Standards-Based Mindset

“I just think you ought to know that I will fight this transition to standards-based grading to the end.”

—David Woodward, Fifth Grade Teacher
circa 2000

As a fifth grade teacher, I was concerned that the movement toward standards-based grading was a threat to my independence as an educator. I had a grading system that I thought was fair (it wasn’t) and that I thought my parents understood. Most importantly, I had created it.

Years later, after teaching abroad and returning to a system that had made the shift, I recognized its importance. I have since seen the shift to standards-based to be a major piece of my work as a leader in my school district and as an entrepreneur. Standards-based grading now, for me, is a game changer. Here is why:

Increased Specificity and Detail

During a meeting planning math interventions, a team of fourth-grade teachers walked in. A teacher came prepared with her list of kids that she wanted to ensure would get more attention. “Great,” I said. “Where are they struggling?” She looked at me with a somewhat perplexed expression. “Math,” she said.

This conversation underlines where the shift from traditional to standards-based grading starts: it leads to thinking more specifically about subject areas. Math, for example, is an integrated collection of skills and concepts. To improve our teaching and communication about what success looks like, teachers need to be able to be specific. For example, “He is struggling with place value concepts,” rather than, “He struggles with math.”

The standards-based mindset sees that each student is complex with strengths and areas for growth even within a specific area of the curriculum. This need for specificity is critical if we are going to improve our instruction, feedback to students, communication to parents, and our program implementations.

Increased Accuracy

The second piece of the standards-based mindset is a constant quest for greater accuracy in our reporting. Percentage-based grading is based on a series of black and white decisions that paint a grayscale image of success reported in a single number. This is limiting in the ways detailed below.

Focus on performance rather than progress: Traditional grades capture the ability of the student to consistently get correct answers. Standards-based grading presents the grade as a student’s progress toward proficiency or mastery. This is more nuanced and reflects our current understanding of learning more accurately. Let us take for instance a problem like 32-24. If a student answers 7 to this problem it might be an issue with using a flawed count by one strategy for solving the problem. However, if the student answers 12, this points to an issue with place value. A traditional grading system simply counts this as wrong, whereas a standards-based grading system paints a more accurate picture of student understanding.

Focus on correctness rather than process: Standards-based grading helps teachers focus their attention on more specific details and look deeper at how students interact with mathematics. In percentage-based grading, teachers focus instead on the correctness of student answers.

The Mind-Shift Toward Standards-Based Grading

The switch to standards-based grading is not like flipping a switch. It is a process. The mind-shift is way more important than any change in the report cards themselves, but the change in the report cards perhaps can spark the change. It did for me, in spite of my initial resistance.

In order for our schools to realize the real positive potential of the standards-based movement, schools and districts need to realize that the change goes well beyond the minutes of the report card committee or school board meeting. Teachers need ongoing support, the proper tools to support the change, and time. So, if the shift is not happening as quickly as you thought it would, do not be surprised. As with any work that is really meaningful and worth doing, it will not be easy and it will take time.

*A quick note about terminology: in this blog, I discuss standards-based grading, although Marzano and others call what I am referring to as “standards-aligned” grading. I use standards-based simply because this is a more commonly employed term. The ideas here relate to both standards-based and standards-aligned grading systems.