A Critique of Standards-Based Grading
It first happened to me about ten years ago. I was beginning my third year of teaching in a new school in Washington, DC. Social studies teachers were sitting at a department meeting, and the assistant principal assigned as our department head was explaining to us why standards-based grading was going to close the achievement gap.
"This is all very interesting," I said, "and I'm happy to get on board, but besides standards-based grading, what other legitimate grading practices are out there?"
"Well, whatever they are, we don't practice them here. Standards are about raising expectations, and that's what we're about." His response seemed designed to discourage me from inquiring further. In other words, my principal didn't seem to know.
I spent that year, and many of the years since that meeting, working furiously to become the best standards-based grader I could possibly be. That was not easy, as most teachers know that standards-based grading can be a pretty confusing endeavor. It comes with all sorts of differences in philosophy and application. I've had principals attempt to mandate everything from a no zero policy to a no homework policy to a "you can give homework, you just can't grade it" policy. Then there are the long discussions about whether attendance might somehow be counted toward a standard so that it could be included in a grade, or whether classroom behavior and timely submission of work can be included in a standard related to job readiness or citizenship.
There is a striking lack of clarity in the education community about just what standards-based grading is.
Nevertheless, in my first three or four years of working through standards-based grading, I was excited by the possibilities. In many ways, SBG seemed like it afforded more opportunities for students to demonstrate and be affirmed in their learning. Students could retake tests if they were having a bad day. They could demonstrate their learning in styles that better suited them as learners. And clearly defined standards helped students zero in on common learning targets throughout the school.
There were also struggles.
One of my biggest struggles was what to do with activities that seemed to be valuable for learning but didn't seem to connect with a standard, or activities that could fit five or six standards at the same time. Then there was the challenge of determining whether the assessments I gave actually assessed a standard. (Many professional developers in the world of SBG will spend hours with teachers "unpacking" a standard, claiming that most people don't really understand what's in the standard, as if reading what it says is not enough for your average teacher.) And then there were the mental acrobatics involved in finding a way to push all of those rubrics with circles on them into a single letter grade for students' transcripts.
In my beginning years, I was a vocal advocate for SBG, assuming that many of my challenges would fade with more practice. Over time, however, I ran up against problems that I began to see as immovable walls.
Three or four years ago, I stopped advocating for SBG. I began to understand that there are serious limitations to the practice, and I began to suspect that it needs a much clearer analysis than what most teachers have access to in schools where administrators effectively function as SBG propagandists.
With the remainder of this blog post, I would like to suggest a clearer definition for SBG. I also argue that when it is applied poorly, it can function, like all forms of standardization in public education, as a tool of institutional discrimination and cultural destruction.
Today, I believe that the most problematic feature of SBG is that many districts impose it on students and communities with the expectation that the only factor that can be included in a student's grade is evidence that shows achievement of content-area standards. I call this "pure SBG" to distinguish it from other grading systems where outcomes not connected to state standards are also included.
A different and more direct way to define pure SBG is to say that it is the practice of excluding from a student's grade any form of human ability or growth that is not seen by the teacher to be related to the teacher's content-area standards.
Crucially, I think it's important that, in talking about SBG, we do not conflate it with reasonable outcomes-based assessment practices. The crux of standards-based grading is all in the name. Grades are based on standards. In my mind, all the philosophical discussions about how many opportunities a teacher provides to reassess or whether including zeros in the gradebook are discussions about outcomes-based assessment. And there's lots of room for great conversations about how to do that, but that's not my focus here.
Many people would argue that pure SBG is a reasonable practice precisely because the skills that students need are the skills that are in the standards. Primarily, they need to know how to read, write, and do math.
On this point, too, it is important to be clear. I am not arguing that skills included in the standards are not valuable. I believe many of them are, and they have an important place in a person's development. The problem I have with them primarily is the way they're being used, and secondarily how limited in scope they are in defining what counts as valuable human competencies.
Let's start with how they're being used.
Standards, as I see them, are best suited to serve as reference guides for professional educators who are entrusted to guide the learning of young people who they know and love. The term "standard" gives away an intended use we should problematize. It's borrowed from industries concerned with weights and measures of objects, where it's desirable to produce with consistency. That education has appropriated that term to refer to humans and human development betrays within the term itself the ways in which the use of standards will go wrong.
The beauty and value in human diversity is the diversity itself. It's a big part of how human populations are able to adapt and meet new challenges, by encouraging the innate strengths of their members. And while guidelines like learning competencies can assist professional educators in charting a trajectory for young people's growth, imposing them in ways that create barriers for students in the form of grades can become a form of structural violence.
I begin by making the point that the primary problem with standards is the way they're used because if I begin by pointing out how insufficient they are in capturing the myriad forms of valuable human beingness and ability, the inevitable response is usually, "Okay, so we need more standards then." And, sure, we can write learning competencies until we're blue in the face, but we'll certainly never get to them all. And, in doing so, we often don't seem to realize that statements written about competencies are not and never can be a fully accurate descriptor of the competency itself. Language just isn't that advanced. Further, if we can't understand that any quantitative data we record in service of determining whether a student has met said competency is, again, not learning itself but a terribly rough and abstract representation of learning, we will be forever showing up to restaurants and eating the menu.
When we imagine that a stated learning target is the target itself, and that numbers generated from tests are synonymous with learning, we impose our adult inability to understand reality onto students. We let our shortcomings show up in their grades, and then punish them until they become just as out of touch with things as we are.
SBG, in my experience, often comes with a philosophy that positions grades and standards as ends in themselves. In this model of thinking, learning is done in service of standards and grades. And we can imagine here how psychotic this must feel to a young person. No wonder interest in school declines rapidly as students get older. This is a sign that there's hope for our young people. They're not buying it, thank god.
This positioning of grades and standards as ends unto themselves also has grave implications for how we think about equity. When we position standards and grades as ends, we imagine those are the equal outcomes we're trying to create. And we work furiously through how we can possibly engage in equitable practices in order to achieve those equal outcomes. When we do that, we lose sight of the fact that those things we've positioned as desired outcomes (grades and standards) are not outcomes at all. They, too, are practices we employ to achieve real outcomes. The way you can determine this with folks you have conversations with is simply by asking, "Yeah - but why do we want students to reach standard?" or "Why do we want students to get good grades." They'll inevitably go on to talk to you about the economy or something, and with whatever it is they say, you can point out that the grades and standards are in service of something greater. And when we understand this, we understand that the way we employ standards and grades is a question of equity, in that our grading practices either support all students in becoming their best selves or they don't.
My secondary concern with the standards I've had to use is in how they drive what Yong Zhao calls an "employee-oriented" education. Few state standards speak to valuable human competencies like creativity, imagination, interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, ethical/moral awareness, critical citizenship, visual literacy, self awareness, problem-solving, or habits of mind. Furthermore, the standards I've used run the serious risk of orienting teachers and students in a deficit-perspective toward students, as so many of the assets our students bring into the classroom are not affirmed by the standards. These assets are often (but not always) cultural in nature, as the standards used in the US primarily represent the epistemological values of Eurocentric thinking and culture.
Ibram Kendi writes,
"What if different environments actually cause different kinds of achievement rather than different levels of achievement? What if the intellect of a poor, low testing Black child in a poor Black school is different - and not inferior - to the intellect of a rich, high-testing White child in a rich White school? What if the way we measure intelligence shows not only our racism but our elitism?
"Gathering knowledge of abstract items, from words to equations, that have no relation to our everyday lives has long been the amusement of the leisured elite. Relegating the non-elite to the basement of intellect because they do not know as many abstractions has been the conceit of the elite.
"What if we measured literacy by how knowledgeable individuals are about their own environment: how much individuals knew all those complex equations and verbal and nonverbal vocabularies of their everyday life?
"What if we measure intellect by an individual's desire to know? What if we measured intellect by how open an individual's mind is to self-critique and new ideas?
"What if our educational system focused on opening minds instead of filling minds and testing how full they are? What if we realized the best way to standardize a highly effective educational system is not by standardizing our tests but by standardizing our schools to encourage intellectual openness and difference?"In the wake of NCLB, lots of media coverage was given to schools that were cutting recess, art, music, and other "extracurriculars" to support students in preparing for standardized testing. In 2019, there seems to be greater awareness around the harm of these practices (although they still continue), but pure SBG could easily turn into shallow and toxic year-round test-prep in disguise. If grades are only to be comprised of student learning toward standard, and the standards are the same standards being assessed by the state standardized tests, then what does that mean for students who still struggle to meet standard? In some schools, it means being held back from recess or lunch to work with teachers on "classwork." Which students do we imagine this most likely to impact? And will that impact be in service of their learning?
The good news is that the US isn't the only country in the world, and other governments are recognizing that their young people will need opportunities to develop a wide range of competencies not currently enshrined by standards in the US. The province of Ontario has an exciting set of competencies that they're asking schools to develop.
But even within the US, there are lots of movements seeking to redefine what learning looks like. In their recent book, In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School, Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine spent over 700 hours in high schools building an analysis of what teaching and learning looks like, and how they might be improved. They found that the best teaching and learning often happened at a school's periphery - in clubs, extracurriculars, electives, etc. Not the spaces most heavily colonized by standards, in my view. They also suggested that powerful learning happens at the confluence of three virtues: mastery, identity, and creativity. Indeed, I believe Deeper Learning as an instructional design has much to teach proponents of pure standards-based grading.
While I believe there are plenty of teachers who can bring their classrooms to life within the context of SBG, I believe that when that happens, it will happen in spite of SBG rather than because of it. Pure SBG does not value the identity of young people as curious learners who have agency, nor does it value the status of teachers as professionals.
Let's work toward a more inspiring assessment model that works in service of young people's health and growth.