Why are we doing standards-based instruction, but not standards-based grading?

When we see a student’s grade what does that really mean? How did they earn it? What contributed to it? Was it based on behavior? Effort? Mastery of the standard? A crazy mix of all these and other factors?

So many times as a school counselor who sits in parent conferences, RTI, 504 & IEP meetings, I see grades that do not match what other pieces of data are telling me about a student. Just the other day I had a student who has the highest score on the spring standardized reading test, but a C in his reading class. His parents asked how that is possible? It was very hard to explain to the parents … because we are figuring behavior into that grade, not basing it solely on mastery of learning targets. Grades like that certainly do not give parents a clear view of what their child does/does not know or where exactly their learning needs to continue advancing.

This practice has been the status quo in grading practices for way too long though and it is time to change that. Behavior is important and often impacts learning, but we must stop muddying the learning water with behavior-grading in we want to truly see where a student is on her/his learning journey.

Currently, I am serving on my district’s grading committee task force. We have been charged with helping to create a new (standards-based) grading manifesto for our district. The status quo we are tackling includes (but is not limited to) the fact that

  • for years we have used a 100 point scale
  • students are not graded for mastery of standards alone
  • student grades include a plethora of other things (such as effort, extra credit, attendance, completion & participation).
  • we are not consistent. Not from school to school. Not from classroom to classroom. Not even from assignment to assignment.

Rick Wormelli says “students should be allowed to take and retake until they show mastery and that may take time.”

So where has my learning taken me about how all this fits together and translate to grading and reporting?

Learning Targets
Ron Berger suggests that “learning targets are the foundation of a student engaged assessment system that translate standards into learning goals for lessons.” In other words, we first have to know what we want students to know and be able to do (Kramer & Schuhl). Collaborative teacher teams must write rigorous learning targets based on the standards and to the depth of the standards in order for everyone to know what the expectations are for the lesson and learning that will take place. It is hard to show mastery if we doesn’t start with the end in mind.

Proficiency Scales
According to Kramer and Schuhl, “creating meaningful formative and summative assessments require very intentional planning. Before a team can write any formative assessment they must know what standard/standards are to be assessed. Robert Marzano (2006,2010) has contributed much work in the area of proficiency scales. Proficiency scales lay out what is adequate for proficiency related to a standard. Tom Guskey suggests that fewer categories on the proficiency scales allow for greater reliability. He recommends using levels 1-4.

Formative and summative assessment are how we formally assess whether students are learning. Do we collaborate and work together to have common formative assessments among grade levels? Should we? What if this teacher uses weighted grades and another does not? What if one teacher counts homework and another does not? Is that fair? Should kids on the same grade level be graded the same? Should all teachers use the same assessments across the grade level? It seems to me that opportunities for grades should be consistent and based on mastery of learning targets/standards.

Assessment should be for the sole purpose of giving feedback to students to help move their learning forward. That feedback can come in many forms. It can be teacher led or student led. It can also be through celebrations of learning. Guskey and Berger both say that feedback should be ongoing & individualized to each student. Kramer (2017) provides four recommendations with regard to feedback:

  • feedback should address what is correct and elaborate on what students need to do next
  • provide feedback in a timely manner
  • provide feedback that is criterion referenced
  • Engage students in the feedback process

Grades should accurately convey a student’s achievement, not habits such as timeliness, effort, participation & completion. Grades are for communication, not for motivation or punishment. Student engagement is also paramount to the grading process. Students should be involved in every step of the grading process if we are truly doing standards-based grading.

You might be asking yourself if my school is implementing standards-based grading schoolwide.  No, we are not, but we are on a learning journey regarding standards-based grading. I implore you to start the journey at your school or district as well. If you are interested in the research used in this article please consider the work of Tom Guskey, Rick Wormelli, Ron Berger & Robert Marzano.

Miranda Little is currently the school counselor at Rock Quarry Elementary in Tuscaloosa, AL. She is also a certified social science teacher and is finishing her certification in Instructional Leadership over the summer. She has been in education for 13 years and is also a mom & wife.

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