Mobile Navigation Icon Phone Icon

Standards Based Grading: Keeping the Focus on Learning

Posted by TNCS on Nov 27, 2018

When I started at TNCS in the fall of 2011, I didn’t have a lot of training in the area of grading and assessment.  So like just about every teacher, I did what was done to me. Homework? Graded it…every single bit of it. Late assignment? Letter grade off. Want to demonstrate you improved your understanding? The max you can earn is a B+ because that’s just not fair to those who got it right without the added benefit of time and feedback. Once I began reading the research on assessment best practices, it didn’t take long to realize that I was a hypocrite. You cannot say you value learning and then penalize the pace at which it takes place. You cannot say you want to develop student skills and then punish students’ grades for the lack of those skills.

So, I read, thought hard about my practices, and tried new approaches. What started as a small study group of 4-5 TNCS teachers gradually grew into full faculty discussions, summer readings, conferences, and workshops facilitated by assessment experts. We decided as a faculty that if we truly value what we say we do, we needed to move away from the traditional model of assessment and grading. Our school-wide implementation of standards-based grading (SBG) in the fall of 2017 marked a bold step in the right direction. If you asked me in 2011 what the purpose of a grade was, I couldn’t have given you a clear answer.  Now, we as a school have taken the stance that a grade should represent a valid, accurate measure of a student’s progress towards the intended learning objective, unencumbered by non-learning factors such as effort or turning work in on time. SBG allows us to keep that purpose front and center as we assess student mastery of the learning objectives.

There is no perfect system for measuring student understanding. As much as we would like to believe it can be objectively measured, there is no possible way to objectively quantify the unseen level of understanding in a student’s head. We can try with bubble sheets and easy-to-grade factual questions that are either right or wrong. We can try with an antiquated system of 100 points that fails to accurately gauge student understanding. But is that what we want for our students? Do we want to teach them how to regurgitate facts that our smartphones can find in a matter of seconds, to game the system so you earn enough points to pass or to get a certain grade? Or do we want to teach our students to think, criticize, evaluate, and persuade? SBG is not perfect. We as the faculty are learning right along with the students. But far more than the traditional grading model, SBG keeps the focus on learning.  We believe that SBG helps us to focus on what is right with a student’s work, not what is wrong. It helps us to meet students where they are and guide them to higher levels of mastery. It helps us to demonstrate that learning is a process, not a product. And it helps us to live up to one of our key principles – “As fast as you can, as slow as you must.”

Jason Carmichael
History Teacher