Saturday, October 29, 2011

Standards Based Grading Comes to St. Cloud

Our school district is introducing standards based grading in grades K-8.     We've been using a form of standards based grading in elementary schools in the past several  years, and this year, we begin the experiment in grades 7-8.   Let me begin by stating that I tend to approach sweeping innovations in education with a healthy dose of skepticism.   Not because I'm against change, per se.   No, its because we are dealing with so many changes in education these days, and because implementing reforms requires so much extra work, that I feel that new innovations must be justified by proof that they will lead to significant concrete improvements.   At times, public education is prone to adopting the latest fad proposed by one or more education gurus who travel the country claiming to have discovered a philosopher's stone which will revolutionize education.    So, when our leadership announces breathlessly that "the research says" that we simply must adopt an innovation, I feel its generally time to take a few steps back and ask searching questions.  

Standards-based grading involves measuring students' proficiency on well-defined course objectives.   Many districts adopt standards-based grading in addition to traditional grades, but manhy proponents insist that standards-based grading can and should replace traditional point-based grades.

Introducing standards based grading is easier said than done.  Guskey and Young explain:
With their curriculum standards articulated and assessment procedures to measure those standards in place, many elementary educators today are developing standards-based report cards. However, shortly after beginning the process most find themselves embroiled in controversy, particularly when parents see a standards-based report card for the first time. Discussions about the report card turn into heated debates and unexpected problems thwart their progress. Developing a report card that satisfies the diverse needs of parents and the school often seems impossible.
The idea of standards based grading seems sensible enough.   Instead of  summarizing a student's performance with letter-grades A-F, why not provide the student and parents a disaggregated list of the student's mastery of the particularized course objectives?   One is left, in theory, with a permanent record of whether the student mastered fractions, or decimals, or percentages, and so on.  Consequently, proponents argue, grading becomes more intentional, more objective, and much more complex. This accounts for resistance from many parents, who feel that they inherently understand what an A is, but really would prefer not to try to figure out what it means that their student got 4's in three objectives, and 3's in two others.  

Some arguments for standards based grading include the following:
  • That they provide more coherent and precise information as to what the student has learned.
  • That they force the teaching staff to focus evaluation on the key objectives of state adopted learning standards
  • That they convert grades into formative assessments that focus the learner on what they still need to learn in order to be successful
  • That it is possible to report more complex learning objectives 
Some arguments against standards based grading include the following:
  • That it requires a tremendous amount of effort by teachers and curriculum staff  without a proven payoff..   
  • That students who are far behind (or who have disabilities that prevent achieving standards) can work very very hard to achieve, yet receive grades that may suggest failure, no matter how hard they work. 
  • That some parents simply don't like them and that they engender significant controversy
  • That some implementations of standards based grading do not appropriately reward attendance, effort, and completion of homework
  • That  not all students in any class are at the same level, and so evaluating students at grade level tends to focus assessment on what the kids in the middle are ready to learn
As a Board member, I approach implementation of standards based grading with significant trepidation.  One of my concerns is that reforms like this seem to gather momentum in a way that makes it difficult for the proponents to hear warning signs from dissenting teachers and parents.  As more and more effort is expended on these reforms, the proponents increasingly develop emotional attachment to successful completion of the innovation.    People who raise concerns may be perceived as obstructionists, instead of supplying warning signals of defects in the implementation strategy.   Proponents of reform are typically armed with "the research", often a monograph written by the reform's resident guru.  There is a tendancy when these reforms are brought to the board for discussion to present to us three or four of the most dedicated proponents of the reform, instead of providing us with a coherent summary of the arguments both for and against the reform.   Seldom are we presented with a clear understanding of the issues that are being raised by opponents.  

Most board members want to support reforms when the administration recommends them, because we feel that education needs to be run by educators.  In this case, it is my view that the change is big enough and difficult enough, that we would be well to keep the existing letter grade system along with the new standards based grading, until teachers and parents have enough experience with the new system to accept elimination of the old. 

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