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!)
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