Standards-Based Grading

There’s lots of talk out there, and especially in New England, about standards-based education. Whatever you think about standards-based, or proficiency-based, or competency-based education (they are all the same to me – just using some different words), the bottom line is that we teachers are now supposed to be able to certify that, regardless of any other factors beyond our control, our students are able to _________. Fill in the blank with your skill or habit of choice. This is tricky business. The tricky part is

  • not to distill learning into a checklist of discrete items that have no connection to each other.
  • to maintain a cohesive, robust curriculum with a clear scope and sequence.
  • to develop cross-curricular, integrated courses that give students rich opportunities to build those skills.
  • to build an assessment system that students, teachers, and parents have a common understanding of.

My school has put a lot of energy into creating a standards-based assessment (and reporting) system. Since we are still a new school, there is nothing to change except our own perceptions. We started out using the old 1-2-3-4 system, but ran into trouble with different interpretations of what those numbers represented and how students were able to achieve, or not. Some teachers maintained that standards in a course were global and that there was little chance for a 9th grader to demonstrate at a level higher than a 2. Other teachers defined course standards as local, so that students could earn a 3 or even a 4 on the standards within that class. Clearly, this was a problem.

The other problem is that any time grades are represented using numbers, people want to operate with them, or break them down further (using 2.3, for example). But those numbers represent discrete categories of performance or understanding. A 2.3 doesn’t make any sense if it isn’t defined. So we had to create a brand new system.

Each reporting standard – those big things like Algebra & Functions – has indicators that are connected to each level on the big scale toward graduation benchmarks. These are defined in a rubric. For any given course, we identify what the “target” knowledge & skills are, what level of the rubric we are targeting. For example, in the Modeling in Math class, the target level is Entering.

During a course, we report if a student is “below target,” “on target,” or “above target” for an assessment on particular indicator of a reporting standard. This way a student can be “on target” – meaning that the student is making solid progress and is doing what is expected in the course – but still not be at the graduation benchmark for that standard. After all, Modeling in Math is the first course that our 9th graders take. It’s unlikely that they will meet the graduation benchmark after just this one twelve-week class.

Report cards and transcripts report the big picture status toward graduation. So that 9th grader who was “on target” during the class has made progress toward graduation, but still has work to do to meet that benchmark. And that work could happen in a series of courses or through some combination of courses and portfolio, giving the student control over her education.

 

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