Standards Based Grading in Reading & Writing

Several years ago, I left my middle school classroom to work as a full-time literacy coach for a year. Besides learning that I really like being in the classroom, I learned for the first time about Standards Based Grading.  When I returned to the classroom the next year, I decided to ditch my traditional points grading system, and go whole-heartedly into Standards Based Grading.  I got permission from my principal to not use our district grading program except for end-of-semester-grades (which meant I did everything by hand), and I spent the next two years with my 6th and 7th graders trying a variety of reporting systems, trying to learn -  what kind of communication helped the kids most? what did I need to record to see their growth and to plan my next moves in our lessons?  and what information was most valuable to parents?

After two years, my whole team got on board.  We sent home an 8-page progress report every time grades were due - each content teacher (language arts, social studies, science and math) got two pages - on the front side we reported Work Habits (things like work completion, being on time, bringing materials to class) and the back were our academic standards.  Only the academic standards counted towards the student's grade, which we reported as a letter grade only at the last progress report of the semester and as their final semester grade - we wanted students and parents to look at learning and see that none of it was final until the end of the semester.  

Using Standards Based Grading, I knew my students really well.  I knew exactly which skills and strategies they could do and which they struggled with.  Conversations with students were rich - they focused on learning, not work completion (usually!).  Students knew they had multiple opportunities to practice skills with no penalty, so they took risks and tried new things.  They also knew they could continue revising if they still hadn't mastered a concept. 

One question I was frequently asked, is "Isn't that subjective?  I mean, you decide what's advanced, mastery, progressing and needs improvement, right?"  Yes, it is subjective. All grading is subjective. Teachers decide daily what's important, how to assess it, and what mastery looks like.  With a points system, the subjectivity is hidden.  It seems objective because the points are there, and students earn them or they don't.  But in reality it's still the teacher deciding all those things -  how many points each assignment is worth, what will earn points and what won't.  So whether you use a traditional points system or Standards Based Grading, the teacher is the one who decides what is important and what gets assessed. 

The difference with Standards Based Grading is that it is transparent and un-fluffified.  (Yeah, that's a word!)  What do I mean by that?  Let's use reading as an example. I only assess reading standards - elements that we are working on to become stronger readers.  So, when I create a scoring guide for a task I'm asking my students to do, I have to look at the essential learning only.  If I want them to make connections to a text and then tell how the connections help them understand the text more deeply, that's all I'm grading:  two tasks.  I'm not going to include points for spelling, capitalization, putting their names on papers, using neat handwriting or complete sentences.  Because those are not what I'm assessing right now.  There aren't points for turning it in on time, or not.  There aren't points for "wrote in pencil instead of pen".  Because those are fluff.  They are not the essential learning.  And, if I do decide those are essential, then I must report on those standards.  Students, parents, and I see a transparent report of what the child can do on each task, skills, strategy, objective...whatever I'm assessing.  These are not buried in a total points or letter grades.  They're laid bare.

This is good and bad.  It's good when you're concerned with actual learning.  When you want to know that your child can summarize fiction, but struggles to make inferences, it's good.  When you want to distinguish between a child's ability to organize a piece of writing and to spell correctly, it's good.  All stake-holders (teachers, parents and students) know exactly what the student knows and doesn't, can do and can't.  Teachers can use time more efficiently and effectively because we now know exactly what to work on next. 

So, how can it be bad?  Well, let me tell you.  If you are a parent and you've grown accustomed to the fact that your compliant child always gets As, and now suddenly it is revealed that there are actually learning deficits, it can be a hard pill to swallow.  We'll call our first example Susie Schoolgirl.  Susie is the nicest kid in class.  She's pleasant, polite, and well-mannered.  She always does her homework neatly and on time; she has her materials in class everyday and always works hard.  She has always been a A student because all these factors have hidden the fact that Susie Schoolgirl reads without any comprehension.  She can retell individual facts about what she's read, but when asked to summarize or tell the central idea of a text, Susie has no idea.  She is a struggling reader and this is finally made clear in your class, where learning is made transparent with no fluff to hide behind.  

Let's look at another example, Trevor Toughguy.  This kid never does homework.  Ever.  He sneers at you from his slumped down position at his desk,  if he even bothers to look up at all, because he's stuffed his phone in the pocket of his hoodie and is sneaking a glance every chance he gets.  And that's when he is in class.  The most aggravating part is that when he reads an article and summarizes it, his insights are spot on.  His writing shows depth of thinking, and his language is precise and sophisticated.  With transparency and no fluff to show how "disrespectful" he is, Trevor Toughguy is acing your class.  

These two examples are so "bad" because in a points-based grading system, teachers can do what they want.  If a teacher reports that a student got 8/10 on a summary, no one has to know what the 10 points were or if they were valid tasks to assess.  They might also reflect -20% for an assignment being late.  In Standards Based Grading, all this needs to be transparent, and therefore true to what is being learned.  There is no room to reward compliance in the academic grade.  Only learning demonstrated on carefully constructed tasks is valid to assess.  

For reading and writing teachers, Standards Based Grading is essential.  When a student earns a C in writing, parents have a right to assume their student is doing an average job; their reading and writing aren't excellent, but they're not failing either.  This may be far from the truth.  A student could be an excellent writer, earning advanced As on all writing tasks. And, the student could be struggling tremendously as a reader, failing to comprehend, to infer, to draw conclusions from texts.  And this would average out into a C.  

The skills in English class are too important to hide the truth of a student's academic progress.  We as teachers must know exactly what our students' strengths and weaknesses are so that we can teach accordingly, plan accordingly, and offer help accordingly.  We as teachers must be able to communicate clearly with parents about what skills are mastered and what skills the student needs help with, so parents have the option to seek or give additional help.  After high school, our students will go on to college or careers, and we need them to have the skills to be autonomous readers and writers.  

So, where do you start if you want to learn more about Standards Based Grading?  Here are a few books and websites to get you started:

What could you experiment with in the final couple of months of the year?  What could you plan to implement next school year?  Check back for more posts on this topic!

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