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Unraveling the Grading Evolution: Shifting from Traditional to Standards-Based Grading

Natalie Vardabasso
September 6, 2023

Why are we suddenly changing grading? It's a question that many in K-12 education are currently asking. This blog explores the evolution of grading, its influence on education standards, and the shift towards standards-based grading, revealing why the grading revolution isn't as sudden as it may seem.

Why are we suddenly changing grading?

Last year I was leading a workshop at a conference in my hometown of Calgary, Alberta, when Paul, a high school Math teacher, shot his hand up with a concerned look on his face. It was a workshop focused on modernizing our grading practices. Although the workshop was nothing outside the ordinary for me as a full-time author and educator in this space, Paul’s question caught me off guard. He asked, “When did everything suddenly change? Was there an email I missed or something?”

At the risk of offending Paul, I burst out laughing. However, not at his question, but in solidarity with his pain. I know all too well how working in the classroom can feel like trying to drink from a firehose of mandates from above. It makes it feel like our job is to sprint on the hamster wheel of surface-level initiatives that rarely make it through the 3-5 year commitment that true implementation requires.

Once I finished commiserating with Paul’s exasperation, this is the story I shared with him. It reveals that the current movement in grading practices we are experiencing is not another flashy fad and misguided mandate, but rather a symptom of the slow, incremental pace of change in education.

To begin our story, we need to realize we haven’t always had standards; before standards there were curriculum guides. These guides dictated the topics that teachers were to cover in class but weren’t specific about what students were supposed to learn. The traditional grading system was designed to accurately reflect these guides. As teachers covered topics in class, they would test how much students could recall so grading was a process of determining how many points students accumulated. Since memorizing topics covered was the goal, gradebooks were organized by tasks that increased in volume of what was to be recalled, from assignments to quizzes, and tests to exams.

As well, in the United States in the 1970s, high school graduates were expected to pass minimal competency exams, which were set at a middle school level. Traditional grading made sense in this context. However, it was a context ripe for critique.

In 1983 something happened that radically changed everything.

The inciting incident for our story is a report that was published in 1983 called A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Created by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, this report triggered widespread panic as it sounded the alarm on the American education system. It offered a dramatic argument that the education system was not preparing students to compete on a global stage. Their solution to this problem? Education in America needed to raise its standards. The general public’s interpretation of this was the need to raise expectations, but inside the education systems the interpretation was, “we need standards.”

This report has been critiqued by many who cite the overt political agenda to undermine the public education system and justify interventions meant to increase the systemic barriers for marginalized groups. While some of the direct outcomes of this report support this critique, others might be seen as positive change in the field.

An example of a positive outcome came when the National College for the Teachers of Mathematics released the next generation standards of Mathematics in 1989. These standards were a far cry from the topics of curriculum guides as they began with verbs like analyze, evaluate, and solve. They challenged students to go beyond rote recall and use knowledge for higher order thinking. This sparked a wave of reforms across many other disciplines. Educational jurisdictions seized the opportunity to settle the public outcry by embracing these higher order standards as their new curriculum, replacing the curriculum guides. Students were now expected to not only learn about the topics in the curriculum, but to go a step further to do something with that knowledge.

An outcome that increased the systemic barriers to equitable learning was the launch of the accountability movement. To ensure the nation would no longer be “at risk” standardized tests were instituted to ensure teachers were held accountable to the increased level of cognitive rigor now demanded by curriculum. This aggressive standardized testing protocol hits its peak in 2001 with the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act; this is the No Child Left Behind legislation.

An important note here. Standards and standardization are not the same thing. Standards describe sophisticated learning outcomes which open a space for divergent demonstrations of learning. Think of standards like building codes. Though architects must adhere to codes for safety and efficiency, there is still ample space for creative design choices, leading to buildings that have consistent functionality, but a stunning array of aesthetics. Standardization is about everyone doing the same thing at the same time in the same way and therefore is biased towards one cultural demonstration of learning.

The 90s represented the climax of conflict for education. With curriculum now calling for a higher standard of learning and standardized tests creating increased stress, a complex question emerged… How do we help all students to rise to the level of the standards?!

In 1998, an answer emerged. Two researchers, Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam explained how teachers could get Inside the Black Box to raise the standards of learning in every classroom. They found that teachers must gather evidence of student learning to make decisions about where the student should go next on a learning journey that spans multiple tasks on the pathway to complexity. That they could gather information to provide feedback to help students move beyond recall towards application. This gathering of information to inform instruction and to provide feedback is, of course, formative assessment.

Now, the idea of formative assessment was nothing new. Michael Scriven was first cited as writing about it all the way back in 1966. However, the concept took hold of the collective imagination within the current context. The result was an immediate hunger for more ways to rethink assessment for learning, and it triggered a landslide of research over the subsequent decade.

While education patted itself on the back for finally figuring out the secret to standards-based instruction, something got lost in our blind spot. Despite the robust research and professional development on formative assessment practices, traditional grading was left behind. In fact, grading systems continued, undisturbed, much like they had back in the days of the curriculum guide.

This tension prompted Paul Black, one of the authors of the article cited with igniting the formative assessment renaissance, to return to the topic in 2013 and write, “The formative and summative purposes of assessment can be so intertwined that they are mutually supportive rather than conflicting. Unless this is done, formative assessment cannot achieve its full potential to improve learning.” In short, our collective learning around standards-based instruction is undermined if we don’t also align grading with these higher standards as well.

There have been easter eggs in educational research that grading undermines higher-order thinking. Studies such as one from 1988 that demonstrated students were unlikely to read descriptive feedback when it was paired with a grade, and another from 1978 that demonstrated the presence of grades during the formative phase of learning motivates students to avoid challenge, lose joy, and experience anxiety. It is a research-validated fact that grades are not the universal motivator for higher levels of learning.

Now, back to Paul, the high school Math teacher. To make a long story short I finally said, “No, we are not suddenly changing anything. We are slowly catching up to the advances in curriculum design and formative assessment research over the past 30 years. Hopefully, with this historical perspective, it won’t take us another 30 years to align our standards-based instruction with standards-based grades so that we can finally increase the quality of learning in our education system.”

Natalie Vardabasso

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