Too often, standards-based grading is not the problem (or the solution).

At a few recent workshops I have facilitated, well-intentioned teachers submitted the following questions:

  • How do we hold students accountable for homework?
  • What do we do with students who do not want to reassess?

I was delighted to share my personal experience as a teacher and district administrator involved with standards-based grading, however in each case, I started with the following caveat:

That’s a really great question!
Let’s be honest with ourselves though for a moment: these are motivation issues educators are grappling with regardless of their grading system. In other words, standards-based grading is not the problem OR the solution to motivating struggling learners.

For example, ask any secondary teacher using points and percentages in their classroom and they’ll share their struggles motivating some students to complete homework assignments. When homework is repurposed as ungraded practice in a standards-based grading classroom, there’s a temptation for students to not complete it. In both grading systems, our task as educators is to motivate struggling learners. There’s no quick and easy step-by-step answer!

Standards-based grading does often provide educators (and parents) with better information, which in turn can cause us to raise these type of questions with an increased level of concern. That’s a good thing though, right?!

When a few teachers caught me during a break in the workshop, they confirmed they were in favor of moving forward with standards-based grading at their school, however it is possible other teachers may not have this same mindset. If student motivation is used a reason for not moving towards standards-based grading, it may be helpful to remember that often standards-based grading is not the problem or the solution.

Walking the talk: Embedding standards-based grading in an educational leadership course

The purpose of this recently published paper is to provide a model for educational leadership faculty who aspire to walk the talk of effective feedback by embedding standards-based grading (SBG) in their courses. Rather than focusing on learning, points are the currency of K-12 classrooms across the country. Over 100 years of grading research suggests typical grading practices are subjective at best. Some schools are responding by implementing SBG, yet few articles describe how higher education embeds this philosophy in educator preparation coursework. In this essay, the author documents how to design assessments, align rubrics, and provide feedback to aspiring school leaders in line with three tenets of SBG.

This peer-reviewed journal article is available for download here.

Townsley, M. (2019). Walking the talk: Embedding standards-based grading in an educational leadership course. Journal of Research Initiatives, 4(2). Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.uncfsu.edu/jri/vol4/iss2/2/

 

Top 5 Standards-Based Grading Books (2016-2018)

In early 2016, I listed what I thought were the top ten books written about effective grading practices. Many books have been written about standards-based grading in the last three years, however I wanted to highlight five that have impacted me the most.

Here we go!

  1. O’Connor, K. (2018). How to grade for learning, K-12 (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
    Ken O’Connor has written a fourth edition to what may be the most widely read book on effective grading practices, which is why the third edition was noted on my initial top ten list. Beyond the theory behind each of the grading guidelines are implementation examples from schools across the world.
  2. Rinkema, E. A. & Williams, S. (2018). The standards-based classroom: Make learning the goal. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
    This book focuses on more than just grading practices. By looking at curriculum, instruction, and assessment, educators can envision a classroom-wide shift to more effective grading practices. I admit that as a teacher I often over-emphasized feedback and grade book revisions at the expense of designing effective instruction. Rinkema and Williams provide a realistic and useful blueprint, one I wish would have been available ten years ago.
  3. Wormeli, R. (2018). Fair isn’t always equal (2nd ed.). Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
    The first edition was on the initial top ten book list as well. While much of the content is updated, the main message is still the same: transitioning to more equitable grading process is just as much (or more) about mindset than it is classroom moves. I recommend this book for any teacher or group of educators who would like engage in thinking more deeply about the “why” behind standards-based grading.
  4. Schimmer, T. (2016). Grading from the inside out: Bringing accuracy to student assessment through a standards-based mindset. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
    Not too long after posting the initial top ten book list in January 2016, this book by Tom Schimmer came out. A few months later, I secured a copy and was especially enamored by the chapters entitled, “Five myths of standards-based grading” and “How to repurpose homework.” This is on my highly recommend list for those working towards standards-based grading practices.
  5. Schimmer, T., Hillman, G., & Stalets, M. (2018). Standards-based learning in action: Moving from theory to practice. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
    Speaking of Tom Schimmer, this book written with Garnet Hillman and Mandy Stalets is worth buying, too. Each chapter includes underlying research, a plan for action, and talking points to be used with parents. Whether the reader is looking for perspectives on redos and retakes or effective feedback, this book provides helpful guidance.

What book(s) from 2016, 2017, or 2018 would you add to this list?

Top 10 standards-based grading articles (2016-2018)

In early 2016, I wrote what I thought were the “Top 10 standards-based grading articles” available at that time. Nearly three years have past and a number of quality articles have been written in that time.

Here we go!

  1. Brookhart, S. M., Guskey, T. R., Bowers, A. J., McMillan, J. H., Smith, J. K., Smith, L. F., Stevens, M. T., & Welsh, M. E. (2016). A century of grading research: Meaning and value in the most common educational measure. Review of Educational Research, 86(4), 803-848. [Available online]
    Too often, those of us in education receive some of the same questions from multiple audiences. In the case of changing grading practices, I often hear, “Why do we need to change our grading practices? They worked for me!” One article I often point to is this one, which I believe will someday be seminal work in our field. The authors conclude, “One hundred years of grading research have generally confirmed large variation among teachers in the validity and reliability of grades, both in the meaning of grades and the accuracy of reporting.” In other words, traditional grades have all kinds of problems.
  2. O’Connor, K. (2017). A case for standards-based grading and reporting. School Administrator, 74(1), 24-28. [Available online]
    Ken has written a number of excellent books and this article seems to sum them all up in a concise way. Although the original audience of the article was school superintendents, I feel confident sharing it with anyone interested in an overview of both why and how grading practices should improve.
  3. Buckmiller, T., Peters, R., & Kruse, J. (2017). Questioning points and percentages: Standards-based grading in higher education. College Teaching, 65(1), 1-7. doi:10.1080/87567555.2017.1302919.
    Standards-based grading can be done in higher education! Tom, Randy and Jerrid document the perceptions of students in an educational technology course. In fact, the learners reported SBG was clear, more fair and a means for going beyond “playing the game of school” in college.
  4. Scarlett, M. H. (2018). “Why did I get a C?” Communicating student performance using standards-based grading. Insight: A Journal of Scholarly Teaching, 13, 59-75. [Available online]
    Dr. Scarlett proves yet again that standards-based grading cane be done in higher education, this time with an impressive attention to the planning and implementation details.
  5. James, A. R. (2018). Grading in physical education. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 89(5), 5-7. doi: 10.1080/07303084.2018.1442063. [Available online]
    It seems like standards-based grading early adopters are typically in the core content areas such as math, ELA or science, due to the accessibility of state and national standards documents. In this article, the author describes what SBG looks like in physical education. This write-up will inevitably be helpful for schools going “all-in: with SBG and few PE examples to draw from.
  6. Buckmiller, T., & Peters, R.. (2018). Getting a fair shot?. School Administrator, 75(2), 22-25. [Available online]
    Buckmiller and Peters receive fifteen points of extra credit for landing on this list more than once. When high schools make a change to standards-based grading practices, one of the often-noted concerns is around implications for the higher education admissions process. Through interviewing staff at several university admissions, the authors document several themes which include, “Letter grades and transcripts based on standards are acceptable, if not preferable, in the eyes of admissions offices, but with some caveats.” In other words, high school students experiencing SBG are getting a fair shot when applying for college.
  7. Reeves, D., Jung, L. A., & O’Connor, K. (2017). What’s worth fighting against in grading? Educational Leadership, 74(8), 42-45.
    It would be hard to NOT include this article collectively written by three of the most often cited experts in the grading reform field. Reeves, Jung and O’Connor clear the air and suggest several non-negotiables schools should consider in their quest to better communicate/report student learning.
  8. Wormeli, R. (2017). We have to prepare students for the next level, don’t we? AMLE Magazine, 5(1), ##-##. [Available online]
    The title speaks for itself. Rather than worrying about the next grade or institution of learning, educators should “…not sacrifice good instruction because those in upper levels are not there yet. Instead, we employ what we know works, and we spend time mentoring those above us in what we do.”
  9. Townsley, M. (2018). Mastery-minded grading in secondary schools. School Administrator, 75(2), 16-21. [Available online]
    I hesitated to include one of my own articles in this list, but by golly, I think it does a nice job describing what standards-based grading can look like at the secondary level. Feel free to let me know in the comments if you think my thinking was severely clouded when elevating this one to the top ten.
  10. Tucker, C. (2018). Rethinking grading. Educational Leadership, 75(5). [Available online]
    I’m not sure how I missed this article until a month ago when I was doing a literature search. Catlin lays out her fears and successes when implementing standards-based grading in a way that really resonated with me.

What articles would you add to this list from 2016-2018?

Why is standards-based grading slower to catch on at the secondary level? One idea…

One of many possible reasons why standards-based grading has been slower to catch on at secondary level when compared to elementary settings….
From a study of nearly 3,000 K-12 teachers:
The evidence gathered in this study shows that nearly all teachers believe that grading plays a role in the teaching and learning process. However, the data show that elementary and middle/high school teachers’ views remain widely different. Elementary teachers tend to see grading as a formative process rather than an end state. They are more likely to give students multiple opportunities to evidence academic mastery and use homework as a means to learn about students’ progress rather than score it for completion.
(emphasis, mine)
Link, L. (2018). Teachers’ perceptions of grading practices: How preservice training makes a difference. Journal of Research in Education, 28(1). Available at https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1168160.pdf

Standards-Based Grading and College/University Admissions (Summary)

Two articles were published in the February 2018 issue of School Administrator (AASA) describing university admissions office perspectives on standards-based grading (SBG).  The full e-edition is available online and brief summary of each article is below.

High school students experiencing SBG receive a fair shot at higher education admissions

The authors interviewed admissions folks at several Midwestern universities with the purpose of determining if high school students experiencing standards-based grading receive a fair shot in the university admissions process.  Three key findings emerged.

  1. Letter grades and transcripts based on standards are acceptable, if not preferable, by admissions folks, with a few caveats.
  2. When universities receive profiles/transcripts from schools with alternative grading/reporting systems, these students receive equal consideration.
  3. Due to limited personnel in the admissions office, grades and standardized tests are the most trusted measures.

Buckmiller, T., & Peters, R. (2018). Getting a fair shot?. School Administrator, 75(2), 22-25. [Available online]

University admissions offices are aware of SBG and preparing to adapt, as needed.

Voices from university admissions administrators across the country share their experiences with class rank, standards-based grading, and alternative reporting measures.  For example, Paul Seegert, director of admissions at the University of Washington, says he does not believe students currently applying under a standards-based are at a disadvantage in the admissions process.  If/when high school transcripts change, the general consensus shared is that admissions offices will need to be better prepared.  However, the “fact that college admissions offices will have to make some adjustments should not deter high schools from pursuing meaningful reforms in the way they teach and evaluate students” (p. 29).

Riede, P. (2018). Making the call inside admissions offices. School Administrator, 75(2), 26-29.

Mastery-minded grading in secondary schools

I was invited to share our district’s standards-based grading journey with the national superintendents’ professional organization, AASA.  A brief summary:

In Solon, Iowa, teachers’ gradebooks describe students’ current levels of learning without the customary array of A’s and C’s or numerical grades. The small district is at the forefront of a new assessment movement in some local schools known as standards-based grading.

Read the entire February 2018 e-edition of AASA’s School Administrator publication or access the individual article here.

Top 5 pitfalls to avoid in a standards-based grading system shift

Are you thinking about making the shift to standards-based grading in your building or district?  Based upon hundreds of phone calls, consultations, workshops and emails, here’s a list of five pitfalls I have observed that school leaders should avoid.

  1. Use exceeds as a descriptor in the grade book at the secondary level.
    Nothing frustrates Sally and her parents more than realizing the teacher taught the class how to learn the concept in class, but in order to get the highest mark in the grade book, Sally must come up with some type of application or knowledge beyond what was taught on the assessment.  Instead, consider removing “exceeds” and replacing it with “understands the standards” for the top indicator.
  2. Fail to communicate the standards-based grading shift.
    Traditional grading has been around for over one hundred years, so there’s reason to believe a shift to something new or different will require communicating a solid rationale and plan, repeated multiple times in multiple mediums.  Of McRel’s twenty-one leadership responsibilities, communication is one that takes a hit during second order change (and yes, standards-based grading is likely a second order change for many teachers, parents and students in your district).  Tell ’em. Tell ’em what you told ’em. And tell ’em again.
  3. Do not report practice in the online grade book at the secondary level.
    We know that reporting academics separate from work habits is a cornerstone of standards-based grading/reporting.  At the secondary level, the standards (rather than quiz and test numbers) are often reported through an online grade book , leaving little, if any room to document work habits.  Whether it’s retrofitting a grade book designed for traditional grading practices, or using a grade book more in tune with standards-based grading practices, it only makes sense to continue reporting levels of homework completion to parents, despite these assignments not counting towards the final academic grade calculation.
  4. Forget to tell stakeholders what is staying the same during the shift in grading practices.
    If your middle school is switching to a standards-based report card, be sure to let parents know you will continue to host parent-teacher conferences twice per year.  If your high school is shifting to a standards-based grade book, parents will want to know final course grades are still reported on the transcript, and that grade point average will be communicated with university admissions offices.  In addition to communicating what’s changing, don’t forget to let them know what will remain the same.
  5. Inconsistent implementation
    During the first year of standards-based grading implementation, we surveyed parents and students to find out their perception of this change.  Frustrated Roger = Frustrated Roger’s mom and dad, and one of the biggest sources of this angst was inconsistent implementation.  While we had an agreed upon purpose of grading and board-approved grading guidelines, we relied on (often inconsistent) institutional knowledge rather than a documented tight and loose implementation guide for our teachers to operationalize the tenets of SBG.  Somewhere between “every teacher for his/her own” and a lockstep approach is usually a good place to land.  Ensuring teachers are supported to implement agreed upon standards-based grading non-negotiables, will help students and parents adapt more quickly to the change, because they’re seeing it in multiple courses and/or grade levels.

What other pitfalls would you add to this list?

Recommended reading:

Frankin, A., Buckmiller, T., & Kruse, J. (2016). Vocal and vehement: Understanding parents’ aversion to standards-based grading. International Journal of Social Science Studies, 4(11), 19-29. [Available online]

Peters, R., Kruse, J., Buckmiller, T., & Townsley, M. (2017) “It’s just not fair!” Making sense of secondary students’ resistance to a standards-based grading initiative in the midwestern United States. American Secondary Education, 45(3), 9-28.

Peters, R. & Buckmiller, T. (2014). Our grades were broken: Overcoming barriers and challenges to implementing standards-based grading. Journal of Educational Leadership in Action2(2), [Available online]

Swan, G.M., Guskey, T.R., & Jung, L.A. (2014). Parents and teachers’ perceptions of standards-based and traditional report cards. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 26(3), 289-299.

Urich, L.J. (2012). Implementation of standards-based grading at the middle school level (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from http://lib.dr.iastate.edu/etd/12492

“It’s just not fair!” Making sense of secondary students’ resistance to a standards-based grading initiative

A new peer-reviewed article I co-authored is now available in your local academic database!

Peters, R., Kruse, J., Buckmiller, T., & Townsley, M. (2017). “It’s just not fair!” Making sense of secondary students’ resistance to a standards-based grading initiative. American Secondary Education, 45(3), 9-28.

 

 

How does standards-based grading affect standardized test scores?

A teacher from a school in Iowa recently contacted me with an inquiry,

Is there any research indicating students going through a standards based grading system show improved standardized test scores  or college readiness compared to students that go through a traditional grading school?

Context: What we know about educational research

This is an excellent question that comes up often when educators and their school systems are considering a shift towards standards-based grading. Based upon my knowledge of research methodology, it would be challenging (but not impossible) to conduct a study truly isolating standards-based grading as a single variable influencing a school’s student achievement data. In other words, we know that in any educational study, limitations exist (i.e. fidelity of implementation, additional initiatives simultaneously assisting or hindering test scores, the alignment between state standards taught and standards assessed, and any placebo effect).  Finally, any experienced educational researcher will readily admit the challenge of generalizing study results outside of the original context.

How does standards-based grading affect standardized test scores?

I scoured the literature as part of my recent dissertation and found only a few quantitative studies that consider this type of question (How does SBG affect standardized test scores?), some of which look at an entire school and others that look at a smaller section of a school, such as an individual classroom. Each has clearly stated the study limitations.  Here’s a quick copy/paste from my dissertation:

The impact of standards-based grading on external achievement measures is mixed. While some studies indicate a significant statistical difference in one or more content areas (e.g. Haptonstall, 2010; Pollio & Hochbein, 2015), others have not (e.g. Rosales, 2013; Welsh, D’Agostino, & Kaniskan, 2013).

To add additional clarity, I’ve added more detail below related to each of the aforementioned citations.

Haptonstall (dissertation): From the abstract of the study, emphasis mine:

This study examined the correlation between the grades a student earns in his or her classroom and the scores that each student earned on the Colorado Student Assessment Program tests, in Reading, Writing, Math, and Science. The study also examined the mean scores of varying sub-groups to determine if certain sub-groups demonstrated higher means, dependent of the school districts that they were enrolled. While all the school districts that participated in the study showed a significant level of correlation between grades and test scores, Roaring Fork School District Re-1, using a standards- based grading model demonstrated both higher correlations and higher mean scores and grades across, the overall population and sub-groups.

Pollio & Hochbein: From the abstract of the study:

Results indicated that the rate of students earning an A or B in a course and passing the state test approximately doubled when utilizing standards-based grading practices. In addition, results indicated that standards-based grading practices identified more predictive and valid assessment of at-risk students’ attainment of subject knowledge.

Rosales: From the dissertation study, emphasis mine:

This study seeks to determine whether standards-based grading has the same effect on students at the high school level (grades 9-12) by comparing end-of-course test scores and posttest scores of Algebra 2 students enrolled in a standards-based graded classroom with to those enrolled in a traditionally-graded classroom. Two teachers each taught two classes of Algebra 2 and graded one class using standards-based grading and one class using traditional grading methods. Students at both the honors level and the regular level of mathematics were included in the study.
Honors students performed better than regular students on both assessments, but no significant difference was found between the performance of traditionally-graded students and the students who were graded with standards-based grading.  The results of this study indicate that standards-based grading may offer improved methods of communication between teachers, parents, and students and may give students a new perception of learning.

Welsh, et al.: From the abstract, emphasis mine:

Standards-based progress reports (SBPRs) require teachers to grade students using the performance levels reported by state tests and are an increasingly popular report card format. They may help to increase teacher familiarity with state standards, encourage teachers to exclude nonacademic factors from grades, and/or improve communication with parents. The current study examines the SBPR grade–state test score correspondence observed across 2 years in 125 third and fifth grade classrooms located in one school district to examine the degree of consistency between grades and state test results. It also examines the grading practices of a subset of 37 teachers to determine whether there is an association between teacher appraisal style and convergence rates. A moderate degree of grade–test score convergence was observed using three agreement estimates (coefficient kappa, tau-b correlations, and classroom-level mean differences between grades and test scores). In addition, only small amounts of grade–test score convergence were observed between teachers; a much greater proportion of variance lay within classrooms and subjects.

Given inconclusive evidence, why would a teacher or school decide to embark upon standards-based grading?

Here’s what I’ve found: First, the absence of research supporting traditional grading practices is concerning. Too many times, stakeholders enter these types of conversations assuming traditional grading practices are some type of research-proven paradigm when in fact, schools inherited the traditional grading system over one hundred years ago (Cureton, 1971).  Next, beyond the limited quantitative studies related to standards-based grading available right now (and summarized above), classroom teachers can do a better job aligning what we teach with our assessments, a fundamental tenet of grading reform.  In other words, due to a dearth of evidence, educators should strongly consider pragmatic solutions.  For more on these pragmatic themes and their connection to scholarly literature, I encourage readers to consider, “What does the research say about standards-based grading?” a research primer I co-wrote with Dr. Tom Buckmiller several years ago.  Finally, standards-based grading provides students and parents with more useful information about current levels of work (“proficient understanding of Pythagorean’s Theorem”) when compared to traditional grading practices (“85% on the Chapter 3 Test”).

In summary, the impact of standards-based grading on external achievement measures is mixed. With limited quantitative studies available to base this conclusion upon, educators should consider pragmatic benefits of standards-based grading practices and urge educational researchers to respond to this question with more detail in the future.

Works Cited

Cureton, L. W. (1971). The history of grading practices. NCME Measurement in Education, 2(4), 1-8.

Haptonstall, K. G. (2010). An analysis of the correlation between standards-based, non standards-based grading systems and achievement as measured by the Colorado Student Assessment Program (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. (UMI No. 3397087)

Pollio, M. & Hochbein, C. (2015). The association between standards-based grading and standardized test scores as an element of a high school model reform. Teachers College Record, 117(11), 1-28.

Rosales, R. B. (2013). The effects of standards-based grading on student performance in Algebra 2 (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.wku.edu/diss/53/

Welsh, M. E., D’Agostino, J. V., & Kaniskan, B. (2013). Grading as a reform effort: Do standards-based grades converge with test scores? Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 32(2), 26-36. doi:10.1111/emip.12009