The Second Wave of Standards-Based Grading in Iowa’s Secondary Schools

[Note to readers: This column was recently published in Iowa ASCD’s The Source e-newsletter. My co-authors were Dr. Tom Buckmiller and Dr. Robyn Cooper, both associate professors of education at Drake University]

The Second Wave of Standards-Based Grading in Iowa’s Secondary Schools

In 2013, the first Iowa standards-based grading conference was held in Cedar Rapids.  At that time, only a handful of secondary schools were seriously thinking about standards-based grading (SBG). While Iowa has been a nationwide leader in competency-based education, it should also be noted our interest in standards-based grading practices continues to grow as well. Fast forward to 2020 and the landscape of grading practices in Iowa continues to evolve.  During the past seven years, nearly every notable grading author, speaker, and consultant has visited Iowa, often on multiple occasions, invited directly by schools or via AEAs and other professional organizations. Educators at these early adopting SBG schools attest this work, while important and necessary, has also been challenging.  

On the heels of the first wave (early adopters) of SBG, other secondary school leaders are no doubt weighing the odds of a successful implementation process.  Our research aimed to identify the probability of a second wave of SBG implementation and the perceived barriers the Iowa high school leaders anticipate. We believe the results of this study could assist high school and other secondary building leaders forecast challenges and barriers if they are considering making changes to update their grading and assessment philosophies.

We reached out to all Iowa high school principals not currently implementing SBG in January 2018.  When asked about the likelihood of implementing some form of SBG in the near future and the anticipated barriers, several themes emerged. The first theme was that SBG is indeed in their vision in the next five years.  Nearly 80% of the high school principals who responded indicated SBG was “a part” or “a strong part” of their vision for the next five years. This finding aligned with the attention SBG appears to be given across the state at various conferences and professional learning days.  Knowing SBG is on school leaders’ radar is a good start, however we were also interested in potential barriers.

One of the barriers high school principals identified when thinking about implementing SBG in the next five years was time.  Nearly 20% of those who responded indicated their need to educate their local communities about this significant shift.  Principals also anticipated a significant amount of time would be needed to work with their teachers to both understand and implement SBG.  Similarly, principals anticipated their teachers would need dollops of professional learning to simultaneously understand and implement standards-based grading.  

After an in-depth analysis of principals’ comments, we suggest several potential implications.  For example, schools are advised to “go slow to go fast.” The themes from this study corresponded with our professional experiences and those anecdotally documented by various media outlets: inconsistent and accelerated SBG implementation is an often cited concern.  Schools leaders are advised to keep in mind that adult learning, organizational growth, and community development takes time. In addition, just-in-time, personalized professional learning will be needed to support teachers with varying grading, assessment and pedagogical backgrounds.  

Although SBG is highly defensible with a growing research and literature base, encouraging this shift in practice for teachers who have used traditional grading methods is no easy task.  Both teacher and administrator preparation programs will play an important role in educating future educators of effective grading and assessment practices over time to break up some long-held beliefs.  Furthermore, AEAs and professional organizations such as Iowa ASCD will continue to play an important role in supporting schools in their standards-based grading journeys. For example, Heartland AEA is currently offering “SBL Framework Fridays” once per month to support school teams taking their next steps towards standards-based or standards-referenced grading/reporting.  

Our research suggests a second wave of SBG may be on the horizon in Iowa; however, previous literature suggests secondary principals may lack the instructional leadership capacity to lead, manage, and sustain a change, which so clearly disrupts the way stakeholders think about school.  Finally, additional insight is needed to discern the type of professional learning teachers of various career stages and content areas find meaningful as they strive to carry out more effective grading practices in their classroom.

The next step in supporting the next wave of schools is understanding how many Iowa secondary schools are indeed implementing standards-based grading, a data collection Matt Townsley will soon be summarizing and sharing across the state.  Similar to the collaborative teacher work so many schools are implementing with professional learning communities, data teams, and authentic intellectual work, it makes sense for schools to collaborate and support as they take their next steps implementing effective grading practices.  As the old mantra goes, together we are better, this will indeed be the case for Iowa’s secondary schools banding together for the sake of more transparent communication of student learning.  

Note: This article summarizes a manuscript originally published in the December 2019 issue of NASSP Bulletin

Townsley, M., Buckmiller, T., & Cooper, R. (2019). Anticipating a second wave of standards-based grading implementation and understanding the potential barriers: Perceptions of high school principals. NASSP Bulletin, 103(4), 281-299.

Leave a Reply