Why has the move to grade reporting using standards caused us so much anxiety? I mean, we all have standards when we are grading a project, right? Don’t we all have in mind an understanding of poor, good and excellent? Why is it so confusing for some to understand these 1s, 2s, 3s and 4s? Is it because we are not using a 100 point scale, or letter grades like A-F? Or is it that now we really need to agree on what the 1s, 2s, 3s and 4s mean and we need to somehow find alignment to the standards? The change to standards-based practice has created some confusion, but as we explore it, we see that it has also brought about further clarification for both the learner and the assessor.
The first level of clarifying and explaining comes with developing an understanding of what your standards are, whether you are using the Common Core, Next Gen, or other national or state standards. In most cases, as teachers, we are given a set of standards to teach without having a lot of input as to what they are, but we do have control over how we teach them. Since the indicators of those standards can be measured in a variety of ways (e.g. tests, projects, essays, etc.) teachers actually have a good deal of voice and choice. One challenge we face is that the indicators and standards need to be interpreted so we can effectively measure them. Using scoring scales helps us identify exactly what we are measuring and it helps teachers align with one another.
The development of scoring scales and rubrics is an art unto itself. Bloom’s Taxonomy helps point us to the type of thinking that best describes what we want to see from our students. That thinking becomes the 3 in your scoring scale or rubric. We can look to lower order thinking and higher order thinking using Bloom’s to develop the 1, 2 and 4 in our scoring tools. Teachers can make rubrics with their students, colleagues or on their own. They can be simple checklists with specific goals and measurements or they can include more complex narrative descriptions for the skills and concepts we are assessing. Rubrics help guide students in the process of learning, by letting them know exactly what teachers are looking for prior to being assessed.
Once we know the standards and have some idea of how to assess them, we need to help students understand them and explain how they will show what they have learned. Let’s face it, some of the standards are not written in kid friendly language! This is where your scoring scales and assessments can really come in handy. They help define what the teacher is looking for and guide students in how to get there. Using standards-based scoring scales, therefore, can also help students focus their attention. In Social Studies, for example, no longer am I grading on neatness, but on whether or not students can identify geographic features on a map. Neatness may still be an expectation, but assessing it doesn’t tell me one way or the other if that student understands the standard I am grading. In addition to assessing whether or not students can identify geographic features on a map, I might assess how geography influences culture. Students therefore may get several grades for a single assessment. Issuing more than one grade per assessment works particularly well with cross-curricular content like writing an essay for Social Studies. Teaching and assessing cross-curricularly helps us cut back on the number of projects we are compelled to assign, allowing us to look more closely for quality and helps us design learning opportunities that more closely resemble the real world because they don't take content areas in isolation.
Why is this important? Rather than doing multiple projects for multiple subjects, students can focus their attention in the areas they most need to focus on. When teachers choose what they are specifically looking at for their students they get a better picture of each student’s strengths and weaknesses within any given subject and even across subjects. Maybe the student is Exceeding in Geography, but Not Meeting in Economics. With a carefully designed standards-based assessment, the teacher can glean specific information about how to best continue to educate this child. The teacher and student might not need to devote more work to Geography, but more work is needed in Economics in order to meet that standard.
There is no doubt that moving to a standards-based system is challenging. It seems to me that if we are methodical in our approach, we can ease some of that challenge. Teachers’ first steps need to include understanding the standards for themselves and seeing just how they might assess them. Once they grasp that new way of thinking about their craft, teachers need to help their students understand the standards so the students can take some ownership of their learning and feel confident in interpreting feedback and assessment data from the teacher. In the end, this deeper understanding gives all of us a better picture of students’ strengths and weaknesses so we can address them. Isn’t that what we want?
Jana Diket is a Middle School Social Studies Teacher at Windsor Elementary School, Sheepscot Valley RSU #12 in Maine.