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Bruno: Is Standards-Based Grading A Good Idea?

2158796487_8133cf75ddIt might seem like a no-brainer, but is it really a good idea to give students grades based entirely on their mastery of the content rather than factoring in their effort? I doubt it, but via Darrin Jolly on Twitter I see that a number of Tennessee middle schools are trying to do just that. The specifics of this particular plan aren't totally clear from the story, but I can think of at least two reasons we should be skeptical of moves toward this kind of "standards-based" grading:

First, grades should communicate information not just to students but also to parents and guardians. The article makes it clear that there is already considerable confusion from families resulting from the transition to the new system, and even if you assume these problems will fade over time it's doubtful the standards-based grading system will ever be more informative than the traditional system. After all, many elementary schools already issue sprawling, standards-based report cards and it's not obvious to me that they present students or adults at home with more meaningful or useful information than typical report cards. And many guardians probably want information on effort and citizenship in any case.

Second, grades are incentives and they are likely to be effective only to the extent that students know how to attain them. One lesson of much of the research on pay-for-grades schemes is that it is most effective to incentivize behaviors that students can control directly and confidently. "Participate in class" and "complete this homework assignment" are actions that students generally know how to do, and so it makes sense to reward students for performing them. "Master this content standard" is a much more abstract and long-term goal that students may neither know how to achieve nor have the willpower to pursue over time. And is content mastery really the only thing we want to reward kids for anyway?

Of course, it can often be ambiguous what factors are included in a grade in a conventional grading system. This ambiguity, however, is due in part to the fact that grades serve more than one purpose in our education system. Standards-based grading usually neglects these other purposes in favor of emphasizing mastery exclusively. That approach has some intuitive appeal, but is not obviously better, on balance, than more traditional systems. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)


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I have to disagree. There are better systems available (Ontario, Canada's comes to mind, as does that of the European Schools system), which communicate to parents and others information about effort and participation without mixing it into a single grade that also attempts to communicate subject mastery. In the European Schools, for example (and this is the marking system I propose to use at One World Secondary School), from ninth grade onwards, every student receives two marks, an "A" mark and a "B" mark: the former is for for continuous assessment, and includes class participation, quality of homework assignments, projects, and so on; the second is for tests, especially summative assessments at the end of terms or years.

@Bruce - I probably didn't distinguish between two related-but-distinct issues as clearly as I should have.

First, I think you might be right about the merits of assigning separate "grades" for different aspects of performance. When I was in Oakland, we actually *did* have report cards with three marks on them: a conventional "grade", a mark for citizenship, and a mark for "work habits".

In practice, neither teachers nor students nor families cared much about the citizenship and work habits marks, although it's not clear to me why. It may have been because much of that info was already baked into the academic letter grade, or it may have been because the citizenship/work habits marks were pretty vague anyway or that students weren't accountable for them. In any case, I think it's not obvious how much demand there is for the sort of granularity you're suggesting.

I would also say that separating out "grades" for master/effort/behavior doesn't really make them much easier to interpret at the end of the day as long as teachers have wide latitude to set the standards for mastery/effort/behavior. I see separating the mastery/behavior grades as pushing the problem back a step, but not really solving it since interpreting any grade still requires discerning individual teachers' criteria for success.

Second, my post is a little bit a response to a certain segment of the standards-based-grading movement that students should be given marks for mastery *exclusively*, and that getting credit for effort at all really just dilutes the meaning of the report card and the value of school. I think that's kind of nuts, but it seems to motivate a fair number of hard-core standards-based advocates (you do not seem to be a member of this group).

Thanks, Paul; you're correct: I'm not a member of any group that would want to send parents a report of "C" or "B" or "A", or whatever, exclusively: parents want more information about how their children are doing and why, not less.

With regard to your first point, you're right again, teachers do have (and I would argue, should have) plenty of latitude in assigning grades to individual students; but management can rein this in a bit, by asking about teachers' grading philosophies at the time they are being considered for employment, and only hiring those whose philosophies are consistent on this point with that of the school -- although I wouldn't make that the sole criterion, or a litmus test.

I really couldn't disagree more. Respectfully, of course, as we're all in it for the kiddos, but pretending that grades are good incentives for anything has proven destructive in study after study. Also, mixing behavior, extra credit, and whimsy into grading makes for the destructive anti-intellectual atmosphere that most schools endure as "aw, shucks, more school I guess."

Standards-based grading, when done by a teacher who wants to do it, transforms a classroom into a place where effort is actually rewarded.

@Shawn - Since standards-based grading does not eliminate grading - it only changes the criteria used to determine the grades - I do not see how it avoids whatever problems are associated with grades per se.

Grades are not supposed to denote anything but demonstrated ability. Far too many teachers include effort, which is why grades are completely fraudulent.

I wrote about this here: http://educationrealist.wordpress.com/2012/06/10/the-problem-with-fraudulent-grades/

@Ed Realist - I think you are using "supposed to" (and "lie") in a way that is begging the question. As far as I can tell basing grades completely on ability neither aligns well with how they are generally interpreted (nor with the information other people want) nor is likely to result in unambiguous, easy-to-interpret grades. That is what needs to be *established* to support standards-based grading; it does not work to assume it and then reason circularly.

How can you say it doesn't align with how they are interpreted? When you read that a student gets straight As, do you think she is simply a hard worker, or do you think she's smart? In fact, today, it just means she's a hard worker, but we *pretend* that it means she's smart.

We will never have purely unambiguous grades unless students are graded by state tests---in other words, by taking the teachers out of the equation entirely. Until then, though, I'd be satisfied if teachers were required to grade entirely on demonstrated achievement, with the option to boost a student's grade a marginal amount (say, from a + in one grade to a - in the next one up) for effort.

It still won't be perfect. But it'll be closer.

No, it never occurs to me that a student getting straight A's must necessarily be just a hard worker or just of high demonstrated ability. I - like (I think) most people - know that grades are typically based on a combination of test performance, effort, etc. If a student gets an A, I figure that most likely indicates that she was both relatively strong on tests and demonstrated consistent effort. My experience is that that is the most common way of interpreting grades - as representing a combination of factors - and that it is very rare that somebody interpreting the grades is "fooled" about what they mean. If parents aren't sure, for example, they ask their student or the teacher exactly how the grade is calculated. I've never had anybody express surprise that a student was not graded (by me) entirely on the basis of test scores.

While it's possible that there is widespread confusion among people how students are graded, that's not my experience and I'd want to see some evidence. Again, we shouldn't start with the assumption that grades "should" represent ability exclusively; that's what's being asserted and therefore what needs to be demonstrated.

Bruno, you said: "If parents aren't sure, for example, they ask their student or the teacher exactly how the grade is calculated."

No, they don't, or at least most of them don't. The students don't generally ask, either. That's the problem. Nobody knows what an A in one geometry class means as opposed to an A in another geometry class.

And, Bruno, you keep talking about grades representing the information people "want." As professionals, teachers should not be concerned only with communicating the information a certain set of parents, students, and administrators might "want" to see. As professionals, we know what SHOULD be communicated: What a student knows and can do against standards.

@James - I agree completely that grades represent different things in different classes. However, I don't think this gets us very far toward demonstrating the superiority of standards-based grades since, in practice, such grades would still be vague and class-dependent and since even now people generally understand that, whatever the details, grades are based on some combination of factors. As Ed Realist pointed out, unless we're talking about using standardized tests to set grades, we're really not solving the ambiguity problem.

I also don't think I understand the point about teacher professional judgment. For one thing, as far as I can tell most teachers use a combination of factors (not just mastery) to determine grades. This is prima facie evidence that teachers' collective professional judgment is that grades should communicate and contain information besides mastery. If "we as professionals know" that the only relevant information is mastery, there seems to be scant evidence of that in actual teacher practice. My experience, if anything, is that teachers mostly think content mastery is *not* the only thing that matters. That's also my professional judgment, FWIW.

For another thing, why does my professional judgment extend to what parents or employers or admissions officers might want to know about a student? It seems to me that what's relevant in those situations should be the professional judgment of *those people*. I might be in a better situation to judge student mastery, but it doesn't follow that student mastery is all they should care about.

Excuse me, my response was NOT ideological. (re twitter). Hmph.


"such grades would still be vague and class-dependent"

No, they wouldn't. In ideal standards-based grading a report card does not contain the A, B, C, D, F letter grades. Instead, there is a list of standards for each class for which each student is given a rank (0-4 or 0-10 or whatever the scale is). And the rank means something specific, AND that specific meaning can be spelled out on the report card. So, for example, in geometry for the "finding the area of stuff" standard, a 3 means something like "the student is able to find the area of all common shapes," whereas a 2 might mean "the student is able to find the area of 2D shapes, but not 3D shapes."

Of course it takes a lot more time to read a report card like this, since there are several class each with multiple standards. But it's worth it. Reading it, one can see clearly one a students knows and is able to do. There is absolutely no ambiguity. Furthermore, the ranks aren't "class/teacher dependent" because they are just a simple description of what the student knows and can do.

And of course you can't calculate a GPA from a report card like this.

Both of these things, easy-reading and GPA, explain the prevalence of traditional letter grades. Colleges like both features because it means they can be lazy and quickly compare students with one another for admission purposes. Some parents and students like it to, because, well, it takes less time to read and who cares enough about all this to sit down and really think about it and really understand such a complicated document?

And I get what your saying about professional judgment. The vast majority of teachers use traditional letter grades so doesn't that mean that "teacher professional judgment" also supports traditional letter grades?

No, it doesn't. Good arguments/GOOD professional judgment outweigh huge amounts of bad arguments/bad professional judgment. My point in bringing up professional judgment was to counter your insistence that grades give people the information they "want." My point was that people/non-professionals/non-thinking-professionals/administrators/employers don't always want the right kind of information. Often times the request for letter grades and a GPA stems from laziness (like I said about) and ignorance of alternatives. The other times it comes from a sense of nostalgia.

You know, of course, Bruno, don't you, that a student can get an A in many (most?) mathematics classes but learn no math? How, then, does giving an A make sense or communicate any valuable information?

@Bruno: I read your original post again, and I'm not sure if you understand the reporting system of standards-based grading.

You say this:

"After all, many elementary schools already issue sprawling, standards-based report cards and it's not obvious to me that they present students or adults at home with more meaningful or useful information than typical report cards. And many guardians probably want information on effort and citizenship in any case."

but I don't know if you know what one of these "sprawling" report cards looks like. If standards-based grading and these big report cards don't give more and better information, of course you're right that the simpler, traditional method of grading is better. But what I'm saying is that these big report cards do in fact give more and better information.

And if the report card is already massive, why not include a column separate from the descriptions of mastery that talks about "effort and citizenship"? You can even just make those a standard for the course!

I'm sorry, Bruno, for this last comment in a trilogy, but I just can't help myself. You say parents would want information on "effort and citizenship." Did you notice that in that "sprawling" (i.e., 1 page) report card to which you linked, there were sections for "character development" and "learning behaviors"?

Okay, fine. I'll make it a four-ilogy. Can you tell I am liking the ideas here? Thanks! by the way, for bring these issues up and starting the discussion.

I said this:

You know, of course, Bruno, don't you, that a student can get an A in many (most?) mathematics classes but learn no math? How, then, does giving an A make sense or communicate any valuable information?

And you might respond: "Well, that standards-based grading doesn't fix that problem because what's to stop a teacher from giving a high rank on a standard that the student didn't earn through mastery of content?"

Nothing can stop that kind of malpractice.

But I would contend that standards-based grading makes everything more transparent and makes it easier to spot when a particular teacher gives wrong/inflated ranks. If an administrator wanted to check in on how a teacher was giving ranks, she could ask the teacher to provide specific evidence to support a specific rank. This is a vast improvement over and is much easier to oversee than traditional letter grades, which contain so many factors as to be basically useless.

@James - there's a lot to respond to there, but a few big things jump out at me:

1. If "effort" and "citizenship" can just be treated as a "standard for the course", then we're not really having a conversation about standards-based grading, we're just having a conversation about report card reform: tweaking them to make them more informative. I'm not opposed to changing report card formats, I just haven't been particularly impressed with any proposals I've seen anywhere.

2. The report card you're describing is far more sprawling than any elementary school report card I have ever seen. The 8th grade CA science content standards have 9 or 10 sections and something like 70 sub-standards. My 8th graders take 6 classes. A report card with that level of granularity would be quite substantial and I have yet to see any evidence that there is much demand for that or that people would use that information for much. It seems to me likely that much or all of the gain from additional information would be counterbalanced by losses resulting from informational clutter. (Or, like elementary cards, we'd end up sacrificing science/history/art/PE/etc. at the altar of math and ELA.)

3. For all the dismissals of traditional letter grades as "useless", the fact is that they are in high demand *and* they correlate fairly well with lots of important outcomes. Given those facts, the burden is very much on reformers to lay out *in detail* the logic and evidence indicating that providing lots more information about content mastery while downplaying effort/behavior/etc. will result in more useful report cards on balance. I've never seen a compelling case for that, and indeed I think dismissing traditional grades as "useless" is a way of dodging the question altogether.

4. I think your geometry 2D/3D shapes example highlights how little standards-based report cards do to provide additional useful information. Do we really want a report card with dozens (hundreds?) of standards, each of which with a 1-4 rating, each of which is only unambiguous if you decipher it with a key and if we assume teachers have very similar standards?

Maybe my experience is skewed working with a lot of low-skill students from relatively uneducated families, but I have never encountered a parent, guardian, extracurricular activity, or admissions officer who wants that level of detail. What they mostly want is a general picture of how their kid is doing, why they seem to be doing that way, what content-independent things they can do at home to help (e.g., provide a quiet place to work, revoke privileges), or what additional support I, as the teacher, can provide. I don't see many ways that a standards-based card like you're describing would make those conversations easier for me or for guardians. I can see a number of ways they'd make my job more difficult.

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