Standards-based grading isn’t the answer. It will not boost our students’ achievement. It will not increase our students’ engagement. It will not raise the rigor of our classrooms.
But standards-based learning (SBL) will do all of these things.
SBG without SBL won't work. These terms and initials are often used interchangeably, but the distinction is critical. We would like to argue here that schools and teachers must understand and embrace changes in learning before attempting changes in grading. We must transform our instructional practices if we want our grading practices to reflect learning.
While mandating changes in grading can force teachers to make changes more quickly, these changes will not produce the desired results if teachers continue to approach class in the same way we always have. Here are some examples of what can happen when teachers move to SBG before fully understanding SBL:
- SBG says we shouldn’t grade homework, so I stopped grading homework and the students stopped doing homework.
- SBG says I can’t count habits, so my students’ grades went down.
- SBG says I need to grade using a 1-4 scale, but kids still convert to A-F in their heads, so it’s all just semantics.
When the only thing we change is how and what we grade, SBG will be confusing at best and inaccurate at worst. All of the above may very well happen if we keep teaching as we always have, so when teachers and parents and students say, “SBG doesn’t work,” they may very well be right. Because SBG does not work with traditional teaching practices.
It is vital that we transform our teaching practices to support what we know about learning. After 5 years teaching in standards-based classroom, we can honestly say that class looks entirely different than it used to. Here are some of the main ways our teaching has changed:
- Targets, not content, drive instruction: I used to decide what to teach based on content. For example, if I was about to teach the Mongols, I would think of all the things I wanted them to know about the Mongols. Then I would try to come up with engaging ways to deliver that content. Now that I am standards-based, I start with the target instead of the content. If my target is about choosing valid evidence to support a thesis, then I design instruction that uses the Mongols to have students practice choosing evidence. This does not mean that content isn’t important; it means that content now serves skill rather than the other way around (see: A Standards-based Lesson Start to Finish). As Tony Wagner says, “The world no longer cares what our kids know..., what the world cares about is what kids can do with what they know.”
- Teachers plan in response to data from formative assessments: One of the biggest shifts in SBL is that the majority of a teacher’s time goes into planning for class, not grading. Once we are aware of where a student is in relation to the target (think the blue dot on a GPS) we must adjust instruction to help them reach and exceed their goal. For example, once we know that groups of kids are at different places on a scale, we must adjust instruction accordingly. I will very likely be using the same content with everyone, for instance photosynthesis; however, if I know that kids are at different places with understanding cause/effect and relationships, I will have three groups doing different things with it. The goal is to make sure that I am pushing each student to improve at the given skill, all while grappling with the rigorous content.
- Students spend the majority of every class practicing and playing and thinking and trying: I used to think about class in terms of what I was going to do. First, I’m going to tell them...then I’m going to show them...then I’m going to have them...This meant that I spent a lot of time in front of the room delivering content which I then hoped they would internalize and give back to me a few weeks later. Class discussions involved me asking questions and facilitating participation. Overall, the majority of the class was about me doing and them sitting and listening or sitting and following directions. When class is planned based on targets, this has to change. Now I start by thinking about what they are going to do. We know that doing is learning and that listening is not learning (Dr. Duke); so in order to learn, students need to be getting messy with the skills in class.
- Groupings, furniture set-up, and classroom structures change constantly based on the learning needs: Just as we intentionally alter our instruction to match the needs of the students and the class, we also need to make sure that the class set up matches our needs. Depending on the purpose of the class and the activities planned, the class set-up must be intentional and support the learning. A socratic discussion, peer editing, a small group activity, and practicing speeches all require different set ups and needs. Creating the perfect learning environment for the day can be the most important part of an effective lesson and is worth the time it will take to set it up.
- Students track their own learning and take control over the paths they take to that learning: The ultimate goal of any standards-based class is to create an environment in which students can have more control of their own learning. This does not mean that the teacher is off the hook--in fact, it’s the opposite. Designing opportunities, instruction, and assessment that allow students to navigate their learning is much more difficult than traditional teaching. If we are doing our job right in a standards-based class, students will know what their targets are, will know where they are in relation to their targets, and will know how to close the gap (DuFour). This clarity and self-awareness will open up so many possibilities for student interest and choice, and ultimately increase engagement and learning.
Once our learning is driven by mastery and not content or seat time, and once these instructional changes are part of our routine, we will need a grading system that can communicate learning. And that’s when SBG not only makes sense, but becomes necessary.
Without significantly changing what learning looks like, SBG won’t work any better than the current broken system. But when we do change instruction and assessment based on what we know about the brain and learning, then SBG becomes not only logical, but essential.