Let’s Talk About Standards Based Grading

Over the last ten years, I’ve facilitated district-wide shifts to standards based grading numerous times. As I prepare to begin again in a new-to-me school district, the memories of those professional experiences aren’t the ones rising to the top of my consciousness, though.

I’m thinking about how standards based grading helped me parent better.

I actually wrote a tiny bit about that on this blog, way back when. My daughter Nina was in fifth grade. She had an incredible teacher whose dedication to her own professional learning ensured that all of her students thrived as the district made the shift to standards based grading. As she facilitated our first parent conference of the year, she explained how her documentation and reporting system was changing. She also walked us through the new report card, and she showed us how the data she was capturing in class aligned with this dramatically different document.

I was impressed.

I was also a bit entertained when Nina realized that regardless of how well she was performing, her learning had no ceiling. In the absence of grades, we were all inspired to speak a bit more about skills and specifically, the ones that Nina would prioritize and work to improve upon. She wasn’t an “A” or “B” or “C” or “D” student any longer–she was a learner, just like everyone else. Our conversations were about her learning rather than her performance. The data that we explored together enabled this very different dialogue, too.

If I’m being honest, the shift was not a comfortable one for leaders, staff, students, or parents. Like every district that takes this dive, challenges were an inescapable part of the change. And this work happened years ago, ahead of the wave that so many more are riding far better now because so many people are navigating the water together. That kind of company matters.

And that’s why I’m writing this post.

Parents need to support standards based grading.

There are many reasons why educators would make the shift to standards based grading, but before I go there, I have another parenting story to tell: When my daughters applied to colleges, we knew that while state schools could provide high quality experiences, private schools tended to offer more scholarship and grant monies that might make them a more attractive choice.

And they did. Without a doubt.

In fact, we learned very quickly that many schools offer significant grant monies to students who achieve a certain GPA. And by significant, I mean tens of thousands of dollars per year per student, depending on his or her performance. I wondered: If systems aren’t using standards based grading, are they making unintentional and unnecessary contributions to their students’ college debt issues?

Case in point: Many colleges and universities offer substantial grants to students who earn a high school GPA of 3.5 or better. I’m quite familiar with one university that offers all incoming freshman who have met this benchmark $15,000 per year. No letters of recommendation are required. A separate application is not requested. The monies are simply granted upon application. That’s $60,000 over a four year term.

Sixty.

Thousand.

Dollars.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m staring down those kinds of numbers, I’m wondering how on earth we can justify the fact that three different English 11 teachers might be using three wildly different sets of assessment measures and wildly different weighting scales to put an average together. When GPAs are the result of inconsistent and misaligned grading practices and those GPAs influence college grant monies to this degree, I’m struggling.

And here’s what’s worse: I’m also revealing my privilege. This little problem is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to equity issues. It’s the kind of problem that kids who are fortunate enough to consider college have the audacity to stress about.

We need to learn more and do better here.

Me, too.

It’s not about the report card.

Sure, report cards change, but I think we need to embrace standards based grading because it matters in ways that we haven’t even begun to explore with any real level of depth. Achievement matters, but equity is bigger than that. Are we discussing the relationship between the two often enough? I know that I”m not.

Standards based grading holds all of us accountable for using far more accurate measures of assessment as well. Without accuracy, we will never have equity. One of the things that is so troublesome about the use of grades and grade point averages right now is that they are often so incredibly dishonest. When we don’t attend to accuracy, we become purveyors of a false and often, cruel reality. I’m not thinking of the kids who struggle to be seen inside of traditional systems that still value what we always have–performance in the four core subjects. I’m thinking of the kids who shine inside of systems that fail to set and help them achieve truly high standards. These are the kids who don’t truly learn how to learn until they enter college or the world of work, and that education is often a very uncomfortable one. They are also the kids who unearth learning disabilities much later in life than they should because no one really challenged them to their fullest potential previously. When kids like these struggle inside of non-standards based systems, grade inflation, pity, and blame screen everyone from the truth, undermining the kind of problem seeking and solving that drives real learning and growth.

That’s what standards based grading does–it shifts our focus to from products and performance to learning. And kids aren’t the only learners inside of these systems. Teachers and administrators are as well. And rather than producing high volumes of sub-par work in order to be evaluated, learners revisit, rethink, revise, and resubmit just-right work of far greater quality in order to make a careful assessment of progress toward specific learning goals. This enables targeted instruction, feedback, and intervention.

When it comes to learning, all of those things matter more than grades.

Much more.

I hope you’ll keep me company.

I feel comfortable leading the shift to standards based grading inside of different kinds of systems, but my experiences have taught me how complex this work is. While it’s fun to distinguish ourselves as experts on the consulting trail, it’s also pretty naive. This isn’t my first time at the rodeo, friends. I know that I need to learn as I go, and I know that some of that learning won’t be comfortable. I aim to come at it all with intention, and I’m hoping that some of you will keep me company along the way.

 

 

As I begin this initiative, these are my first steps:

  1.  I’m connecting to people who will deepen my learning and hold me accountable. I’ve tapped my network, shared my plans, and asked for as much support as I can get. I’ve also promised to make my work as transparent as possible and seek feedback along the way. I’m doing this because I want to give back to those who give so much of themselves to all of us who facilitate initiatives like these, and I want to keep getting better, too. Sharing also helps me check my biases. I hope you will indulge me, if this project interests you. I’m happy to send my presentation materials, planning tools, reflections, photos, videos, and all of the STUFF your way if this is your work, too. Let’s help one another. I’m happy to.
  2. I’m building solid feedback loops into and beyond my face to face programs. I plan to monitor our progress and assess participants’ wishes and worries consistently. I’m also planning to gather this information in a variety of other ways, too. Teachers are polite people. They don’t want to offend. I appreciate this, but I also know that many hold back their concerns or frustrations as a result. I want to try to make that kind of reporting more comfortable and efficient. If you have ideas here, I’m interested in them.
  3. I’m putting work on school culture ahead of work on the report card. We’re beginning by establishing a clear vision and shared purposes for standards based grading and reporting, shifting our assessment and documentation practices, and focusing on feedback and revision first. I’m also being very thoughtful about how these shifts are managed, when, and where. I’m keenly aware of best practices. I’m also a boots on the ground kinda gal. Theories of change matter.
  4. I’m positioning myself as a coach and plan to make myself available to teachers face to face in 1:1 and small group settings and through various networks and channels when I’m not on site. I’ll share more about this and glean ideas from my network as I go. I need to join different conversations and groups, I’m thinking. Looking forward to that.

And I’m still thinking and planning. Truly. More to come here, soon.

Get Connected and Stay in Touch

Matt Townsley was one of the first people to begin sharing his experiences and expertise with standards based learning long ago, and I continue to stand on the shoulders of giants like him and those that he turns to as well. Wander by his place if this topic interests you and you aren’t connected yet.

I plan to spend some time uploading my resources and making them available online as well. You’ll be able to download, print, use, adapt, and share them if you wish. So, I hope you’ll stay in touch with me, too. I’m here, on Twitter, and on Facebook, all. I’ll share some updates in those spaces whenever a new tool is posted.

I’ll keep blogging my thoughts and my work through the summer and into next year. Stick around. I hope we can talk about this more together. And share your concerns, questions, and challenges, too. I know that this isn’t a silver bullet. I know that there are many things to question. Please do.

 

10 Comments

  1. Brendan says:

    Thank you for sharing your journey! I am a proponent of SBG and provide PD to districts on SBG. None of our high schools have gone SBG because, as you all alluded to, many scholarships are explicitly connected to GPA. Principals and guidance counselors have shared that they are afraid that by going SBG, fewer scholarships will be available for students. Just curious if you have thoughts on that issue.

    • Angela says:

      Hey Brendan! Yeah, I hear you. This is common, isn’t it? The schools that I have supported and the one I’m just beginning to work with use standards based grading K-6 or K-8, but for a variety of reasons, including the one you just spoke of, they hesitate at the high school. I wonder if high schools can establish fair and accurate conversion protocols that enable a SBG to be translated to GPA. I wonder how many merit based grants are dependent on SAT or ACT scores vs. GPA as well. And I wonder who has done it already, too. Even if a system is struggling to make standards based *reporting* a reality at the high school level for that reason, I think it’s possible to support standards based *learning* and *grading* in the classroom, and this could have a significant influence on school culture. What are your thoughts? Such a good problem to try to solve….

  2. Tim Riley says:

    I’m looking forward to learning more about this endeavor.

  3. Tracy Oxford says:

    My district is on track towards standards based report cards and, for one, am excited. Thank you for your transparency. I look forward to following your journey with this new district.

  4. I absolutely LOVE you transparent approach, Angela. Keep up the good work!

  5. Nina Davis says:

    Does a student have choice in how they display their understanding? I wonder… If students were able to choose the way they are assessed, would this lead to more students meeting outcomes. Are assessments generally used to categorize/sort students into comparable slots/grades? The whole notion of assessment is challenging, because assessment is driven by the final years of secondary school. I’ve been looking at the concept of equity in education.
    Cheers Nina

    • Angela says:

      I’m thinking a great deal about construct relevance lately. The learning construct that we intend to assess should inform the medium and mode we’re using to make that assessment. This complicates things a bit further. I think that students can choose, but if the way they are being assessed is not congruent, our assessment may not be accurate or even fair. For example (and this will make many uncomfortable, I know): If I am to assess if a child can create a multi-faceted protagonist, requiring that child to use print may actually create a screen that corrupts the findings. This makes navigating student choice tricky. Not impossible, but in my opinion, tricky.

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