Our Transition to Standards-based Grading


(From JumpRope: Andrew kindly agreed to pen this blog post, as he and his teammates at Essex Middle School in Essex, Vermont have undertaken standards-based teaching and learning this school year.)

Our school made the decision to implement standards-based grading as a way to monitor our students’ learning and ability to apply their knowledge before moving on to the next topic. The primary goal was to place the focus on the learning rather than on just doing what was needed to make a grade. While I believe in this approach, it took some time for me to get fully on board and feel fully comfortable with standards-based grading.

I started to grasp the concept of standards-based grading last year during an activity lead by my principal, Kevin Briggs. He, my two teaching teammates, and I were sitting in our school’s conference room, and Kevin gave us three sets of index cards representing the students on our middle school team. He asked us to group our students based on grade achievement in math, reading, and writing, and after we did this, we saw some trends. The students in the A/B range were considered the school’s “good” students; they worked hard and turned their work in on time; they asked for help and always wanted feedback on how they could improve. Our students who were “lower” were viewed primarily as students who struggled or did not turn work in on time.

Kevin then had us categorize our students again, this time if they had exceeded, met, or were below standard. Now, students who made As and Bs were often below the standard, but because they did their homework and asked for help, they’d been previously identified as “A” students. One student was a “D” student in the first grouping, since he never did any assignments, but in the second grouping he could meet the standard on many assessments. Our conversation about these groupings kept coming back to one main question: “What are our grades really telling us about the students?” It was shortly after this exercise that several teachers and I started to explore standards-based grading and reporting.

But we did have questions, and here is how we worked through some of the big ones.

How did you determine what meeting and exceeding the standard looks like?

One of the biggest tips that I can give someone moving to standards-based grading is to make sure you collaborate with a teacher who teaches the same material as you do. Through this process, that has helped enormously. We started by focusing on our assessments for each standard, and as we created them, we’d ask ourselves, “When a student ‘meets’ the standard, what does that look like?” These discussions also carried over into our science professional learning community, as we used our meetings and inservice time to develop rubrics for the science standards.

When it came to “exceeding” the standard, it was not as clear; I’d like to say that I have a black-and-white definition of “exceeds,” but I do not. As we create our assessments, we talk about expectations and that to exceed a standard, the student is going above and beyond. This can take many forms, such as that extra inference made or that connection made to another topic, and we continue to review student work to better codify “exceeds.”

Is it overwhelming to grade by standards?

One of my colleagues quoted a teacher that she’d met at a standards-based learning conference who said that 90% of her time is spent planning, with the other 10% spent grading. At first I thought standards-based grading would be overwhelming, with me drowning in student work and standards, but it has made me a much more efficient grader since I now know exactly what to look for on an assessment. My written comments to students now more effectively point them in the right direction, and more and more, they are questions prompting my students to go deeper with their thinking.

How did you get parents to understand standards? Do the students understand standards based learning? How do you guide them to understand?

The biggest obstacle of the transition was helping students and parents understand the transformation. I have the benefit of being part of a looping team and so have the same students for both 7th and 8th grades. I’m able to build deep relationships with students in my class, and with these relationships, it was easy to have conversations with them about grades and putting the focus back on learning. They trusted me.

The parents were not as easy to convince. Kevin sent letters home describing the transition and identifying upcoming informational meetings, but we soon realized, with low attendance at these school-wide meetings, that each teacher was going to be responsible for in-depth explanations to parents. My grade level partner and I did that by sending home a letter with our first project after it was assessed; in it, we talked about the reasons for the school’s transition to standards-based grading, we asked parents to look through the rubric and project with their student, and we asked for feedback. Overall, parents liked that they knew what was driving the projects, and as we have continued our outreach to them, there have been fewer concerns as the parents begin to understand this shift more fully. During parent/teacher conferences, I had samples of student work to talk about so that parents could compare their students’ work anonymous samples that met, exceeded and approached the standard.

So, in summary, what are a few tips to make this transition easier?

  1. Collaboration is key. I found it very helpful to be able to discuss ideas with a colleague - to compare student work and talk about what “meets” and “exceeds.”

  2. Keep student work. Having examples of student work was crucial, as it allowed us to demonstrate to parents, students, and colleagues how to determine whether or not the standard was met.

  3. Habits of mind/character standards. The biggest discussion we had at an inservice was how do we hold students accountable for turning in work or for its quality. I attach character standards to each student’s assessment as a way to keep track of personal growth. Parents really like this since it gives them a clearer idea of how well their student is organized, etc.

  4. Reassure students that it’s okay to not meet the standard at the start. When I handed back my first set of assessments where students were only approaching the standard, they freaked out. It was really important to explain to them that it was about growth and that they would have plenty of chances to show that they could meet the standard.

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