Standards-based grading: Lock-ins and lecture halls

(a.k.a. why schools choose to adopt educational practices such as grading that are often different from colleges/universities)

As we embarked in my previous high school upon making our grade book more reflective of what students are expected to learn, a question from parents (and sometimes students or teachers) often came up: “If colleges/universities are continuing to grade using points and percentages, why are we changing to standards-based grading?”

No doubt this is an important question and comes from a mindset of “I want to make sure my child will be prepared to succeed in college.”

Here’s the thing — there are a TON of ways the high school experience does not mimic colleges and universities.

Lecture halls

I graduated from a small private college in Iowa. The class sizes I experienced were anywhere from 4 students (secondary math methods) to around 75 students (an introduction to psychology course). However, some of my friends who attended larger institutions of higher learning shared with me they had classes with 100+ students! A little investigation confirmed introductory biology classes, for example, suggests it is the norm for some colleges/universities to teach over one hundred students in lecture halls designed to accommodate as many as 300 learners. In the spirit of “preparing our kids for college,” one line of thinking might suggest that we should significantly increase high school class size in the sciences as well as deliver content primarily in a lecture format. Well, inquire with pretty much ANY high school science teacher and they’ll tell you smaller class sizes are desirable in order to personalize learning. In other words, it would be silly to mimic the practice of higher education regarding class size.


In my undergraduate days, I lived on campus for all four years. Moving out of mom and dad’s basement into the dorms was an adjustment for me as I’m sure it is for many freshmen. In this “we must prepare our students for college” line of thinking, we might also begin having weekend-long lock ins at the high school or middle school level to assist in the transition towards residential college life. Again, I suggest talking with any high school teacher or principal about the reasons lock-ins do NOT regularly happen with 16, 17 and 18 year olds. In other words, it would be silly to mimic the practice of higher education in this regard as well.

In summary, the purpose of this brief essay was to point out high schools specifically CHOOSE to do things they know are developmentally appropriate and in line with quality educational practices. When it comes to grading, it is our moral imperative to better communicate students’ current levels of learning and provide students with multiple opportunities to demonstrate their understanding, a few of the major tenets of standards-based grading.

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