Standards-Based Grading Revisited

A while back, I posted some of my thoughts on how I might adapt our standards-based, 4-point writing rubric to fit the 100-point grading scale traditionally used in schools. That post turned into a great discussion – so much so that it has reached 30 comments (far more than any other post on this blog) and is now the 3rd result when you Google “standards based grading.” As a result of the apparent interest in the subject, I wanted to revisit the topic from a more philosophical perspective, share some updates on where we’re at and see where others are at in this process.

The original post evolved out of a department discussion on how to adapt our new 4-point rubric so that students were getting a more “fair” grade. Ironically, it’s a year later and now secondary schools in our district want to have the same conversation because our district reading and writing assessments aren’t being graded “fairly.” And that’s the rub. What is “fair” when we’re talking about grading? Here’s the basic summary of what I discussed previously:

  1. In secondary schools like ours, grading is typically done on a 100-point scale, in which 90’s are generally given an “A” grade, 80’s a “B” grade, and so on. Typically, anything under 60 is considered an “F” grade. 
  2. For many schools and teachers, there has been a shift  from this traditional 100-point scale to a simpler 4-point scale. On this scale, students are usually given a 4 if they “exceed standard,” 3 if they “meet standard,” 2 for “approaching standard,” and a 1 if they are well below standard. Our department now uses a rubric like this one.
  3. A problem arises when we try to take a standards-based (SB) score and give it a percentage or letter grade. If we were to directly transfer scores from a 4-point to a 100-point rubric: a 4 would still equate to a 100, a 3 score (“Meets Standard”) would now be a 75%, or a C. Moreover, a 2 score (“Approaching Standard”) would equate to a 50%, or an F. For most teachers, this grade equivalency does not seem fair.

The question, then, is twofold. First, what do we mean when we say, “This grade is not fair.” How do we define “fair”? Second, what other solutions can we implement that would better match our definition of “fair” grading? These are the two questions I want to address in this post.

The Problem: “Fair” Grading

The primary concern with converting SB grades to traditional letter grades has to do with the percentages involved. If all grades were given based on SB scores alone, there would be no problems at all – a 4 (100%) equates to an A, a 3 (75%) equates to a B, a 2 (50%) equates to a C, a 1 (25%) equates to a D, and a 0 (0%) is an F – that just makes sense.

Problems arise, though, when we use traditional 100-point grading scales. When I was in school, this is the scale we used, and it looks much different than the SB percentages. In our department, for example, a B is between 83 and 87%, while a 75% would be a solid C grade. Similarly, a student getting 50% would not get a C – he would get an F. Needless to say, a 0 on a 100-point scale is devastating to a student’s grade (read The Case Against the Zero for more on this difficult subject).

This is how grades have worked for as long as most of us can remember, so it is easy to see why the SB system is such a struggle for us to understand. Certainly the 100-point scale has its benefits. However, in order to fully convert to SB grading, we would have to complete a massive paradigm shift and reach a point where we essentially abandon the 100-point scale for grading. I don’t think many schools are willing to do that – mine certainly isn’t.

Thus we have a dilemma – we want to grade students based on whether they have met standards in our content area, but we also want to use the familiar 100-point scale and traditional letter grades in doing so. To borrow an analogy, we want to put new wine into old wineskins. The question becomes, can we do it? And if so, how?

Finding a Solution

The first step in finding a solution to this seems simple enough, but draws out a lot of underlying assumptions and beliefs about grades (as I discovered reading through the comments on the previous post). Very simply, a solution requires answering one question about what grades actually mean:

Where is the line between “below standard” and “meets standard”?

Does a SB score of 2 merit a C or an F? Is a 3 equivalent to a B or a C? Does a 4 equate to 100%? These are all questions that stem off from the critical question of where that line is between meeting and not meeting the standard. Dana Huff of Huffenglish put this problem a different way – we have to decide what an absolute zero would be. For example, if a student got zero on an assignment, what percentage would he/she receive? From there, you adjust the scale to fit the points available.

And here we reach an underlying difficulty – our expectations are different. And if our expectations differ, our beliefs are likely to differ as well. Here’s an example: I think that a student who is barely meeting standard earns somewhere in the neigborhood of a C+/B-. Some of my colleagues argue for a B, while others say that meeting standard falls in the low-C or D range. For some, failing to meet standard means a student should not be passing, which means a score of 2 should equate to an F grade. And all of these equally valid points of view factor into a discussion, eventually (hopefully) leading to some kind of consensus.

Even when we reach a consensus on where to draw the “standard” line, there are still lingering issues that must be addressed. I think one problem that will arise is disagreement from parents, who don’t think the same way about grades as we are trying to. Like us, they grew up with a more traditional 100-point letter grade system and that is what parents understand. We can certainly expect them to hold the same perspectives we are fighting within ourselves.

In addition, there is the matter of what to do when a student does not meet standard on a given assignment. By using SB grading, I am committing myself to getting students to meet specific standards. When I grade an assignment, it should be an assessment of whether students have met one or more of those standards. If they do, they can move on and attack the next standard. However, if they do not meet the standard, what do we do? Logic dictates that, if my goal is to get the student to meet that standard, I should reteach and give the student another opportunity to meet standard. But how often does this happen in most schools? How often do we simply move on and hope the student can catch up?

The final issue you’ll likely need to address on this topic is what we do when a student doesn’t meet standard all year. Again, basic logic seems to tell us that the student needs additional opportunities to meet the standards at that grade level. Unfortunately, that’s not usually what happens for students. In some sort of quest to soften the blow to students’ egos, we pass them on to the next level. Now, while they may be with students their own age, they are now expected to pass more stringent standards. Even though they haven’t been able to meet the lower standards, we will hold them accountable to higher ones. Isn’t this setting students up for a career of failure? The question we have to address is a tough one: do we hold back students that aren’t meeting standard?

In our district, we hold students back at the secondary level. A 9th grader in our building cannot move on to the high school without meeting a certain minimal set of standards. Unfortunately, by the time they get to us, many students have been below standard for several years and have been passed up through the elementary grades. Based on conversations with teachers in other districts, this is a common trend – pass them through elementary school, then start expecting them to meet standards at the secondary level.

Final Thoughts

As I’ve gained experience with standards-based grading, I’ve come to appreciate the simplicity and efficiency of the concept. There were certainly some difficult transitions – grasping the nuances between a 3 and 4 as opposed to an 86 and 87, for example – but it has been a positive process for me. I think the long-term evolution involves a complete overhaul of how we do grades and committing to a 4-point scale across the board (which in turn changes how we calculate GPA), as well as committing ourselves to requiring students to meet standards from day 1. However, I don’t see a complete overhaul of how we assess students from kindergarten through graduate school as very realistic in the near future. In the mean time, we must simply press on toward the goal of helping all of our students reach the bar we have set for them, and pray that we don’t let them down.


4 responses to “Standards-Based Grading Revisited

  • Emily

    Thanks for the updated post. I agree with the questions and concerns. I’m at the secondary level, so students don’t progress who don’t meet the standards. I’m the only one, so I don’t have to (or get to) determine these things with anyone else. My most important consideration as I determin the scale is: what is the minimum a student must demonstrate/achieve in order to pass a class?
    Is it achieving half of the standards? Achieving all to some level? Achieving more than half? Once that question is answered, it seems to be no trouble to spread the accompanying scores between 60% and 100%, with the bottom falling where it may, at 40% or 50% or wherever. Anyone know what “passing” means?

  • Jenny

    Thanks for tackling this topic so thoughtfully! I use a 4-level standards-based system for pretty much every assignment that I give and I have a “grading scale” that I give students that explains how, through which combination of levels, they achieve their grade (F-A). But it’s complicated and unwieldy and certainly imperfect.

    We as teachers want grades to be a true measure of where a student stands in a particular skill set or subject, but the unfortunate reality is that they play all of these other roles as well–everything from gauging which college a kid will go to, to determining whether she will be grounded when her parents see her report card, to translating directly to her feelings of self-worth or how much she is “liked” by a teacher. One little grade is asked to play this whole variety of heavy roles and sometimes it feels like–when we have to translate our assessment into a grade–it undermines the work we do to create complex rubrics that truly show a student’s relationship to the standards. As you point out, it feels like we would need an entire change in philosophy/paradigm to address this issue fully!

  • Jason Buell

    This is a great post and I’ve linked to it. I use the conjunctive scoring method to translate into a letter grade, outlined here:

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