Note: This article was originally published on EdSurge.
Standards-based grading (SBG)—or competency-based grading—measures student progress relative to specific learning standards. This system of evaluation isolates the learning of content and mastery of skills from other factors, such as behavior.
To some, SBG means throwing letter grades out the window, replacing them with more objective report cards that closely track student progress and success in standards mastery. Of course, a grading overhaul like this requires a huge shift in a school’s approach to teaching and assessment. For that reason, SBG takes on many different forms across the country. Some programs are top-down, while others are initiated by teachers. In any configuration, the setup and preparation take time, but educators report that the effort is worthwhile.
SBG for RTI in New Jersey
“When they brought up the idea of standards-based grading to fourth grade, I think everybody was about to have a heart attack because it just seemed so overwhelming at first!” recalls Betty Scola, Tech Integration Specialist at Waterford Township in New Jersey. However, after hammering out their plan, the school brought in technology to support standards tracking, and the SBG rollout ran smoothly.
Waterford uses Edulastic to create standards-tied assessments and track student progress. They then provide targeted response to intervention (RTI) for students who are struggling on particular standards. Students get the practice they need to achieve mastery and feel prepared for the state test. They can track their own progress via a standards mastery report directly on Edulastic, which encourages them to work harder.
“Before, if students knew that something wasn’t an easy A, they might not have tried hard,” Scola reflects. “But now, they’re really responsible for every bit of what they need to learn in their grade level.” Instead of getting an A, B, or C in a particular subject, students might see “needs improvement” in double-digit multiplication, for example.
To those who are considering SBG, Scola says, “I think it’s important to look at every assessment from a standard-based standpoint. And once you start doing that, it makes it a lot easier to see where you can help your children.”
Teacher Enthusiasm Leads the Way in California
Karen Hernandez, Math Teacher and Math Department Chair at Shadow Hills High in Indio, California, learned about SBG at a conference. Then, after trying an SBG approach in her classroom, she shared her enthusiasm with her grade-level team. She had little trouble recruiting them to join her efforts.
A number of teachers at Shadow Hills have embraced SBG—collaboratively developing content and deciding on units and priority standards—and Hernandez believes it’s the way of the future. “Standards-based grading allows me to have a better picture of academic mastery without looking at behavior,” she says. Her team is able to quickly search for questions by standards and depth of knowledge or make their own questions in Edulastic’s item banks. Tracking standards mastery is then simple because assessments are auto-graded and deliver instant data on performance by standard.
Hernandez’s enthusiasm for SBG is contagious, and though she acknowledges that the implementation takes work and dedication, she repeatedly emphasizes how wonderful it’s been. “It takes time, be patient!” she advises. “We had the summer to prepare. Do something small first. Don’t try and do it all at the beginning of the school year, especially if you don’t have buy-in from the rest of the team.”
Top-down SBG in Oregon
In Oregon, Klamath Falls School District has reported grades on a standards-based report card for years. Fourth Grade Teacher Dena Morosin says SBG assists in remediation and the creation of RTI groups. It also helps teachers, parents, and students understand which skills need more attention. It even allows teachers to advance students who have mastered specific skills already.
Unlike Shadow Hills High, Morosin’s school counts all assessments and work towards the standards-based report card grades. As the district shifts curriculum or process, which has happened three or four times in the past six years, teachers need to make sure the curriculum lines up with the report card and the standards assessed. Digital assessment makes these changes possible, saving time because she can easily track student alignment.
Before Klamath, Morosin worked in a district that attempted to build their SBG report cards from scratch, but the process never came to fruition because it was a huge undertaking. From this experience, Morosin suggests working from content that already exists, such as premade SBG report cards.
No Cookie Cutter Approach
It’s clear that there is no uniform approach to implementing SBG around the country. While the objectives and benefits remain common across efforts, different teachers and districts are implementing assessment of standards mastery in ways that fit their particular situations. Most interesting, the letter grade persists. Typically, SBG makes up a portion of the weight behind that letter grade.
Nevertheless, a steady cultural shift enabled by technology that supports easy standards tracking is replacing the letter grade as a measure of student learning. More teachers and districts are adopting variations of SBG so that students have a better understanding of what they are being assessed on. SBG will continue to grow and evolve as a better way to manage inconsistencies and track student skill mastery. “It changed everything for me,” says Karen Hernandez. “It is the way of the future.”