Simple Truth: Standards Based Grading isn’t ALWAYS a Win.

OK.  So I had a long conversation the other day with an elementary school principal who works in a district that is considering shifting from traditional letter grades to a standards-based report card.  He wanted to know how I felt about standards-based grading.

The truth is that I have really mixed feelings about it.

On the one hand, standards-based reporting gives everyone — teachers, parents and students — more detailed information about the progress being made by learners.

Unlike traditional letter or number grades — which bundle tons of information about student progress into a single indicator, standards-based report cards explicitly detail smaller sets of essential outcomes in each core subject and then give students individual mastery ratings for each of those essential outcomes.

That level of reporting matters.  

Perhaps most importantly, it allows for more targeted intervention and extension for individual learners.  Given that time for learning in schools is already limited, spending every moment in a productive way matters — and that is a heck of a lot easier when we know exactly what it is that a student knows and is able to do.

It also allows professional learning teams to spot gaps in their own instruction.  If every student on a hallway is struggling with an individual concept — something that would be a heckuva’ lot easier to spot in a school that has adopted standards-based grading — the team would know that the practices they were using to teach that individual concept needed to be improved.

But as the dad of a kid who struggles in school, standards-based grading has been a complete and total disaster. 

Here’s why:  My daughter comes home with interim reports and report cards that are COVERED in “2s”.  That’s the grade given when a student is demonstrating inconsistent mastery with required concepts.  We rarely see anything higher than a 2 on her interim reports or report cards.

And while I rarely challenge those ratings — I think they are probably an accurate reflection of my daughter’s performance on the tasks that are being used to evaluate her ability — the sheer volume of them has had a hugely negative impact on her own sense of self as a learner.  There can be close to twenty ratings on her interims and report cards and darn close to NONE are higher than a 2.

For my kid, each of those ratings reinforces the notion that “she’s just a two and she’s always going to be a two.”   At least in a traditional grading system, she’d only see four or five “low scores” on her report card.  The fifteen to twenty low marks she gets on her standards-based report card just feels a whole lot worse to my nine year old.

And for me as a parent, the sheer volume of twos can feel overwhelming.  Of course I want to do my best to help her improve at home — but I don’t know where to start because she seems to be struggling with every essential outcome.  In a lot of ways, I’ve got too much information to really be useful.

Worse yet, I’ve caught myself feeling hopeless about my own kid, doubting whether or not she’s a capable learner given that she’s constantly earning dozens of twos and rarely earning any threes.  Because I get that same information year after year and rating after rating — literally hundreds of ratings at this point in her school career — it’s difficult to remember that my kid is a learner, too.

I think the key takeaway here is that unless we are careful, standards-based grading is still GRADING, and grading — if done poorly — can result in a fixed (instead of a growth) mindset in learners.

Grading may have value as a tool for reporting on the skills that students have mastered and the skills that kids are still working to master, it is essential to create effective feedback systems for students in order to ensure that every kid can spot places where they are making progress as learners.

Any of this make sense?

(And PS, Matt Townsley:  I’m expecting a response from you!)

—————–

Related Radical Reads:

Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid?

 

New Feedback Activity: Not Yet/You Bet Lists

 

Giving Effective Feedback is a Work For/Work On Process [Activity]

 

 

18 thoughts on “Simple Truth: Standards Based Grading isn’t ALWAYS a Win.

  1. Elaine Klauer

    This is an interesting read. I am currently working with my teachers at a high school on implementing SBG practices. Some of the key components are feedback and reflection. By building self-efficacy, students understand their learning style and reflect on how to improve/grow. Is that not a factor with your daughter’s school? Just changing letters to numbers does not solve much. If she understands how she’s moved from a 1 to a 2 and additionally understands what she needs to do to reach a 3…that would be amazing! Taking ownership of learning is key! I wish you the best of luck moving forward!

    Reply
    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      You got it, Elaine….

      It’s that feedback, self-efficacy and reflection that matters most regardless of the grading policy that a school adopts.

      Sadly, I’m not sure those components are the norm in most standards based classrooms — or even in most classrooms with more traditional grading systems.

      If we can get there — to make reflection around learning a norm rather than the exception to the rule — I think we would have made a huge improvement for our kids.

      Anyway…thanks for stopping by.
      Bill

      Reply
  2. Rick Wormeli

    Hey Bill — Thanks for posting this. I’m sorry you and your daughter have had such a rough time of this. You’re right, what you describe sucks. And knowing you as I do, this has to be depressing and a little, “WTF?” The problem, though, is that SBG is much more feedback/growth focused than what you say your daughter’s school is doing, and it’s NOT just giving out more grades. Yeah, we get more grades when we associate less curriculum per symbol and disaggregate, creating a profile of learning, not an aggregate, single symbol judgment of learning, but in the end, it’s supposed to provide more information, and in particular, information that’s useful to parents and students. If it’s just an overwhelming onslaught of 2’s without any sense of specific feedback and how to move from 2 to 3 or higher, or without real disaggregation beyond, “She’s intermittent about everything,” there is seriously something wrong, and this is NOT standards-based grading. If there were seven standards on a test, for example, I would expect to see a score for each one of the standards, accompanied by something that helps the student know where her work demonstrated the evaluative criteria and where they didn’t, and what they could do to change their learning and achieve more. There is so much to recommend about SBG, and it’s definitely much more than what you describe is the big difference here in your daughter’s school, I hope you’ll hang in there and that her teachers will listen to your genuine, justified cry of concern. Let me know if I can talk with someone or send them a book or three. 🙂 — Rick Wormeli rick@rickwormeli.onmicrosoft.com

    Reply
    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Pal,

      Glad that you stopped by! Always grateful for your thinking.

      So here’s a question for you: I totally get that standards based grading SHOULD be what you described — it SHOULD include lots of specific descriptions of what kids are currently doing and how they can move forward.

      But do you think that’s the norm or the exception to the rule in places that have embraced SBG?

      I guess what I’m saying is that are most teachers and schools using SBG to really reimagine feedback, reflection and progress reporting, or has SBG just become the new grading system in most schools?

      Rock on,
      Bill

      Reply
  3. Shawn Blin

    “At least in a traditional grading system, she’d only see four or five “low scores” on her report card. The fifteen to twenty low marks she gets on her standards-based report card just feels a whole lot worse to my nine year old.”

    So this person feels it would be better for his daughter to 5 or 6 F’s instead of the detailed indicators that a SBG report card indicates?

    He states that he doesn’t know where to start because of the volume of information, but where would you start if all they had was an F in math?

    In my opinion, every criticism this person had, is actually an arguement in favor of SBG

    Reply
    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Shawn,

      The “this person” you refer to in your comment is me — and yes: I most definitely believe that my daughter would be a more confident learner if she wasn’t being buried in 2s on interim after interim and report card after report card. She doubts her ability to be anything more than a 2 at this point — and struggles to invest in any new task because she already knows what her mark is going to be. She’s been earning dozens of them for years and years.

      In my opinion, every criticism in this post isn’t an argument in favor of SBG.

      It’s an argument in favor of helping kids to see places where they ARE making progress as learners — no matter what system of reporting your school decides to use.

      THAT’s the point. EVERY kid should believe that they are a capable learner — and SBG doesn’t automatically ensure that. In fact, for kids like mine that “always make 2s”, SBG is a constant and persistent reminder that she’s “not making any progess.”

      Bill

      Reply
  4. Matt Townsley

    Just came across your post in my trusty RSS feed, Mr. Ferriter. Yes, I am happy to comment!

    My first reaction is this: No one wants to feel or deserves to feel like a ‘2″ (or ‘developing’ or ‘not yet’). Yet, as you’ve mentioned, when a learner (and his/her parent) knows he/she does not yet know (for example) “how to find the main idea of an information text and support it with key details,” that’s a heck of a lot better than getting a “C” on a reading test or a “C-” for the semester in 5th grade reading and feeling like a failure all around. One of my go-to standards-based grading friends, LeeAnn Jung, recently said, “Gradeless is awesome, and grading can be done well, too. Whatever our constraints or wherever we are on the journey, there are “best practice” procedures we can use to support growth. It’s a journey! Progress over perfection” (https://twitter.com/leeannjung/status/1084555198922514432). One of the big premises of standards-based grading is providing better information to parents, students and teachers, and I think it’s at least an upgrade. Not letting perfect get in the way of progress is where I find myself landing on this one, I guess. From my personal PK-12 experience and in working with thousands of educators across the country on this issue, moving from traditional grading to standards based grading is LOTS OF WORK and upsets the apple cart more often than not. SBG takes some serious change leadership and no doubt up front work for classroom teachers to get it up and going. Here I am defending the practice, because well…I think it’s a heck of a lot better than traditional grading. Progress, yes. Perfect, probably not.

    Perhaps one way to level up typical standards-based report cards (which typically only communicate product…that is, to what degree the learner ‘gets it’ right now) would be to add an indicator for academic progress (how much growth has been made since the last reporting period?). Of course the bold move would be for schools already utilizing standards-based grading/reporting as the norm to add an indicator for growth. Progress.

    Reply
    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Pal,

      I agree with darn near everything you say about this stuff — particularly the “don’t let perfect stand in the way of progress” line of thinking.

      But here’s some push back: You wrote: “Yet, as you’ve mentioned, when a learner (and his/her parent) knows he/she does not yet know (for example) “how to find the main idea of an information text and support it with key details,” that’s a heck of a lot better than getting a “C” on a reading test or a “C-” for the semester in 5th grade reading and feeling like a failure all around.”

      That might be true if there were one or two (or heck, even five) twos on my daughter’s interims. But there are twenty or thirty. Every time. From every teacher. So she’s STILL feeling like a failure all around — and worse yet, there’s LOTS of evidence to prove it.

      I’d argue that absent the deeper reflection and feedback opportunities that are SUPPOSED to be a part of an SBG classroom but often aren’t, the sea of twos is WAY worse than the ambiguous C. At least with the C, we can pretend that she’s mastered something. As it currently stands, we have constant and persistent evidence that she hasn’t mastered a durn thing.

      That’s what’s rubbing me wrong about all forms of grading right now: Kids like mine rarely get to see themselves as learners. No wonder they give up. We grumble about “those kids” who “never try on anything,” right?

      But why the heck should kids like mine bother trying?

      She’s been told literally hundreds of times that she can’t do it.

      That’s evil. Plain evil.

      Bill

      Reply
  5. George Couros (@gcouros)

    Really curious about this post when you talk about your daughter. If the program is “standards based” wouldn’t it give some more anecdotal or written evidence of how a student is doing rather than giving a learner a “2”? Is it really that far from grades when we convert a letter to a number? Sorry if I am totally way off but I am not sure if I am off with the terminology here.

    It hurts when I read something about a child that is asked to fit inside a box when people all over the world are looking for people to think differently and bring their strengths to the table.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Pal,

      Here in the States, standards-based grading doesn’t come with any kind of anecdotal or written evidence unless an individual teacher chooses to add it. Most of the time, standards-based grading really isn’t much other than giving a student a number instead of a letter grade. The only major difference is that there are dozens and dozens of marks given for more specific indicators.

      That’s helpful in a way because you can target more specifically than you can if a kid just gets a single letter or number grade for an entire class — but at least in the example of my own daughter, those dozens and dozens of marks just become additional reinforcement to her that she’s NOT a learner.

      It sucks.

      Anyway — hope you are well,
      Bill

      Reply
  6. mikekaechele

    I think that you get to my perspective in the bottom of the post. The real problem isn’t SBG, it’s grading. The whole scoreboard of school only motivates a certain segment of our population, the “high achievers” or the “grade grubbers” who care about getting into certain colleges and such.

    Many students are left out of this and are apathetic about grades choosing to do the bare minimum to get by. I don’t think that any grading system promotes a “growth mindset” but they all undermine it. What students really need from teachers is specific feedback on their work that is honest, yet kind. Most importantly they need teachers to believe in them and encourage them.

    I get the cultural expectation of grading and just wish that we could accelerate change in public schools away from practices that are not helpful.

    Reply
    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      You got it, Mike….

      There really aren’t ANY grading systems that promote a growth mindset — and that’s in any student, including the high flyers. For those kids, earning As isn’t a reward. It’s a relief — because a low mark forces them to question all that they know about themselves. They aren’t motivated to earn As. They are scared to earn Bs. Those aren’t the same thing.

      And you are right: What bugs me most is that we hold on to practices that we know are harmful to kids simply because there are cultural expectations for how schools should work. Imagine if doctors held onto practices that didn’t work because they were cultural expectations. We wouldn’t tolerate that. But when it comes to schools, we do.

      That’s nuts.

      Bill

      Reply
      1. Ken O'Connor

        My comments on Bill’s blog
        The sample Physics standards-based report card at the beginning of the blog is possibly the worst SB report card I have ever seen and is very misleading
        “We rarely see anything higher than a 2 on her interim reports or report cards.
        — the sheer volume of them has had a hugely negative impact on her own sense of self as a learner. There can be close to twenty ratings on her interims and report cards and darn close to NONE are higher than a 2.
        For my kid, each of those ratings reinforces the notion that “she’s just a two and she’s always going to be a two.” At least in a traditional grading system, she’d only see four or five “low scores” on her report card. The fifteen to twenty low marks she gets on her standards-based report card just feels a whole lot worse to my nine year old.”
        On a traditional report card her five “low scores” would be C’s and D’s. Would this make her feel better? For me, one of the benefits of SBR is that struggling students will usually have some standards on which they are better than C or D, so they can feel good about that even if it is only on one or two standards.
        “And for me as a parent, the sheer volume of twos can feel overwhelming. Of course I want to do my best to help her improve at home — but I don’t know where to start because she seems to be struggling with every essential outcome. In a lot of ways, I’ve got too much information to really be useful.”
        I have a grandson who is autistic and he gets lots of 2’s and Incompletes on his report cards but I still feel that it is better than just getting D’s and F’s.
        “I think the key takeaway here is that unless we are careful, standards-based grading is still GRADING, and grading — if done poorly — can result in a fixed (instead of a growth) mindset in learners.”
        Completely agree.
        “Grading may have value as a tool for reporting on the skills that students have mastered and the skills that kids are still working to master, it is essential to create effective feedback systems for students in order to ensure that every kid can spot places where they are making progress as learners.”
        Completely agree; it is important that grades are accurate representations of achievement but comments (oral or written) should focus on areas of strength and growth and progress.

        Reply
        1. Bill Ferriter Post author

          Ken wrote:

          I have a grandson who is autistic and he gets lots of 2’s and Incompletes on his report cards but I still feel that it is better than just getting D’s and F’s.

          ————-

          Hey Ken,

          I’m glad you stopped by. Your thinking has had a great influence on me over the years, that’s for sure.

          I wonder if you can go into more detail here. How are lots of 2s and incompletes better than a smaller handful of Ds and Fs?

          Now I get that there should be tons more reflection and feedback happening if SBG was being implemented with fidelity. But in places where SBG has just replaced traditional grades, would you still agree that lots of 2s and incompletes is better than Ds and Fs?

          Bill

          Reply
  7. jlevno

    Sorry, Bill… after I pressed ¨post¨on my previous comment I think I accidentally called you George! Too many professional reading reading windows open at once!

    Reply
  8. jlevno

    Hi George. I have been quietly following you for a while… a lot of what you write (and tweet) about resonates with me as an international school educator. I am the Secondary School Principal at a school in Barranquilla, Colombia and we are moving in the direction of standards-based grading and reporting for all of the good reasons you have set out, here, and in the past. As a father of recently graduated twins, this post resonates as one of my children is a struggling learner. I guess, the question is: what´s the best way to promote a growth mindset in a standards-based grading environment? Would increased student reflections on their own learning with small tweaks to the reporting terminology that frames progress towards mastery in a positive, growth-centered manner be enough? How about specific examples of positive role models who struggled through the 1s and 2s and still ended up persevering and succeeding (easier said than done as I am constantly on the look out for these to share with students)? Does anyone have a good answer for this? Thanks for your thoughtful posts!

    Reply
    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey J,

      You asked:

      What´s the best way to promote a growth mindset in a standards-based grading environment? Would increased student reflections on their own learning with small tweaks to the reporting terminology that frames progress towards mastery in a positive, growth-centered manner be enough?

      ——————–

      The answer to this is, “Yes!”

      And it applies to all systems of grading — standards based or otherwise.

      The key to encouraging a growth mindset in any learner is to prove to them that they are capable of making progress towards mastering important outcomes. That’s something that isn’t always evident when we use grades to report on progress. Kids who get a C on a pretest might also end up with a C on their post test, too.

      But that doesn’t mean that they haven’t made progress. They just haven’t made enough progress to tip a letter grade up to the next highest level in the rating systems that we use in schools.

      So lots of student self-assessment is the key to helping kids see themselves as learners.

      I’ve written a lot about that on my blog — and I’ve also written a short book about it called Creating a Culture of Feedback. In both places, you can find lots of specific examples of strategies that I use to make student self-assessment productive in my classroom.

      Hope this helps,
      Bill

      Reply

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