessment.  

Don’t be afraid to delay the grade. What do parents really need to know at other points in time, between interim and report card time?  Share the feedback with them, let them know if an assignment has or has not been turned in, upload the rubric/sequence, and take a photo of the evidence of learning. Use a platform like Fresh grade so stakeholders can grow accustomed to the way you view assessment, that it is more than just a level or points or score, that assessment is about feedback, improvement, and self-assessment.

All the best learning happens in those times between the start of learning and the reporting of leanring. Why ruin that with levels that may or may not be interpreted like grades. In Drama 10, I like to give index cards with Glow/Grows for every student. Feedback in place of scores provides the opportunity for skill improvement. They are also equitable forms of opportunity for growth because every student receives feedback no matter where they are on the proficiency scale.

Look at the standards differently

Learning opportunities (assignments, projects, presentations) should be viewed as possible evidence of showing proficiency of standards.  This means changing the way we look at the standards. If we begin with an idea for a “great project” and then try to retrofit the standards to that project, we might not end up authentically assessing the standard. 

The rubric above is an example of a misaligned competency-based rubric. It began with the project in mind and the criteria is not standards-based.

I can always sense an SBG misalignment when teachers ask me if I have any standard- or competency-based scales or rubrics for a particular assignment or project.  We need to begin with the standard and challenge ourselves to consider what all levels of proficiency could look like using task-neutral, growth-oriented language.  Only at the point when we know what students need to be able to show us they can do, should we even consider the types of learning opportunities we could do with kids. Let me put it another way.  The criteria for a standard should remain the same no matter what learning opportunity you do with your students. The criteria you create for “showing comprehension strategies” in your English 8 class should be exactly the same for a book report, weekly literature circles assignments, or a short stories unit test.  The criteria you create for “using performance skills” in your Drama 10 class should be exactly the same for duologue presentation, small group performance, and big two-act show in the auditorium.  That way, after each of these learning opportunities, you have a plethora of evidence that you can use to determine the level of proficiency.  If the criterion for standards fluctuates for different learning opportunities, the data you collect on the standard will be inaccurate. 

One way I have been working with backwards design is by creating proficiency sequences.  Sequence development begins with the standard and a close examination of the verbs & depth required. Once educators understand what the standard means (thanks to using one part Bloom’s taxonomy and one part Depth of Knowledge), they brainstorm all that students are expected to be able to do. BC standards are composed of Content and Curricular Competencies. I prefer to focus on the curricular competency and use the content as the foundation to develop that skill. Imagine a house. The content is the foundation for the house, but it’s not a house. The skills (understanding –> creating) are the house. We need the content to support the house, but the house is what we should be wrapping around our learners.

Then, we rank and weed all that brainstorming into an increasingly cognitively complex continuum. The sequences have task-neutral language, and entry point for all learners, and stretches and challenges for the range of learners in a classroom. There is more flexibility to a sequence than a more rigid, teacher-centric rubric or proficiency scale (example below).

This is an example of a proficiency scale using teacher-centered language. (Branco, Kennedy, Nunez, & Schinkel, 2018)
Proficiency Scale (Schinkel 2020)

But one of the key purposes of the sequence is to advance student opportunity and agency. Once generated, the language is great for all learners to understand but the intent is not to thrust it in their lap and see how far they can get. In fact, it is the teacher’s responsibility to be sure that every level is taught, practiced without penalty, and then turned over to the student to both set goals for themselves, reflect on those goals, and determine the supports they need to attain those goals. While the proficiency sequence does align with the proficiency scale, it differs from a rubric or standard specific proficiency scale in that every student starts at the same entry point and uses it as a continuum of learning. All opportunities are formative in nature until such a time as a summative assessment of learning is required (namely interim and report card time).  Teachers can use the sequence to plan learning opportunities around next steps, allowing for all students to “level up” on the proficiency sequence.

Math 8 Proficiency Scale (Pearce, Schinkel, and Wilson, 2021)

Students can be a part of the sequence building process as well, but it’s our responsibility to be sure it aligns with grade-level expectations. This can and should be a collaborative effort amongst department members if possible.

Now there is a valid argument in that learning isn’t finite and should not be compartmentalized into a year…I get that, but if the sequence is built and taught explicitly, students will always hit their own target. The language within the sequence is open to interpretation, adventurous learning opportunities, and defense of evidence. We can and should push our students to meet minimum expectations in our courses, but that isn’t at the expense of former rigid, traditional, grade-level practices like the 5-paragraph essay or number of reasons in a synthesis paragraph answer.  The proficiency sequence eliminates extraneous criteria that is often included in standards-based rubrics (number of sentences, layout, organization) and focuses on the pure standard.

Using a tool like a proficiency sequence also gives teachers the opportunity to develop a more inclusive classroom.  Students with intellectual disabilities need replacement goals. These replacement goals can come from the access point of a proficiency sequence. Because the sequence is being used by all students in the class, students with disabilities work on the same goals as other members of their grade level academic or elective courses. Students with disabilities should not be sitting on the sidelines working on a colouring page or separate learning.  They also shouldn’t be given menial in-class tasks like wiping down white boards or fetching photocopying. They deserve the same opportunity to learn alongside their grade level peers. By the same token, their grade-level peers need to see students with disabilities as learners in their own right and that they are an integral part of the classroom community. We build advocates of the future by including them in advocacy efforts in our classrooms.

The center column is the goal for the class. The replacement goals and tasks (on the far right) come from the Access points on the proficiency sequence. Below is the evidence of learning for the replacement goals.

Not all learning opportunities are created equal

Practicing a standard before evaluating a standard is non-negotiable area here. Practice must be no stakes. Students need the opportunity to practice learning without judgment. When ready, provide learning opportunities that are equitable, opportunities that all can strive to be successful at. Tests are definitely one way to show learning, but they limit the potential for students who generally struggle with test-taking. Project-based learning allows for greater opportunities to use immediate feedback and allow for student voice. Give options. 

Learning opportunities should show respect for indigenous ways of knowing: “Learning is holistic, reflexive, reflective, experiential, and relational (focused on connectedness, on reciprocal relationships, and a sense of place).” (First Nations Education Steering Committee, http://www.fnesc.ca/.  Learning opportunities that acknowledge indigenous ways of knowing should not be treated as a one-off; they should be included in all aspects of the learner’s experience.

One of the most powerful practices we can include with the respect to all our students is giving weight to conversations and observations of learning as an equal part of the assessment experience. Too often products are considered the only means to a SBG end. Standards are action words; if we witness the standard in action before the product is handed in, it is futile to not assess the standard just because the evidence in our hands. What we witness should be just as significant as the product itself.

Fewer standards, greater impact

Educators are often mentally bogged down by the sheer number of standards we need to assess. I cannot speak for my neighbours to the east and south, but I take Shelley Moore’s comments about our BC standards to heart: “There is no curriculum police.” The curriculum is simply too vast to try to tackle it all and do a decent job at it. Attempting to assess every single standard is daunting and attempts to do so may result in limited attempts to show learning of the standards. Less is better than more.

Assessment should be intimate

“Beyond standards-based grading: Why equity must be part of grading reform”  
Joe Feldman, April 29, 2019
https://kappanonline.org/standards-based-grading-equity-reform-feldman/

When educators need to report out on the standards, consider the body of evidence, but do not average it. Consider each standard as a “The student can…” statement. Standards based grading is about assessing the extent by which a student can do ____.  That means eliminating behaviours and effort from the grade book. It means turfing the early scores and not punishing students for having a starting point.  It also means disregarding scores that don’t benefit students and weaker scores that could be a result of any number of personal, social, emotional, familial, health issues. 

It also means that we are assessing the quality of a student’s best evidence as opposed to the quantity. This is one of the most equitable actions we can take because it shows that our proficiency levels represent what the student can do and not the number of assignments they did. There is a worry that students will mistreat the standards, choosing only to do one assignment because the quantity doesn’t matter. That’s a bigger conversation about learning. If assessment becomes less about chasing points and more about learning opportunities and feedback, then learning will undoubtedly occur. If a student only turns in one assignment, there is less of an opportunity to show growth. I think we’ll garner a more optimistic view of learning if we discuss that in SBG, teachers are collecting and counting a student’s best evidence as opposed to averaging evidence and that there will be no penalty for practice. There is usually a far greater buy in than worrying over whether they will do all the work. And one of the repercussions of such conversations and student’s subsequent actions is…a growth mindset.

Report card time

When students are given opportunity and agency over their learning and students have provided multiple pieces of evidence for a standard, reflected, set goals, and defended their development, an educator can feel confident about the grade they give them at report card time. Come report card time, the grade can validly represent the learning that took place over the course in a more constructive way than had a teacher averaged scores, counted zeroes, and disallowed rewrites.

But the key here is that final grades are determined at the end of learning. If we translate standards to percentages while students are on the journey, we risk losing all that standards-base grading has to offer.  It is also important that we are transparent about what levels of proficiency will equate to in terms of letter grades and percentages. Report card time need not feel like an unwanted surprise party. All too often I have heard of students being shocked and disheartened by their effort only to discover they had received a less that expected final grade. It is our duty to communicate potential concerns over passing and failing long before report card time.

There is still a nasty stigma to letter grades, so bringing students into the report card conversation is important. Sitting down with students, the standards, and the proficiency sequence, give both parties the opportunity to justify and sometimes negotiate a grade. Most of the time, I have no issues because I give so many learning opportunities, I ultimately have a lot of happy “A” and “B” students at the end of the line. I don’t think that’s a problem. I think it’s a happy consequence of the way I use SBG, and I don’t mind tooting my own horn about it. In the event, there is a problem, the standard and the proficiency sequence or scale can help either the student or the teacher justify the grade. I’ve heard that some educators allow students to determine their own grades and I think that’s a very empowering notion, but giving students that power with no criteria is problematic in that it assumes they know what each grade level “means” and could lend weight to non-learning criteria like behaviour, attendance, grit, and effort. These are important attributes but should not play a part in a grade level determination which is representative of learning.  It’s like suggesting that my t-shirt is of A-quality because in the production of the shirt, the maker overcame setbacks and had great attendance. We also need to be careful that we don’t give grading ownership over to students who are not comfortable with that kind of responsibility. Suggesting that students can argue or defend their way to a higher grade is inequitable because it assumes they have the skills or desire to do that. I was the type of student who could totally argue about my overall grade, but a student who has been told all their life that they should not argue with the teacher because it is a sign of disrespect, may find the very idea foreboding.

Departments or staffs can determine what each level of proficiency will equate to in order to build collective efficacy and alignment around SBG. Student X in Science who is Proficient in all standards and ultimately receives an “A” or “90” on their report card, should receive the same grade and percentage in Social Studies with the same levels of proficiency for those Social Studies standards. 

There is a lot of pressure for senior students to attain high levels of standing in order to be accepted into post-secondary institutions. I refuse to be the teacher who stands into any student’s way of following their dream beyond high school. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use SBG because percentages seem more significant to senior students.  In the past when everything in a grade book counted and students watched their initial progress report percentage loom over them for four months while they watched it go up and go down with every homework check, assignment turned in, and test assessed after that, students couldn’t focus on anything but the grade. In standards-based grading, there is breathing room because it honours the learner, accepts and appreciates mistakes, and provides opportunity.

Conclusion

Standards based grading is not just about assessing the standards. It’s actually a mindset shift. I really think that those who feel disgruntled by SBG and have found peace by going completely gradeless or using labor-based contracts have many similar characteristics to proponents of SBG.  We all want assessment to be a true reflection of the student and we don’t wish to pigeon-hole students into showing their learning in inequitable, colonialized, one-track ways. We want our learners to leave our rooms with a growth mindset and an intrinsic desire to learn, and not be extrinsically motivated to chase points.  Do I feel misunderstood by anti-SBG educators because I use SBG? Sure, but, their intentions aren’t malicious. My students are flourishing and pushing to their potential because of the way I implement SBG and especially since I started developing proficiency sequences. It’s my responsibility to generate the best possible learning opportunities for all my learners. That’s what is important and that’s why I encourage my colleagues to shift to SBG.

#mygrowthmindset

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