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Where Does Your School Stand on Standards-Based Grading?

Saying goodbye to letter gradesstandards based grading

The traditional A-F grading system is quickly becoming a thing of the past. A common objection to such systems is that they can be subjective, especially when assessment of student motivation, effort and classroom behavior are intermingled with assessment of academic achievement. (For example, the assignment of “zeros” for missing homework assignments can have a large negative effect on the grades of students who actually may have met all the necessary learning standards.) Many, such as school improvement coach Dr. Tim Westerberg, also argue that since they are not tied to specific benchmarks for what students need to learn, letter grades often overstate students’ knowledge and skill levels. Such grades also do not take into account student growth, instead reflecting only “an average of what they knew when learning began and when it ended.”

The standards-based alternative—easier said than done?

Just as there are challenges associated with traditional grading practices, the transition to standards-based grading can be a difficult one. Parents may find new report cards hard to understand, and students accustomed to receiving As may lament the transition to a different scale, fearing that colleges will look unfavorably upon new types of grades. In addition, teachers may be unsure of the best way to motivate students to try their best, given the increasing trend of allowing kids to re-do work to earn a better grade.

Ken O'Connor, a.k.a. “The Grade Doctor,” is a leading expert on issues related to student grading and reporting. Through books and articles, presentations and working with small groups, he helps individuals, schools and school districts improve communication about student achievement. (For more information, visit O’Connor’s Web site, where he answers educators’, students and parents’ questions and offers 15 fixes for outdated and “broken” grading systems, as well as 11 guidelines for standards-based reporting, the current trend.)

Illustrating parent concerns about traditional grading policies, as well as schools’ challenges implementing standards-based grading, some of the questions the Grade Doctor has addressed are reprinted below, with permission. 

Mike (parent)

My question is about the grading policy in my daughter’s middle-school algebra class. The teacher gives out daily classwork (about 10 problems) to be done at school and daily homework (about 20-25 problems). Classwork can be done collaboratively, but if it is not finished at school, becomes homework. Homework is checked collectively at the start of class where the answers are given, and then graded daily for completion, but not accuracy, with the homework grade comprising 30% of the overall grade for the class. There is a notebook check done once a week where classwork is graded for accuracy and completion, accounting for 35% of the grade. There are usually quizzes or practice tests at least weekly, sometimes two times per week, and a "test" about every two weeks. The quizzes, practice tests (which are often done collaboratively) and tests make up the remaining 35% of their grade.

There is an algebra homework policy which states that homework should take 30-40 minutes. If students have not completed the work in that time, they are allowed to email the teacher to get an exemption from the completion grade the following day. If they do not, they face having the homework grade lowered for lack of completion.

Here is my concern: My daughter is doing well in the class, but she consistently cannot complete the homework in the prescribed time and often must email, which creates a lot of stress and feelings of incompetency. But I think she is doing well because she does her homework deliberately, going over it to make sure it is correct, which is borne out on her test scores, where she usually makes As. Despite her success, I have general misgivings about a system where 30% of a student’s grade is based basically on homework compliance behavior with no indication of competency, as I do not feel it is supportive of learning. I also feel that not giving meaningful feedback on homework accuracy is worse than not giving homework at all, as there is no chance for a student to see their mistakes and learn how to correct them. I see other students in her class struggling with poor test performance, but of course wonderful homework grades. I would like to open a discussion about this with the school, but my attempts so far have been dismissed. Any advice?

The Grade Doctor

This is one of the worst grading policies I have ever heard about. You are right to be concerned, and I think it is essential that you start a dialogue with the school. There are two serious problems with what you describe: (1) 65% of the grade is not about a student’s knowledge of algebra (neither homework completion nor notebook have any place in grades); and (2) 25 problems for homework for all students every night is absurd—too much, not differentiated, and who knows who does it.

The teacher and the school need to do some reading about grading and homework and hugely revise their policies. Furthermore, in this age of standards, grades should be based on standards, not assessment methods or activities.


Gordon Reese (educator)

The district has been studying, planning and preparing for full implementation of Standards-Based Grading for the last 4-5 years. It has been an exhausting and contentious process, but there was support and leadership from the district. This year was the first year of full implementation at the elementary and middle schools. A couple of high schools were piloting SBG, but there was such a hue and cry from parents that the high schools dropped SBG altogether. There is a new chief academic officer who does not agree with SBG and has acquiesced to parents’ demands. Parents, used to a traditional 4-point system, were concerned when their "4.2 student, in all AP classes," was not receiving commensurate marks using SBG. Could you offer answers to the questions of GPA and college entrance, and some advice on the next step forward? I'm afraid SBG may be doomed in the district.

The Grade Doctor

You are a bearer of sad news. The best response I have seen to the issue you raised was a piece by Rick Wormeli that was on your district Web site: Beyond that, many school districts have contacted colleges regionally and nationally and have been told that not only will SBG not harm students, it will probably help them, as the colleges may have greater faith that SBGs are accurate. This article from USA Today may help, too:                        


Michelle DiGioia (educator)

I allow my students to re-test after showing adequate preparation but need suggestions for dealing with students who do not properly prepare for the first test knowing that they will be able to re-take a similar one. The extra work that is put upon teachers mounts quickly when too many students are re-taking tests. Any suggestions?

The Grade Doctor

Make the preparation for the re-assessment really onerous and require it to occur on Friday after school, so they get the message that it is better to do well the first time.

Kalinda (educator)

This one-size-fits-all response does not take into consideration why a student doesn't “adequately prepare.” I see too many teachers “deciding” that a student just didn't “adequately prepare” when s/he did his/her absolute best, but didn't understand (or even realize that s/he didn't understand) what was expected. Making the re-assessment onerous and requiring it to be after school on Friday is not helpful for those who are really trying, but whom the teacher doesn’t think are trying. I have students show that same adequate preparation before the first test, in the form of a fill-in review based on the work already done. This is graded and returned for them to study. Those who tried for adequate preparation by doing the fill-in review and then failed get to re-take, but those who didn’t bother, don’t. I have very few re-takes, except by those who really don’t do well on tests.

The Grade Doctor

I think I answered the question as it was asked, but I agree with you that sometimes students “prepare adequately” but don’t do well because at that point in time they didn’t understand or they simply had a bad day, so re-assessment for them should require correctives but should not be as onerous as I suggested initially.

I disagree with you about excluding students who didn’t do your fill-in review from the retake, as there may be very acceptable reasons as to why the review was not done or was done poorly. Regardless of that, our job as teachers is to be “warm demanders,” so re-takes should be available for all students with appropriate correctives and opportunity cost.


Article by Celine Provini, EducationWorld Editor
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