• Sara Needleman

Why should a parent be excited about Standards-Based grading?

Sara is a mom of elementary and middle school students, educator and former middle school teacher. She currently works with graduate students in the University of Southern Maine’s Teacher Education Department and consults on teaching and learning for JumpRope.

We have been reporting grades for as long as we have sent kids to school. Grades have always told parents where their kids land along a certain spectrum. Why change that?

Traditional grading systems fail to tell parents, students and teachers what the students have actually learned. Rather, they show us, according to any specific teacher's system, how our kids measure up to one another. Parents have seen report cards with A's and have praised their kids for those high marks, but with little understanding of what those marks mean. Similarly, other parents have held their heads in their hands as they look at a column of D's or worse and ask, "what now?"

Standards-Based Teaching, Learning and Assessment systems empower parents and students because they encourage teachers to be very explicit about what a student needs to learn in order to earn an A. Such a system helps teachers and therefore parents and students celebrate what has been learned as well as identify the student's gaps in learning. So, for the student whose report card shows a column of D's, the old mantra of "study harder" becomes "you can add fractions really well, but I see you are struggling with subtracting them." Speaking as a parent, I would much prefer this second conversation starter because now I have a sense of what my child needs to do to turn those D's around.

In addition, how many times have we had the conversation about the "demanding teacher" on one side of the hall and the "easier teacher" on the other side of the hall? Traditional grading paradigms have teachers working in their own spheres, designing their own systems for arriving at grades. While those systems generally reflect fair-mindedness and clear thinking, they are individual systems and so, a "B" in Ms. Smith's class might be equivalent to an "A" in Ms. Brown's class. Standard-Based systems help schools engage in mindful conversations about learning that focus on questions like "what constitutes an A?" and "what do good work habits look like?" As a parent, I want the teachers in my kids' schools to agree on the answers to those questions.

And one of my personal favorite features of Standards-Based systems is they encourage teachers to distinguish between academic achievement and habits of work. Students earn grades in academic subjects based on their understanding of that subject, not, for example, their homework completion in that class. The really cool thing, though, is that teachers can still report on things like homework completion, time on task and preparedness. They just do that reporting in its own place. As a parent, I would be thrilled to see those things reported separately because I know mastering things like preparedness and organization are true keys to success. In fact, author Paul Tough suggests in his latest book How Children Succeed that indicators like those typically found in a habits of work report are far better predictors of success than the the traditional indicators like IQ or test scores.

I want my kids to succeed. I think it's safe to say parents in general feel that way. Standards-Based systems provide more specific feedback on strengths and weaknesses, empowering students with the tools they need for success.

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