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  • John D'Anieri

The Implications of Standards-Based Grading

The Huffington Post recently published an article entitled Standards-Based Grading Slow To Take Effect In High Schools. At JumpRope we believe in the positive solutions that standards-based grading can bring to the modern classroom. So, we wanted to address this issue—why has standards-based grading been slow to take effect?

As a former teacher in a standards-based high school, a long-time consultant to schools and professional development organizations, and now as parent of a high school student in a standards-based system, I’ve seen the trends mentioned in this article from nearly every possible angle. The real question is not whether such systems work, they do, but whether our communities are willing to deal with the implications of a much more honest system.

Done well, such work genuinely transforms how young people are held to both academic standards and the “habits of work” that undergird all meaningful accomplishment. That is not what most of us experienced, at least not consistently. We’ve all negotiated the often byzantine systems used to come up with a grade in a particular class, or to calculate a grade point average or honor role with every manner of “weighting” system imaginable. If we are to have any hope of our education system actually working for our communities, we’re going to need to gather and report data on real standards that are much more closely linked to the skills and dispositions our young people need. This is true both for students who’ve learned to game the system—only to find out that when they “win” they actually don’t know how do much of anything—and for those who’ve been gamed by the system and have given up, even though they know that they have much of value to contribute.

To be sure, such transformation is not just a matter of a new sheriff riding in and announcing, “We’re going to use standards-based grading now.” In fact, such an approach is almost certain to do more harm than good. But we now have educational models (exemplified by organizations such as Expeditionary Learning Schools, my former employer) that—when combined with the most capable of Learning Management platforms (such as that of my current employer, JumpRope) can give teachers, students, and parents the tools and support they need to fulfill such an ambitious promise.

The question again, is not, “will this work in high schools?” but rather, “Are we as a culture ready to admit what we all already know to be true?” Can the school committees that approve such policies admit that in most high schools, grades rank the desire to earn grades—and possibly the relative amount of parental pressure or the lack thereof— but not much more? And if we can admit that, are we ready to rethink the systems that will come crashing down when we do?

Ultimately the objections to standards-based grading are not about a fear that they won’t work, but that they will. That’s OK. As K-12 schools get better at adopting this system and educating their communities about it, the fear will dissipate and the benefits to kids and communities will become clearer. In the schools in which I work, many students have had previous experience with schools where they handed in a perfunctory first draft, got it back with a “D” or “C” on it, and “passed” the class. Our students know that will not fly. I talk often to kids who are re-working an assignment for the fourth, fifth or sixth time. Whether they are trying to make their work “exemplary” or are struggling to ensure that it “meets the standard,” they are learning something that they’ll remember long after we’ve forgotten their GPA—that perseverance and quality matter.

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