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Standards-Based Grading and Quality Assessment Practices in K-12 Education

Natalie Priest
December 5, 2023

“Well done! Keep working hard! Room for improvement!” These are all phrases commonly heard in K–12 education. In recent years, assessment has undergone fundamental changes, and quality assessment practices are now at the forefront. As school districts make the shift to standards-based grading (SBG), developing and supporting educators with quality assessments is important for growth, alignment, and student success. This blog explores how a standards-based grading system contributes to quality assessment practices and provides an overview of three things school districts can do to support their educators in designing and delivering quality assessments.

Characteristics of Quality Assessment

The following characteristics of quality assessment can guide schools and districts in their approach:

  1. Standards-Based Grading
  2. Student-Centered Learning
  3. Continuous Assessment

Standards-Based Grading and Backward Design

No surprise here, but a cornerstone of a standards-based grading system is the standards themselves. Long gone are the days of designing units based on each section of the textbook. Instead, teachers carefully analyze their grade and subject level standards and how they align with the grades above and below. An additional layer, and an increasingly popular approach, is the cross-curricular alignment of outcomes.

Backward Design

In Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe provide an assessment framework for designing courses using backward design. Instead of planning lessons and activities and then designing summative assessments based on these lessons, backward design has teachers begin with their learning outcomes, which includes enduring understandings and standards. By beginning with outcomes, educators can meaningfully construct summative assessments that measure learning outcomes. Following this, teachers can design their learning plan, which includes the activities and lesson plans that formatively build student understanding and embed formative assessments.

The backward approach ensures that the enduring and specific understandings (i.e. “the big ideas” and the standards themselves) are intentionally targeted and not included as an afterthought in the assessment process. To paint a picture, below is a scenario that many can identify with:

Were you ever asked in your years of schooling to research a topic and share your findings in a presentation? Was your research meticulous and you shared this knowledge in great detail, only to receive a grade based on your delivery instead of your research? If you can relate to this, you’re not alone. We can easily swap out ‘presentation’ with ‘essay’ or ‘model,’ but the point is that specific outcomes, or standards, need to align with the summative product or performance. Standards should be thoughtfully chosen, communicated, and taught before a summative assessment for students to develop and practice in a formative manner.

How can leadership teams support educators with backward design for quality assessment practices? Some ideas include:

  • Access to digital and print curriculum resources
  • Dedicated planning time for grade and subject-level teams
  • Coaches to support alignment of standards across grade levels
  • Digital tools like a digital portfolio for mapping and meaningful coverage of standards throughout the school year

Student-Centered Learning & Authentic Experiences

Many aspects contribute to student-centered learning and assessments. The quality of enduring understandings and authentic learning experiences are two important topics to keep in mind when developing quality K–12 education assessment practices while putting students at the center of their learning.

Enduring Understandings

Enduring understandings, or ‘big ideas,’ need to have value beyond the classroom. An added layer is that they need to be meaningful to students in the here and now.

Why does a 3rd grader need to determine the moral of a story in a text, or distinguish their own point of view from the narrator of a story in Common Core ELA Reading Standards? What is a defining takeaway when these standards are brought together in a unit?

Or, how can a 6th-grade student connect to Next Generation Science Standards on analyzing and interpreting data on natural hazards and constructing scientific explanations on the uneven distribution of resources? What connects these standards? What is the big takeaway that will have students actively seeking answers, discussing their learning long after the bell has rung, and designing solutions for real-world problems?

Authentic Learning Experiences

Well-established enduring understandings and the standards that support these understandings naturally lend themselves to authentic learning experiences. Student buy-in, engagement, and curiosity are heightened when learning can be applied to the world outside of the classroom.

In the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), Christopher G. Pupik Dean and Zachary Herrmann explore four ways to create authentic learning experiences. The four questions they have identified for educators and school leaders to consider when designing authentic experiences include:

  • Is this a real problem that real people care about?
  • Do students’ roles, processes, and products mirror those of the real world?
  • Who is the audience and what is the impact?
  • How can students make personal connections to the work?

Authentic learning experiences do not need to be grandiose. They can be. But they don’t have to be. Whether educators are embracing authentic learning experiences on a grand scale (i.e. zoom with diplomats, inviting local architects in as judges, Model United Nations, and pitch contests to leadership committees), or taking their first step to create student-centered learning (process journals, role-plays, strategy games, Socratic seminars, etc.), a connecting thread to all of these experiences is providing the time and space for students to make personal connections to their learning. Most often this involves having students reflect before, during, and after these experiences. One way to support personalized learning and student reflection is through digital portfolios. Providing the students with the opportunity to develop a body of work using a variety of media options to optimize personal expression, is, in a way, an authentic learning experience all on its own.

Continuous Assessment

Just as educators need continuous professional development to refine their assessment practices, students also require continuous assessment opportunities to demonstrate their level of mastery of learning. A key factor in this is the metacognition of learning. Do students understand what they’re learning and why they’re learning it? With backward design, meaningful enduring understandings, and authentic learning experiences, students are well on their way to metacognition. How can educators round this out? Quality feedback.

Quality Feedback

In The Power of Feedback, John Hattie and Helen Timperley provide a model of feedback that’s based on three questions:

  • Where am I going? (What are the goals?)
  • How am I going? (What progress is being made towards the goals?)
  • What is my next step? (What activities need to be undertaken to make progress?)

In the case of a standards-based approach to grading, the goals are often the standards themselves. Through thoughtful design, students should be well-versed with what they are learning and student progress should be clear. If they can identify the goals/ standards, they can measure their progress (through teacher, peer, or self-reflection and feedback), and they can make informed decisions on what they need to do to take their learning to the next level. With that said, "Well done, keep working hard, and room for improvement" are terms that don’t fit within this narrative.

This is also applied to student mastery. What do educators want students to do with their feedback? Providing opportunities to retake or redo, even if it’s just a section targeting a specific standard within an assessment, is important to student success and fundamental to continuous assessment practices.

Supporting Quality K–12 Assessment Practices

Redefining quality assessment practice takes time and continuous reflection and coaching. For school and district leadership teams, it’s important to consider what measures are currently in place and what’s working and what’s not.

Redefining quality assessment practices often takes reimagining approaches to professional development, so, with Hattie and Timperley top of mind:

  • What are your goals?
  • What progress has been made?
  • What are your next steps?

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