Cover image illustrated by Elsa Teuteberg
Growing more common, standards-based grading is gaining popularity across classrooms everywhere. In order to make grading more equitable, more teachers are turning away from the traditional grading scale and looking for alternatives. Some teachers use standards-based grading, which, while well-intentioned, is largely damaging to students. Standards-based grading aims to focus more on skill acquisition rather than busy work, which helps students who have mastered required skills, but do not necessarily complete all assignments. Additionally, standards-based grading helps students who enter a class with less preparation by allowing grades to reflect progress and not just achievement. While, in some aspects, standards-based grading does even out the playing field between different students, it uses a confusing scale that makes it hard for students to evaluate where they are in the class.
One of the biggest selling points for standards-based grading is that it takes into account situations—such as needing to care for a younger sibling—where students are unable to do their homework so as not to punish them for situations at home or in their personal lives that are out of their control. While this intends to promote more equitable and fair grading, standards-based grading does not effectively address this problem, because in most classes, classwork builds upon homework from the previous night.
Freshman Multicultural Literature and Voice teacher Rachael Wan, who uses standards-based grading, said, “The difficulty is that in English specifically there is a lot riding on the fact that students have come in with a reading done, so it’s more difficult to participate in the classwork if they haven’t been reading.” Grading homework provides an incentive for students to do their work, in order to achieve a grade that they are striving for. When there is no such incentive, students are less likely to do work at home, and, as a result, are unable to fully reap the benefits of in-class lessons that build upon homework.
In some classes, while homework is not graded, students are expected to complete it because it is directly tied to high-stakes assessments. Sophomore Sofia Basso said that in her history class, “We take reading quizzes based on the reading guide, which we get no points for, but still have to work for hours on. We don’t get credit for homework, but we still have to do it, because otherwise we’d fail.” Not only does this reduce students’ motivation to do their work, but it also completely defeats the point of optional homework, as the quizzes are designed to specifically focus on the reading homework. For students who are unable to do homework at home, this arrangement does not combat the inequality that having graded homework presents. Rather, it makes the issue worse, because that content is being weighted more heavily in an assessment category rather than just a completion one. Overall, this sends a mixed message to students, that homework is optional when in reality it isn’t.
In many standards-based classes, teachers also do not grade or weigh classwork assignments, which many students usually consider a grade bump. This hurts the students that this grading style is intended to help, because classwork is the only time that every student is given a set opportunity to do their work. Standards-based grading can put an unreasonable amount of pressure on assessments, which are given disproportionate weight, with little to no buffer from other assignments. Often, in standards-based classes, teachers use a decaying average, which weighs more recent assessments more heavily than previous ones. For instance, according to their rubrics, in Wan’s class, each subsequent item has twice the weight of the last, while in Bolles’ class, the most recent assignment for a standard is weighted 65% of a student’s grade for that standard.
The decaying average is supposed to reward a student’s progress. Since standards are assessed over and over, students should be able to improve. However, when it comes to a final in such a class, students are left with no homework or classwork buffers and an unreasonable emphasis on one assessment. The weight of the final overrides virtually all the work of the past semester, and students don’t get the chance to work on those standards again. This goes against the essence of standards-based grading, which justifies the decaying average with the argument that students always have the opportunity to improve. With a standards-based final, students don’t get that opportunity, because they can’t make it up or revise.
Proponents of standards-based grading believe that it offers more tailored feedback to students by showing them what specific skills they need to improve upon using a rubric. World History teacher Candace Bolles said, “[Standards-based grading] helps the student to target and focus their area of improvement.” However, freshman Indra Gerard found that being evaluated on a rubric was not constructive, saying, “The problem with standards-based grading is that the categories are so general that you don’t know where you are.” Because of this, many students are unable to properly target specific areas, making it difficult to improve.
Similarly, senior Jackson Bryman said, “Rubric explanations are usually very fixed. You can get a two for one reason, or a two for another, but the description in Canvas is always so hollow and predetermined that it’s not easy to tell where exactly the point was lost.”
Essentially, standards-based rubrics homogenize students’ grades, as it typically uses a one through four grading scale. On a traditional scale, there is more nuance in the grade, as an A student could have a 91, but also a 98. This allows students to see more specifically where they fall on the scale, and overall is more descriptive of how well a student is doing in a class. Bryman said, “The standards-based scale has four values. And at any point when you try to go between them [i.e. a decimal value], you are defeating the purpose of the grading scale. So, although the traditional grading scale is a sad reduction of a person to a number, there are more numbers and it’s just freer.” A numerical value between zero and one hundred is more specific than a numerical value between one and four. It’s easier to understand what a 94/100 entails than a three out of four. A student with a three doesn’t necessarily know how solid their three is.
One of the hardest things for students to understand is how standards-based grading affects their grades. While a three out of four translates to “meeting the standard” on a common standards-based rubric, it translates to a 75% on the standard grading scale; some teachers using standards-based grading may have adjusted grading scales where a 75% becomes, for example, a B, but this isn’t always the case.
Sophomore Maya Rozelle said, “If you get a three out of four, despite meeting the standard, you still don’t get an A. Standards-based grading doesn’t really allow for minuses or pluses, so the range for doing well is [narrower].” As a result, students are not really able to comprehend how a standards-based grade compares to a traditional grade. When a student tries to equate the two or translate their grade to the system they’re more familiar with, it’s difficult to comprehend what that grade actually means. Furthermore, when standards-based classes release report cards, those standards-based grades are translated to letter grades, so students may not necessarily understand what their grade means during the year, and end up surprised when a report card comes out.
However, the use of standards-based grading has some benefits. In a sense, it can level the playing field between students. For instance, the use of a rubric can ensure that students are being graded less subjectively, as they are adhering to the rubric’s standards and constraints. Standards-based grading offers more structure to grading, as it just poses the yes or no question of whether the student meets the standard.
Moreover, for teachers, standards-based grading can be more efficient, as it “is a very effective tool that shows where exactly [a] class needs help.” according to Bolles. If a large portion of the class is not meeting a certain standard, teachers can focus on that standard.
Many teachers who use standards-based grading also allow students to revise their assignments because their grading philosophy centers around students receiving feedback and using it to improve their work. Bolles said, “Most of us who choose to use a decaying average also offer the possibility for revisions so that a student could come in and say, ‘Hey, I was having a bad day. I want to try this over.’” However, students still do not have the opportunity to revise finals, which largely outweigh the work and assessments completed throughout the semester. Therefore, while it tries to, standards-based grading doesn’t fully address the concern that “one bad day” can topple a student’s grade in a class.
Some of the issues students have with standards-based grading are fixable. For instance, ensuring that grades are updated and reminding students to check them would greatly relieve students’ uncertainty about their position in a class. Implementing Canvas checks in class could be a possible solution to this problem. Additionally, clear communication between teachers and students regarding how their grading scale works would likely result in fewer misunderstandings between teachers and students. More specific rubrics or more personal feedback could also help students understand where exactly they need to improve. Little changes such as these could greatly improve the experience and effectiveness of standards-based grading overall. However, standards-based grading as it is currently used tends to confuse students and limit feedback.