Monday, November 29, 2010

The ins and outs of standards-based grading.

At least once a month I hear from a journalist whose school district is moving toward standards-based grading—being measured on whether students know the content and not whether they do the work (or, for that matter, show up). Peg Tyre summed up the issue nicely in the New York Times this weekend. I think journalism on this topic, this piece included, tends to set up too simple of a dichotomy: you grade students on being friendly and compliant, or you grade them on mastery of material. It is possible, and common, to set up a traditional grading system that doesn’t credit “good behavior,” as the headline provocatively suggests.

But the piece captures the general idea, and shows through example how a reformed system works in real life. A frequent, understandable criticism of standards-based grading is that it allows students to slack on homework and other tasks, because in the end all that matters is whether they know the material. The middle school Tyre featured in the piece has come up with what seems like sensible balance. For example, homework doesn’t count toward a student’s grade, but he or she cannot retake tests for better scores unless they complete the homework.

If the districts you cover have not yet adopted standards-based grading, they are likely to consider it soon, so it is a good idea to look at how it is (and isn’t) working elsewhere.


  1. I'll have to admit my bias on this issue. Standards based grading is reprehensible. Even if I did not have a moral objection, I'd still say that its the dumbest idea since curriculum pacing. But too many reporters assume that's a good idea. Reporters need to look at the reality. And if they think its plausible, then perhaps they can actually find real world examples of differientiated instruction. I could arrange the work of all 210 to 300 students who I have year in year out, and we could agree how to rank the quality, but how could we conceivably decide on a fair grade. Some of my kids read at 2nd grade level, while other read at a college level. What society do we want, that values people who find the work easy, or people who who have character, responsiblity, and tries hard? Why encourage underachievement by many and force out others who can't learn enough, fast enough, in the chosen way? How can standardized tests provide a fairer judgement that those of people? Are we training people to take tests or live in a democratic society?

    And if people are too imperfect to evaluate, then who will graduates will work with or for? Forget about standardized tests; who annointed these theorists as overlords, who dictate their own prefences over educators. This is another case where technocrats think they are so superior to the rank-in-file that they impose top-down micromaging.

    We need all types of people teaching just like we have all types in people in class. Grading is politics. It always has been, and it always will be. The search for one "right" answer is simplistic. We want to teach kids to be able to come back to us and say "see, you were wrong."

    If a kid doesn't want to do homework, fine, let him or her negotiate or fail to negotiate a new deal with the teachers who do or don't choose to negotiate. Let him or her choose, and let him learn about consequences in dealing with different people.

    But we need more teachers, I believe, who want less grading. If our bosses don't like it, let them complain. Or let them take advantage of another political process - evaluations - to punish us, and then let us fight back.

    Schools need to be a safe place for rebellion, failure, and learning from good and bad choices. Don't make grading something that hurts kids, but don't pander either. If someone doesn't like my grading, call me onto the carpet, or gossip about me in the lounge. But don't damage the sacred principles of liberal arts, free enquiry, debate, and public edication by trying to quantify the unquantifable. Dang, do they just want to turn teachers and students into quivering widgets who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

    And please remember, the term "meritocracy" was coined as a nightmare scenario, a dystopia,not a moral good.

  2. As the parent of the classic kid who's an A student in mastery of the subject matter and, well, a lot lower on compliance, cooperation, organization and diligence ... I'm really surprised to find that teachers didn't already know that a lot of kids were like mine. Obviously my view is affected by my parenting experience, but isn't this a fairly common type of student, one who frustrates teachers -- who are well aware of his actual intellectual firepower -- by not "living up to his potential"?

  3. My understanding is that grading for compliance is illegal. So use professional development, as we do with IDEA, to raise consciousness. Its slow and frustrating. But, standards based grading for kids on IEPs (or atheletes with scholarships on the line) is unlikely to withstand legal scrutiny, either, and if you don’t have time to do something right, when will you have time to do it over?

    I doubt they are opposed to compliance. If they were, they’d push for qualitative assessments. This sounds like a pr campaign to make money for Pearson testing. This sounds like an attempt to impose compliance to the central office on teachers. When teachers resisted standards driven grading in another state, the architect of the plan said “There comes a point where touchy-feely persuasion is terminally overwhelmed by ignorant opposition, and the opportunity to kick a little booty gets lost. Right now, I'm ready to conference with naysayers behind the schoolhouse inside a ten-foot ring. Can you dig it?”

    Advocates of all standardized testing all the time usually aren’t that blunt. Instead they claim to want to require assessments for mastery.

    I saw this grading occur in my inner city high school, and more than 300 students were pushed out in the 1st Nine Weeks. Grading is politics. Testing is politics. Life is politics. Stop seeking shortcut, become happy political warriors, as opposed to top down technocrats, and enjoy the journey. By the way, I love it when a student proclaims he will refuse to comply with homework mandates and still get an A.