Why I'm Failing to Grasp Standards-Based Grading

student frustrated with computer

When I find myself frustrated or stressed about school, I love reminiscing about my favorite elementary teacher. I will never forget her resilience and determination to ensure my achievement and success. Her focus for my learning went far beyond my ability to meet a standard or do well on an assessment. She genuinely taught to my individual needs because I meant more to her than a score on some generic rubric. My education was personalized because I was treated like an individual, and I was defined by my hard work and dedication, not solely on how I performed on paper at the end of a unit.

But this past year, my school has begun the process of implementing “standards-based grading,” a strategy that seems to undermine the humane approach to my learning my teacher embodied that has worked so well for me.

Standards-Based Grading is a system that has been gaining popularity in schools across the country since the 1980’s. The theory behind it dates back to the 1950’s when Benjamin Bloom, an educational psychologist, encouraged educators to move away from emphasizing traditional memorization in learning. He created what was at that time called “outcome-based reform.”

Put simply, Standards-Based Grading is all about measuring mastery on a rubric. Using this method, grading is based solely on a student’s ability to “master” a standard. The assessments (and accompanying rubrics) are the only measure used in calculating a student’s grade in a course. Homework, classwork, and participation, among other things, are no longer represented on the transcript. Theoretically, students can redo an assessment until they reach their preferred level of mastery. But the reality I’ve seen is that many teachers don’t agree with unlimited retakes on a single standard and often don’t even allow it. And I question whether multiple test retakes demonstrate true mastery of a particular standard or mastery of a particular test.

For the 2016–2017 academic year, my school has used Standards-Based Grading on a trial basis. This has not been an easy transition for many teachers, parents, and students alike. Despite this, my school has decided to go forward with full implementation for the 2017–2018 school year.

But I feel this system of grading is flawed and ultimately punishes hard working students like myself.

I spend hours each night completing my homework and studying, but despite my best efforts, I feel penalized because of my poor test taking skills. Furthermore, there are many students who work hard outside of school on their homework and serve as leaders while in the classroom, but with Standards-Based Grading, these students could potentially get the same grades as a student who never even picks up a pencil outside of class. This grading system reinforces the idea that a student is defined by a test, an idea I find unfair.

There is so much more to teaching and learning than assessments. If homework and classwork are not accounted for in a student’s grade, many students simply won’t complete assignments intended to reinforce key skills. Most high school students don’t do their homework for fun or for extra practice; we do our homework because we know it will affect our grade.

In addition, a wholly assessment-based grading system is subject to bias and favoritism. If you have ever had a favorite teacher, you probably liked them because they liked you in return, or maybe because you were especially good at the subject they taught. Having a strong relationship with a teacher is beneficial because it generates trust and facilitates academic success. However, with some strong teacher-student relationships, subjectivity comes into play. Even with the presence of a rubric, it is hard for a teacher to suppress all bias and be 100% consistent, especially if it is in a subject area where answers aren’t obviously “right” or “wrong,” such as in English, or if a teacher and a certain student have a particularly strong bond.

As the beneficiary of such a bond, I know this firsthand. In the traditional grading system, rubrics are quantitatively defined, which helps prevent bias, whereas in Standards-Based grading, rubrics are more qualitative and tend to promote it. In order to receive a 100% under Standards-Based grading guidelines, a student must “exceed the expectations” of the teacher grading as opposed to traditional grading systems in which the presence of all correct answers earns a 100%, and exceeding a teacher’s expectations is not part of the grading process.

The use of words on the Standards-Based grading rubric to determine a student’s grade constitutes room for bias because the words are vague and unclear. Standards Based Grading rubrics often don’t include any numbers, so a student has to predict what the teacher’s expectations are and exceed them, whereas Traditional Grading rubrics are less ambiguous and easier to understand. Struggling to grasp the nuances of each of my teacher’s definitions of “exceeding expectations” has been my largest battle with this system.

Kentucky schools should not promote Standards-Based grading. Public education should strive to create teachers who teach like my favorite teacher taught me — looking beyond a student’s capability to perform well on an assessment. Why should we take the human aspect out of teaching and learning? Every student shows what they learn in different ways.

Albert Einstein once said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by Its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” In its narrow recognition of ability and effort, as well as its hypersensitivity to teacher bias, Standards-Based grading sells students like me short.


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