• Sara Needleman

The Student Perspective: Why Is Proficiency-Based Grading a Good Thing?

A while back, a teacher-friend of mine commented that part of what she really liked about a standards-based system was that she felt her students had really “bought in,” that they would claim they prefer this system to the traditional grading system from which they were coming in other schools. My friend is Nancy Hagstrom of Casco Bay High School (CBHS) in Portland, Maine. An earlier post of mine mentions this proficiency-based, Expeditionary Learning high school, and I took the opportunity of Nancy’s comment to talk with her and one of her students and then followed up with a Google survey of two sections of her Spanish 3 and 4 classes.

The common theme I see in those students who view a proficiency-based system as better than a traditional system is that they feel empowered by it. They understand what they need to learn and how to learn it and that their teachers are allies in their learning, not simply judges of it. They are inspired to learn deeply, they see that deep learning takes time and effort, and some even see that making mistakes is a necessary part of learning and that measurement of learning must reflect trends over time.

Some of the CBHS students spoke directly to the idea of making the learning goals clear:

Student 1: With standard-based grading, it’s clear what you're focusing on [as you try to] to meet the standard. [The system] gives me the criteria and elements that need to be implemented [so] I am more inclined to meet the standard compared to other grading systems. It is overall clearer what is expected of me.

Student 2: There are multiple skills being assessed in each assignment, and I can see where my strengths and weaknesses lie by comparing [them to the] standard. For example, when I do a journal entry in English, I get two grades: one for Quality of Writing (how compelling is it, is it grammatically correct?) and one for Organization (does it flow, is there structure to it?). It makes it very clear what skills I need to improve. Not only that, but learning targets make it easier to understand what is being asked of me in class. I can measure my progress over time.

Student 3: Standards-based grading changes the mindset of kids to look at learning as a chance for deeper understanding and the big picture of how it will fit into our worlds today and in the future. It’s not just this dumb worksheet my teacher gave me to keep me busy and quiet ‘til the end of class. Standards-based isn't about the grade you got; it’s the ideas and the criteria that you understand.

Some of them spoke to their motivation to learn deeply rather than for the sake of a grade:

Student 4: It really demands a constant work ethic throughout an entire trimester...Although I was not used to this at first and it was initially challenging, I feel now that it's much cooler and more engaging to be able to show you're competent in a subject through a variety of different learning styles.

Student 5: Standards-based grading has changed how I approach assignments. When I was in middle school, I was at a traditional school, and there was this constant pressure to get a 100 on every test and to get all As. I would study just for tests, or work hard the weekend before a project, and just forget everything as soon as I was finished - and I still felt great about getting my paper back with an A on it. I felt accomplished and was never pushed to do better, or when I didn't get a great grade (meaning I didn't understand something), I felt really crappy about my grade but moved on and never fixed any of those issues. With standards-based grading, I don't feel a constant pressure to do amazing my first try. I understand that in order to learn, you need to make mistakes, and I feel comfortable here knowing that when I make those mistakes, my teachers care more about whether I can learn to fix them and revise than giving me a grade that tells me I'm a failure. I approach my assignments with an open mind, ready to learn and work until I understand what they're about, ready to challenge myself, and, honestly, because there isn't this constant stress about perfection, I approach school with more happiness and excitement.

And as I mention above, some of them see the wisdom in considering progress from multiple pieces of evidence, over time.

Student 6: Having numerous assessments under a single standard allows for a wider range of evidence for how a student is doing. It allows you to see trends, as well as what you need to improve or [where] you are doing well. Standards-based grading allows you to learn about yourself as a student and grow from there, either individually or with the help of a teacher or peer.

Student 7: Averages are the crux and the vice of the modern school system for they do not take into account the fact that learning is not clean. For some, certain topics within math are more difficult than others. In the typical high school, performing poorly on one math subject would harm one's entire grade...Learning is a multi-dimensional process, and it makes sense to judge students on their growth [within] each individual pillar in the class, rather than averaging an amalgam of completely distinct subjects into one grade.

Why do the students at CBHS embrace a standards-based system? I think it’s because they truly understand it, and they see how, at its best, it goes right to the heart of good practice. They see that what’s at stake is so much more than a grade on a report card. With careful guidance and articulation of high expectations from their teachers, they see that what’s at stake is their learning.

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