Written by Timothy Payne
Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of grading . . . the thrill of excelling . . . and the agony of failing . . . the human drama of academic competition . . . This is the wide world of grading!
The topic of grading is certainly wide, especially when one considers the wide variety of reforms being tried and tested in today’s American educational system. With the variety of grading initiatives being researched, perhaps the most important question is, “What grading method can have the most effective impact on WELS schools?” Making a slow shift towards standards-based grading can have a positive effect for WELS schools.
In today’s world the word “tradition” can leave a sour taste in people’s mouths, especially when it is applied to education. Marzano and Heflebower (2011) explain the traditional grading system: “In the traditional system, students acquire points for various activities, assignments, and behaviors, which accrue throughout a grading period. The teacher adds up the points and assigns a letter grade” (p.34). A benefit of the traditional grading system is that the average person understands it. Everyone knows that A’s and B’s are preferable to D’s and F’s.
Some educators might use the colloquialism, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The problem is, the traditional or conventional system may very well be broken. Brookhart (2011) asserts that traditional grading practices were developed to sort out students into learners and non-learners, not to support learning for all (p.10). Potts (2010) agrees: “The goal in classrooms should be learning and retention, not the acquisition of meaningless letters or numbers” (p.29). The problem is, seeing a letter on a paper or report card does not tell a student how to improve or what he did not understand about the lesson. Additionally, teachers have been known to assign grades based on student behavior and participation, not solely on academic achievement. All of these issues lead to the question, “How do schools move from grading what students earn to what they learn?” (paraphrased from Brookhart, 2011, p.12).
Standards-based grading is just what it sounds like: grading based on how well students show understanding of pre-set learning standards. A bonus of this system is that letter grades can still be used in conjunction with a listing of the standards to show achievement. Effort and behavior are still reported, but are separate from the academic achievements.
If schools want complete separation from letter grades to eliminate confusion, they can replace letters with graphs or simple numbers. For example, Rundquist (2011) uses a four-point scale: 1. Doesn’t meet expectations; 2. Approaches expectations; 3. Meets expectations; 4. Exceeds expectations (p.70). For grading English papers, Potts (2010) reports that writing assignments can simply be marked as Accept or Revise.
Since average scores of assessments will not be used for letter grades, alternative assessments will need to be created to show proficiency for the standards. Much preliminary work is required in this grading system to prepare authentic assessments. One of the important advantages of the system is that less time is spent grading and much more time is allocated to giving students real feedback to inform their learning. Scriffiny (2008) gives limited homework so that her time is not consumed by correcting problems but in giving effective feedback (p.73).
Some standards-based systems move into the mastery grading realm where students are allowed to retake assessments until they meet or master the standard (Lalley & Gentile, 2009; Scriffiny, 2008). Additionally, students may be expected to do extra work to earn the highest marks even if the standard is met.
Finally, an important part of 21st-century learning is the ability to measure the quality of one’s own work. The adult marketplace will require students to self-regulate quality. The revision process of standards-based learning demands quality work from students before they move on the next standard.
Unfortunately, some studies (Cox, 2011) have shown that moving toward standards-based grading has been slow, even with the research-based advantages. For schools to make the change practical, they need to implement changes slowly. The first step is to reach a collective consensus on the purpose of grading. This all starts with discussions at faculty meetings or perhaps a risk-taking teacher with the support of the school administration. A simple, slow step could be to try standards-based grading for one class—math for example. Many WELS schools do not have the time or staffing resources to create standards, objectives, and assessments for all classes in one year, but taking a small step may make all the difference in moving from a traditional grading system to a standards-based grading system.
Tim Payne is the principal and 7-8 grade teacher at St. Paul’s Ev. Lutheran School in Bangor WI. He is also an MLC graduate student.
Brookhart, S. M. (2011). Starting the Conversation about Grading. Educational Leadership, 69(3), 10-14.
Cox, K. (2011). Putting classroom grading on the table: A reform in progress. American Secondary Education, 40(1), 67-87.
Gordon, M. E., & Fay, C. H. (2010). The Effects of Grading and Teaching Practices on Students’ Perceptions of Grading Fairness. College Teaching, 58(3), 93-98. doi:10.1080/87567550903418586
Lalley, J. P., & Gentile, J. (2009). Classroom Assessment and Grading to Assure Mastery. Theory into Practice, 48(1), 28-35.
Marzano, R. J., & Heflebower, T. (2011). Grades that Show What Students Know. Educational Leadership, 69(3), 34-39.
Potts, G. (2010). A Simple Alternative to Grading. Inquiry, 15(1), 29-42.
Rundquist, A. (2012). Standards-based grading with voice: Listening for students’ understanding. AIP Conference Proceedings, 1413(1), 69-72. doi:10.1063/1.3679996
Sadler, P. M., & Good, E. (2006). The Impact of Self- and Peer-Grading on Student Learning. Educational Assessment, 11(1), 1-31. doi:10.1207/s15326977ea1101_1
Scriffiny, P. L. (2008). Seven Reasons for Standards-Based Grading. Educational Leadership, 66(2), 70-74.