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Bruno: Reframing The Debate About Standards-Based Grading

2150874047_aa6ae998fdMy post last week on standards-based grading generated a lot of feedback that helped me see a shortcoming in what I wrote. There are really two distinct camps of standards-based-grading advocates that I shouldn't have blurred together because I'm much more sympathetic to one than I am to the other.

One camp takes the position that content mastery is really the only thing that matters when formally reporting student outcomes. On this account other factors like how hard students worked or how well they behaved in class don't matter much (if at all) to the rest of the world and should matter to teachers only insofar as they contributed to mastery of the content.

The second camp of standards-based-grading advocates takes the position that report cards should contain more, and more useful, information. On this account it might make sense to include "behavior" or "citizenship" grades or marks on a report card, but they should be distinct from marks for academic mastery.  

About the first group, I think this is pretty implausible for a variety of reasons both ideological and practical. The idea that teachers, guardians, and employers shouldn't care about or incentivize a student's conscientiousness, work ethic, or citizenship is dubious on its face. Indeed, very few people seem to believe that except for a relatively small number of teachers and I have never seen an advocate of this position make a case for it that seriously grapples with the implication that so many report card consumers are confused about what information they apparently want.

As for the second group, I don't actually disagree with the "more useful information" camp, although I haven't seen any proposals for better report cards that strike me as obvious improvements over the status quo. Traditional report cards are often ambiguous, but they are far from useless and I'm skeptical that providing considerably more detail about content mastery actually does much to minimize ambiguity or maximize usefulness.

More generally, if we acknowledge that information about factors other than mastery might be worth including on report cards, then arguably we are no longer talking about "standards-based grading"; we're just talking about report card reform.

And for the purpose of framing the conversation, I think "report card reform" is much more useful than "standards-based grading". Rather than starting with the peculiar assumption that absolute levels of content mastery are the be all and end all in schooling, the discussion should be motivated by the desire to maximize the usefulness of our educational institutions for all students, their families, and society as a whole. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)


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Ontario, Canada has been acknowledged as a leader in report card reform; I am sending a link (http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/forms/report/card/ElemReport_PublicGr7to8.pdf) to the kind of report card you would be contributing to if you were a teacher in that province. The main contribution to this Ontarian model that I can come up with would be to add an extensive advisor's report, which the families (such as Britain's royal family) of Eton College students receive for their children; I suppose this could be well folded into the Ontarian report card by having each student's advisor fill out the section on "learning skills and work habits" on page 1, after having conferred with the student's subject teachers.

It's not just report card reform. That's a very critical part. It also requires that teachers separate and remove all of the behavioral, effort*, and citizenship-type elements in their traditional grades. Giving a 95 for Math and A for attitude doesn't help if the 95 still has elements of attitude inside if it.

* Obviously some of achievement is effort. What I mean here are things like completing practice work and weighting early assessments heavily rather than ultimate content mastery, whatever the means.

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