When working with educators, I frequently hear about difficulties that a change to standards based grading brings about. Challenges are a part of the change process, but as learners, we are always seeking ways to improve our craft and make what works best for kids a reality. With grading practices being so ingrained in the educational experience, teachers can easily struggle with some common hurdles such as:
Kids are gaming the system.
There are an infinite number of retakes.
There are no deadlines.
Kids aren’t completing formative work.
These challenges can derail a transition in grading practices, but they don’t have to. There is a an underlying issue that generates the symptoms listed above.
You can change any grading system, but without a change in culture, it makes no difference.
In order for a shift to standards based grading, the stage must be set with a standards based culture and learning environment. Many will say that they ‘are standards based’ because they know their standards and have them as the objectives in their classrooms. However, this is just one piece of the puzzle for successful change with grading. Before anything else, the culture of the classroom must be centered on learning. This can occur no matter whether the grading system is traditional or standards based, but one of these systems supports that culture and the other works against it.
Traditional culture creates a focus on grades, points, and percentages. When transitioning to a new system, changing the focus can create a difficult new reality for some. There will be continual questions about how much things are worth, why homework and practice ‘don’t count’, and why effort is not part of the academic grade. Traditional grading culture is focused on math and algorithms, with tenths and hundredths of percentages deciding between one grade or another. It supports competition, ranking, and sorting of students…is this what learning is about? There is no ill intention with traditional grading practice, but after analysis and reflection, many of the key tenets within traditional grading work against the natural learning process. A process that includes progress and regression, ease and frustration, success and failure.
Standards based grading systems do more than provide students with a clear picture of their learning targets. They shift the focus to learning by affording students multiple opportunities to demonstrate new skills and knowledge. These systems purge classrooms of the game of school students play by acquiring a certain number of points to get a particular percentage or letter. Earning points that equate to a certain grade does not ensure that the student has learned and can show it. Standards based grading systems separate behaviors from academics to provide a clear picture of where a student is with their learning as well as the processes by which they learn. Standards based systems mirror the ‘real world’ where there are multiple attempts and getting the work done is essential rather than optional.
Culture is everything. Trying to implement standards based grading without first changing the culture sets the shift in practice up for failure. Successful implementation requires a culture grounded in learning. When students enter a classroom, they need to know that the focus resides squarely on learning. Their teachers are in the classroom to make sure that they learn, not to add up points and figure percentages. There is no need to worry about grades – that is time wasted that could have been spent in a more productive way. Students need to know that when the learning happens, the grades will follow.
“You can have all the right strategy in the world; if you don’t have the right culture, you’re dead.”
– Patrick Whitesell