Do you remember when you learned to ride a bike? Were you five years old? Seven? Ten?
How about how old you were when you learned to write in cursive? Make an omelet? Tie a shoe? If you’re old enough to be reading this, it’s almost certain that you don’t remember. And why should you? No matter when you acquired those skills, you now have them (or you don’t—my cursive looks like chicken scratch, but my omelet game is strong). And yet in most high schools, our grading system pays much more attention to the pace at which students learn and acquire skills and subjective measures of how hard they try than the development of the skill itself.
Most traditional high school grade books are a weighted average of categories. For example, tests, quizzes, homework completion, and class participation might each be worth 25% of a final grade. But this style of grading is riddled with deficiencies that often operate to the detriment of our highest-needs students. Standards-based grading (SBG), which we use at the charter school we co-founded, is far superior.
The concept is fairly straightforward. Course content is broken down into learning goals that are tied to state or national standards. Throughout the term, students are assessed on their mastery of each of these learning goals, and their final grade is based on the percentage of standards they master. One key element is that a student’s level of mastery is based on her performance on her most recent assessment. So if you failed to master the quadratic formula the first two times you were assessed on it, but mastered it the third and final time, you get credit for mastering that learning goal.
This last part is important. At our school, more than 87% of freshmen enter reading or doing math below grade level. It’s not realistic to expect a student who never mastered phonics to be able to analyze “The Catcher in the Rye” right out of the gate. In a traditional grading system, that student would fail early and give up on the rest of the term. But SBG allows students to learn at their own pace. It rewards persistence. If a student goes to extra help and puts in additional effort to master a skill at the same level as her classmate who studied it in middle school, she should be rewarded, not punished. It doesn’t matter when you learned to ride the bike, as long as you can ride it now.
While some traditionalists have decried SBG as “ruinous” to education, we’ve found that it actually pushes rigor in the classroom. Traditional grading conflates mastery of skills or content—usually demonstrated through performance on assessments—with habits of successful students, such as homework completion or participation. These are both important, but they are not the same. Grades for the latter category, especially, can be prone to bias. SBG focuses purely on content and skill mastery, allowing teachers to more precisely concentrate on what students are learning and where they need to grow.
And of course, SBG eliminates “the packet.” If you’ve ever been in a less-than-great school at the end of a marking period, you know there is a flurry of “make up work” that is just packets full of worksheets, designed to artificially inflate grades. SBG eliminates this because the kids have to master the material. There’s nowhere to hide.
No grading system is perfect, and SBG has its flaws. Because it only focuses on mastery, it’s easy for practitioners to draw the mistaken conclusion that habit formation such as timely completion of homework or punctuality to class don’t matter. At my school, we’ve developed a parallel system of grading called “Effort Scores” to ensure that we’re reinforcing those habits. Similarly, SBG in its purest form would allow for limitless reassessment, but this is not developmentally appropriate; too many students, given the choice, might wait until the very end of the school year to try to reassess all learning goals they haven’t mastered. For us, this was remedied by breaking the year into three trimesters, with grades weighted unequally (later trimesters are worth more) into a single annualized final mark.
In many jurisdictions, the pandemic forced the canceling or scaling back of standardized exams meant to ascertain how well schools are teaching their students. Standards-based grading provides an anchor for schools to tether their instruction to, even in the absence of larger, normed assessments. At this moment where everything feels up for reimagining, it’s an approach well worth consideration.