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Standards Based Grading Meeting the 100% Dictum

June 14, 2016

Dear Denise, AKA Dr. Davis:

20 years have passed since you changed my life as the head of the University School Teacher Apprentice Program, yet you are still finding ways of encouraging me to think about the profession we both dearly love.  Your last email suggesting I blog about how current grading policies relate to your 100% dictum (100% percent of the students should learn 100% of the material) got the wheels in my head turning.  Such a thought provoking topic…. My first thought, right of out of the bag, is that the biggest grading reform of the last 20 years – standards based grading – is the best way for teachers to ensure that all students learn the entire curriculum.

As you taught me years ago, grades need to mean something, and, therefore, they must be seen and understood equally by both teacher and student.  If a student earns a B, the grade must be understood in the same manner by the student or else what is the point of giving the grade in the first place?  So often, students do not really understand why they received the grade they did and what is more troubling is that the discrepancy and confusion which results disempowers the teacher from helping the student improve while not giving the student the guidance that he or she needs in order to know how to improve their grade and more importantly the quality of their work.  As a teacher, I’ve always tried to clarify my grades by taking the time to write comments meant to help students glean why they earned the grade they did, but I’m often stymied by the almost narrow-minded focus of most students who take one look at the grade and don’t take the time to read the comments.  So, having said that, I believe we can both agree that the goal of grading should be for both students and teachers to agree that a B is a B and more importantly, what that grade represents in terms of the quality of the student’s work so as to improve the quality of future work.

Standards Based Grading accomplishes that goal and then some.  Using the old grading format where a B could mean anything, standards based grading allows the teachers and the students to know if they have mastered the content or the skills that the teacher is teaching.  As you know, SBG is grading based upon whether or not students have met certain standards.  For example, a standard in my 7th grade English class was: The student is able to write a clearly articulated and grammatically correct topic sentence that states the purpose of the paragraph and can be proved with evidence from the text.  The beauty of SBG is that this clear expectation is equally understood by both teacher and student.  To help clarify my view of a student’s work even further, I used an expanded five point system (some standards based grading is based (ha ha) upon a three or four point system) to better help students understand exactly where they stand in mastering the concept or skills that teachers are covering and therefore expecting them to master.  Here is my scale:

5 – Student has surpassed the standard/expectation
4 – Student has met the standard
3- Student is close to meeting the standard
2 – The student is not close to meeting the standard
1 – Did not turn in turn in the work

Let me explain my scale a bit although most of it is self explanatory (hence why it’s so effective with students).  Let’s start by looking at the grade of 5 – a student has surpassed the standard.  This is an essential component of the standards based grading system that sometimes is left off and I think mistakenly so.  As you showed me back in the day, there are some students whose cognitive strengths or work ethics are greater than their peers, and they should be recognized for their superior intellect and work.  More importantly, giving students the ability to surpass the teacher’s expectation also incentivizes students to do more or perform more when their skills or willingness to work hard matches their cognitive strengths.  For example, and as you sadly know all too well, my greatest intellectual strength is my ability to verbally express my understanding on a topic.  When discussing or debating, I was often able to surpass my peers during discussions and would try harder knowing that I had the advantage.  Therefore, because of my strength in this standard (The student will be able to convey his understanding of the topic verbally and in writing), I deserved feedback that reflected this strength.  Having a grade that says that something has been surpassed meets this requirement. For example, let say that a student of mine understands the 5 components of the Compromise of 1850 so thoroughly that they are well ahead of my expectations.  I need to be able to applaud their efforts.  More importantly, let’s say the student, hoping to gain a higher mark, is incentivized to do more than expected on an assignment and as a result gains more practice working towards satisfying the skills that I am teaching in my class.  A five allows me to give them a pat on the back for their extra effort which will make up at times for when they are slower to understand a concept or their skill set doesn’t match the requirements of an assignment.

As a teacher who believes in your 100% dictum, SBG also makes it clear to students, parents and teachers which concepts and skills still need to be improved on.  There is a policy at my son’s school where if a student earns an A-, he or she doesn’t need to take the final in that class.  How arbitrary is that?  In a standards based grading system, the only way of avoiding the final, in my humble opinion, would be if a student is proficient in all areas.  I wouldn’t give a final, instead I would have students work independently to self design projects where they could work on the areas of the curriculum that still needed improvement.  For example, why should Susan who has earned 5’s on all her spelling tests be tested on spelling on the final exam.  She doesn’t need any help in that area.  Where she might need help is identifying the main ideas in essays or in supporting her topic sentences with evidence – a standard on which she has earned a 2.  I would rather that she spent her time working to improve in those areas so that she can move closer to learning 100% of the curriculum.

Those are my thoughts and I would love to hear yours!

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