Standards-Based Learning: A More Equitable Approach to Grading?

4 mins read

Standards-based grading, a system that focuses on a student’s mastery of a concept rather than their performance on a singular test or their completion of homework, is gaining popularity in the education world and at M-A. While California Education Code 49066 grants teachers the right to determine their own grading system, the school administration is promoting the practice as a more equitable form of grading.

History Department Chair Candace Bolles said, “As the research continues into things like standards-based grading, it’s pretty clear that this is the future of grading. So, the District is trying to make professional development opportunities and training sessions available for teachers who are interested in making that switch and who are seeing the impact of traditional grading in a classroom and don’t like what they see.”

Mastery on the standards-based rubric is usually measured on a 1–4 or 1–5 scale, and students can reference the rubric to determine what their mastery level means. Supporters of standards-based grading often cite that it is more responsive to learning. Teachers present base materials for each new target skill and provide feedback, reteach, and offer quiz and test retakes in order to help students achieve mastery. Standards-based grading is almost entirely based on assessments.

Bolles explained, “The elimination of homework could be considered an equitable grading policy because not every student has the ability to go home and spend two or three hours doing homework. If I were to make every single practice assignment worth points, the students would have an endless amount of work. They would live, sleep, eat, breathe, and die world history.”

Homework and if it is an equitable grading category is an ongoing debate in education. Vice Principal Emily Rigotti asked, “Do we even have homework in the grade? Should that even be part of learning and of mastery? Again, different teachers have different thoughts and different pedagogies around it.”

According to EdSource, the style of grading that standards-based falls into is a step toward an entirely different learning system, “in which students are assessed by what they’ve learned, not how well they perform on tests on a given day or whether they turn in their homework on time. Known as competency—or mastery-based learning—the style has been a staple of some private and charter schools for years, and a goal for education reformers trying to overhaul the traditional high school system.”

Education reform advocates have pushed for mastery-based reform for a while. The style was given more attention after the pandemic, when students—especially Black, Latino and low-income populations who were most impacted—suffered academically after a year of distance learning.

While the Department Chairs we spoke to mentioned aligning their curriculums and assessments among classes of the same level, teachers within a department vary on how they weigh their gradebooks.

Math Department Chair Michele Breen said, “Throughout the whole program, we share common assessments, commonplacing, and common coverage. Some teachers grade classwork, some teachers don’t. Some teachers grade homework, some teachers don’t. It depends on the course they’re teaching and what they choose.”

According to Rigotti, “In a standards-based grading system, typically they take the most recent assessment and weigh it way higher.” This is called a decaying average, which is aimed at rewarding students for the progress they’ve made and not punishing them for where they started.

Bolles explained, “I feel that the decaying average demonstrates a good balance between still including students’ early work, but at the same time, putting the emphasis on their most recent performance.

Other practices not necessarily related to standards-based grading can be considered part of an equitable grading system.

Rigotti continued, “When we talk about equitable grading practices, if you are missing an assignment, is it a zero in your grade book or is it a 50%? If you have consistent zeros in your grade book, can a student even dig their way out of that percentage? It’d be great to, to make it a higher rate of passing. We have pushed, and again, it’s a tricky thing when teachers are in charge of their grade book, in charge of their grading, in charge of their curriculum.”

Some districts in the state, such as Los Angeles Unified and Sacramento City Unified, are considering phasing out D and F grades altogether. They would achieve this through offering students extensions on assignments and test retakes. 

According to EdSource, “The idea is to encourage students to learn the course material and not be derailed by a low grade that could potentially disqualify them from admission to the University of California and California State University.” 

Chair of the Science Department, Lance Powell, said, “My chemistry class really lends itself to standards-based grading where you’re getting away from points, where teachers are like, ‘This is worth 10 points, this is worth 20 points, this is worth 100 points.’ When you get into that kind of thing, it can be very subjective. And I think that’s one of the things that leads to differences in grading outcomes and that standards-based grading gets away from.”

In math, Breen said, “There are a couple teachers that are using standards-based grading. They’re working on it and having a lot of mixed results, and so they are adjusting their grading as needed.”

There has been a general shift towards standards-based grading at M-A. Rigotti said, “We’ve definitely seen an uptick, especially in certain departments like English and social studies, for standards-based grading. Science is about 50/50. It’s less so in math. There’s this debate right now whether or not standards-based is appropriate for math.”

Due to the transition phase for many classrooms into standards-based grading, there have been some inconsistencies in grading practices. Principal Karl Losekoot said, “Some teachers have been doing it for a long time. And some are just starting with standards-based grading. And so that creates some inconsistencies because there is one more variable.”

Besides excluding homework from the grade book, standards-based grading also prevents factors like attendance and behavior from being factored into a student’s grade. 

This is a grading practice that the science department as a whole has implemented, not just in standards-based classrooms. According to Powell, “In my opinion, students should get the grade based on what they know. Even if maybe there was a behavior problem. Different teachers do different things. Like, ‘Oh, you’re going to charge for bathroom passes,’ or ‘You get extra credit if you bring in all these extra materials.’ That’s not happening in the science department.”

Sheryl Chen is a senior and Editor-in-Chief. She hopes to expand her knowledge on issues pertinent to M-A and the local community. She is also a member of M-A's debate team.

Emily Buck was a senior at M-A and Editor-in-Chief. She enjoyed writing about events happening at M-A, sports, as well as issues in the surrounding community. In her free time, Emily liked traveling, drawing, and biking.

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