About six years ago, I embarked on a journey. A path towards empowering my students in their own learning journey. This ongoing trek has been filled with pitfalls and obstacles along the way. Through this arduous, yet rewarding adventure, I fell upon the idea of standards-based grading. I built my foundation upon the work of Rick Wormeli and Ken O'Connor. However, what I discovered was that although I changed my philosophy on grading, there was not a set road map that guided me step-by-step in applying it within my classroom with my specific students. I thought I would take a few minutes to share some of what I have learned along the way and how my students and I are making this work for us in our ever evolving quest to improve their ability to grow.
One eureka moment for me was when I realized that grades should reflect what a student not only understands but is also able to do with their knowledge. It should reflect a mastery of the standards and not simply be a game of collecting points for tasks that are unrelated to learning (extra credit for attending the school basketball game or points for having parents attend open house). Yes, those items are worthwhile, but they skew the accuracy of the grades that our students are earning. Grades are to communicate the level of mastery that each learner has reached on each standard; they are not compensation for effort put forth or where a child put his name on a project.
I had to ask myself, "Where does one begin to make this shift in practice?" I determined that I needed to begin where the learning starts, with a target. Those targets are the standards, whether you are in a system that has adopted the Common Core or a State Course of Study. That means that all assessments must measure those standards and only those standards. If students are writing a paper, that means that their grade communicates their level of mastery of those standards and not whether or not they used a particular formatting tool, font, or degree of neatness. Each standard has equal weight when it comes to grading.
When discussing standards, I discovered it was important to solely focus on that list generated by the state. When I hear teachers frustrated with standards, more often than not, it's not actually coming from that list of what students need to be able to do. Instead the frustration is coming either from being required to follow a program or curriculum that a district has purchased, or it is coming from a an unrealistic pacing guide or common assessments. Standards are not curriculum. They are simply a destination for where every child needs to be. The means of getting there comes from the teacher.
It took me several years to begin to see how this would work logistically within our classroom. When it came to assessments, how could I record them to reflect mastery of multiple standards for one assessment? I shifted listing grades as assignments (such as Test on A Wrinkle in Time) to listing the grades for each standard (such as determine a theme or central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details...). Previously, I may have included multiple standards on an assessment, but it was all recorded in one score, failing to communicate to the learner the specific areas where she/he may need to continue to work on mastery. In standards based grading, on an assessment, I may include the standards on (1) theme, as well as (2) citing textual evidence, (3) explaining how an author develops a point of view, and (4) demonstrating command of the conventions of Standard English grammar and usage when writing all on one assessment. (These all come from the Alabama College and Career Ready Standards for 6th Grade ELA). However, instead of one grade, that one assessment generates four separate grades based on a student's level of mastery in each of the standards assessed.
Those of you familiar with our classroom know that my students engage in project-based learning throughout the school year. For us, moving to standards-based grading drastically changed the content of our student-created rubrics. Previously, the large categories included items like digital publishing, editing for errors, and content; students received one grade for an entire project. Now, the areas of the rubric where learners are evaluated become the different standards that one project assesses. Then my students work together to create the measurable identifier for what determines a 4 on a standard and what determines a 3, 2, or 1. As mentioned previously, they receive multiple grades on one project because they are being assessed on multiple standards on that one project.
Yes, it may seem like a matter of semantics, but this shift to focusing on standards has given my students the ability to focus on the specific areas where they need to grow and the areas where they have surpassed grade level standards. By focusing on mastering standards, students are challenged wherever they are in their learning journey. Not only do I know, but every student knows where they are on the learning continuum and where they need to be. It's a win-win situation that makes learners more than just collectors of points, but masters of their own learning.