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Demystifying Standards-Based Grading: Debunking Common Misconceptions

Natalie Vardabasso
November 30, 2023

As K–12 standards-based grading (SBG) becomes increasingly popular in schools and districts across North America, so too do the many misconceptions that surround it. Due to a lack of background knowledge and a fear of the unknown, five common myths have taken hold. This blog aims to define what SBG is and isn't by demystifying standards-based grading. It will outline the common misconceptions and key SBG-related terms.

What is Standards-Based Grading?

At its core, SBG is simply grading…based on standards. It’s a commitment to organize evidence of learning around what students know and can do (student mastery), rather than traditional grading that involves things like homework, quizzes, and tests.

The biggest benefit of this reorganization of evidence is it signals a value shift from task completion to learning. This value shift creates space for diversity. For instance, by changing the name of a grading category from “Essays” to “Communicating for a variety of purposes and audiences” an English teacher can embrace many different demonstrations of learning, such as podcasts, presentations, blogs, and yes, also essays. Since all learners are diverse, this provides more opportunities to showcase their strengths.

Talking Terminology: SBG, Mastery-Based Learning, CBE

One of the challenges to understanding standards-based grading lies with the terminology. Depending on your region, you may use language like mastery-based learning or competency-based education. To get clear about what SBG is (and isn’t), it’s important to understand the common language associated with SBG and clear up any confusion.

Competency-Based Education (CBE): Synonymous with standards-based education, mastery-based learning, and proficiency-based education

Digital Portfolio: A collection of digital artifacts, such as documents, images, and multimedia, showcasing a student's work, achievements, and progress over time.

Learning Goal: An overarching objective or target that outlines what students are expected to learn or achieve in a specific lesson, unit, or course.

Mastery-Based Learning (MBL): Synonymous with standards-based education, competency-based education, and proficiency-based education

Proficiency-Based Education: Synonymous with standards-based education, mastery-based learning, and competency-based education

Proficiency Scale: A scale used to measure a student's proficiency or mastery in specific learning standards, using descriptive words like developing, proficient, and sophisticated.

Standards-Based Grading (SBG): A grading system that assesses students based on their mastery of specific learning standards

Standards-Based Education (SBL): An educational approach that focuses on students achieving proficiency in predefined learning standards rather than progressing based on time spent in a course

Traditional Grading: The conventional method of assigning grades based on a combination of factors, including homework, exams, participation, and other subjective assessments.

Debunking Standards-Based Learning Myths

What could possibly be so controversial about K-12 standards-based grading?

Through my work as a full-time consultant, speaker, and author in assessment and grading, here are five of the most common myths I often address.

Myth 1: Mastery-Based Learning Isn’t Precise

A common feature of many standards-based grading systems is to measure each learning goal through a proficiency scale – a scale that includes 3-7 levels of achievement with descriptive words like developing, proficient, and sophisticated. The shift towards a proficiency scale and away from the percentage scale is grounded in over a century of replicated research that the use of fewer, more clearly distinguishable levels increases the consistency of grading across teachers (Starch & Elliott, 1913; Starch, 1913; Starch, 1915; Brimi, 2011).

A percentage scale only offers an illusion of precision. According to research, the margin of error when two teachers grade the same piece of evidence using a percentage scale is 10-15% (Guskey & Brookhart, 2019). In a percentage-based grade system, a student’s grade is dependent on who their teacher is. That isn’t precision, it’s a teacher lottery.

Myth 2: Competency-Based Education Makes Things Easier for Kids

When some folks hear the words “diversity” and “equity” they misunderstand them to mean watering things down to help those kids. As SBG creates space for diversity, this misunderstanding often emerges. However, the intellectual rigor of shifting from task completion to learning is significant.

Consider this: in a percentage and task-based system, a student can walk out of their science class with 90%, even though their “assignments” were word searches and their “quizzes” asked them to match vocabulary to definitions. In a standards-based grading system, that same student would have to “analyze the impact of human beings on ecosystems” and “plan and conduct investigations using the scientific method” to earn a proficient grade in class. This shift immediately raises the expectations for both students and teachers.

Myth 3: Standards-Based Grading Systems Are Too Much Work for Teachers

The issue here is treating teachers as a monolith. Many teachers understand the value of carefully designing their instruction and assessment to align with rigorous learning goals. For these teachers, a shift to SBG is a moment of celebration as they can finally stop having to shoehorn learning evidence into an antiquated system. Think square peg and round hole. For them, everything becomes more seamless and aligned.

However, if a teacher is in the habit of choosing activities with little thought to the larger learning goals, the shift to SBG can feel dramatic. Though planning with intention is more work than they are used to, it’s the right work.

Myth 4: SBG Doesn’t Hold Students Accountable

Let’s get clear about what folks are really saying when they share this objection… “I want to be able to punish learners using the gradebook.” They are referring to punitive grading practices for late or missing work. But does this actually hold students accountable? For many students, grades are not the motivator they were for their teachers. Therefore, they quickly learn how to play accountant with the gradebook, skipping assignments, absorbing the 0, and still maintaining a satisfactory overall grade.

The only true consequence of blowing off work is doing the work. An SBG system communicates that all learning goals are mandatory but provides an opportunity for teachers and students to determine alternative ways of meeting them, together.

Myth 5: Standards-Based Education Won’t Prepare Students for College

The level of transparency and equity that an SBG system provides leads some to feel that students will be in for a rude awakening when they arrive in most colleges’ obtuse and chaotic grading systems. However, did any of us feel ready for our first year of college? Even though many of us were raised on traditional grading, the answer is almost always no. Perhaps, we can’t feel “prepared” for unfair and confusing grading practices after all. Of course, this also assumes colleges are a monolith as well, as many professors are currently working hard to rethink grading in their classrooms (Blum, 2020).

Rather than focusing on what is outside of our locus of control, we must shift our focus. Helping our students build a deep and sophisticated understanding of learning goals will help them have the confidence and competence to navigate whatever uncertain future lies before them.

The myths that surround SBG are many due to a need for more background knowledge. It’s human nature to cling to that which we have experienced as it’s more comfortable. The only way to build comfort with a new experience is not to get into heated debates, but simply to start experiencing it.

While we must address the myths and misconceptions of SBG, the greatest shift in mindset happens when we start co-designing this system in our community.

The work begins with one essential question: What do we want all students to know and be able to do?

References

Blum, S. Ed. (2020). Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning (and what to do instead). West Virginia University Press.

Brimi, H.M. (2011). Reliability of grading high school work in english. Practical Assessment, Research and Evaluation. 16. 1-12.

Guskey, T. & Brookhart, S. (2019) What we know about grading: what works, what doesn’t, and what’s next. ASCD.

Starch, D., & Elliott, E. C. (1913). Reliability of Grading Work in Mathematics. The School Review, 21(4), 254–259. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1076246

Starch D. (1915). Can the variability of marks be reduced? School & Society, 2, 242–243.

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