Four Common Roadblocks to Standards-Based Grading—and How to Overcome Them

Posted by Matt Berringer on October 6, 2015

4 Common Roadblocks to Standards-Based GradingBy Dennis Pierce
Standards-based grading, a system of reporting student proficiency in relation to each specific learning goal, is catching on among schools.

Advocates of standards-based grading argue that it provides more useful and actionable information about student performance than the traditional letter-grade system schools have been using for decades. But there is still some resistance to standards-based grading among many stakeholders, especially in the older grade levels.

Here are four common roadblocks to standards-based grading in schools, along with advice for how school leaders can overcome them.

Problem No. 1: In standards-based grading, the emphasis is on whether students have met the standards, and not on when they achieve this. By allowing for do-overs, schools are rewarding students who “game the system” and are sending the wrong message.

If the ultimate objective is learning, then it doesn’t matter how long it takes students to understand a concept; it only matters that they finally master it. And that’s what standards-based grading is intended to show. But for many stakeholders, that poses a problem.

“Most of the controversy I’ve seen around standards-based grading comes from the idea that students can retake a test or redo a project and still be graded as proficient,” said author and education consultant Jay McTighe, an expert on creating performance assessments for measuring what matters most.

Many parents might object to this idea by pointing out that if they don’t show up for work on time, they would be fired, McTighe noted. What kind of message does allowing do-overs send if the goal of school is to prepare students for the real world?

Solution: This objection to standards-based grading is rooted in the distinction between work habits and achievement, McTighe said. He believes schools can solve the problem by giving separate grades for each of these characteristics.

As long as work habits and achievement are conflated, then the meaning of a grade is ambiguous, he said—and this problem has always existed, even in the traditional letter-grade system.

Consider the example of two students: One studies hard but still is not able to master a concept fully; the other fails to turn in homework but still aces every test. They might both earn a B, but for very different reasons. Giving separate grades for work habits and achievement removes this ambiguity and provides better information about a student’s performance.

Problem No. 2: Standards-based grading creates more work for teachers.

Many teachers feel like it requires more effort to assess and report on several discrete skills, McTighe said, rather than simply calculating an average grade for the term.

Solution: In today’s climate of standards and accountability, teachers already should be tracking and reporting on how their students are progressing toward mastery of each standard. Having a student information or learning management system that allows for this tracking and reporting can make it easier for teachers to take this information and apply it to students’ report cards, without creating extra work.

Problem No. 3: Standards-based grading might put high school students at a disadvantage when applying to college, because college admissions officers expect to evaluate students based on their letter grades or GPA.

Solution: Schools can issue both traditional letter grades and standards-based grades; it doesn’t have to be an either-or situation, said Ken O’Connor, another education consultant who specializes in grading and reporting.

“I think it’s unrealistic in most places to suggest that (GPA or letter grades) are going to go away at the high school level,” O’Connor said. But the basis for determining these might be different, he said. For example, schools might base their letter-grade system on the percentage of grade-level standards a student meets in that particular subject.

“You can have letter grades and standards-based grading,” McTighe agreed, “as long as you clearly define what those (letter-grade) levels mean.”

Problem No. 4: School leaders are not communicating clearly enough to parents and other stakeholders about what they hope to achieve with standards-based grading.

Solution: “You have to be very clear about your purpose (in making the change),” O’Connor said. “We’ve never really been clear about the purpose of grading, apart from sorting and selecting.” But the ultimate purpose of school is learning, he said, and everything that is done in school should support this goal—including how schools report on achievement.

“Communicating very clearly about the purpose of grading, and having a dialog about this purpose, is critical,” O’Connor said.

Much of the pushback against standards-based grading “is the result of a failure among educators to properly convey the reasons they’re making that shift,” McTighe agreed. “In some cases, teachers even rebel because administrators haven’t made a sufficient case to them. And if the teachers are unhappy or don’t think it’s a good idea, that’s going to ripple out into the parent community.”

The case for improving grading and reporting practices can be made from examining how current practices fall short, McTighe said. He suggested that school leaders convene a group discussion with parents, students, and teachers to explore how well the current system of grading is fair, accurate, informative, or indicative of what students know and can do.

“An exercise like that can clarify what you’re trying to accomplish with grading,” he said, “and then you can work backward from the answers you hear to design a better system."

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