Grading Against Standards

gradesAlthough academic standards do allow easier apples-to-apples comparisons between students (of different schools, etc.), such comparisons should NOT be used when determining grades.

The purpose of letter grades (A, B, C, D, F) used to be to distinguish between students of different abilities. Teachers would apply a normal distribution (or bell curve) to students’ test scores. If you did better than most of your peers you got a good grade. If you did worse, then you got a bad grade and too bad for you – it’s time to move on.

In a world of standards, students are compared not to other students, but to the standard. If you prove you understand the concept of the standard and can apply it, you can move on to something new. If not, you need to keep working at it. This ensures that ALL students will eventually meet the standard.

diagram1It’s my opinion that letter grades should be totally thrown away and that the only report of student academic achievement should be a record of their proficiency against each item in the set of standards. As you prove your mastery of the standards, your “score” in school, which starts at 0 for all students, continues to climb (like the graph to the right).

I suppose one way I can imagine using letter grades with standards is to map how many standards are “mastered” against all standards that the student is “supposed” to know by now. However this goes against the principal of standards and competency-based education that says each student should keep working to prove mastery until it is accomplished. Applying some arbitrary “cutoff date” would not be appropriate. Maybe there are workable alternatives in this area that I haven’t seen yet – I’ll definitely keep an eyes open.

Degrees of Mastery

Grading with standards should also take into account the level of “mastery” of each standard. I think it makes sense to use something like a 4-point scale for each standard. If you show that you basically “know” the facts/knowledge/concept you’re supposed to, or you can “do” the actions for the skill you’re learning, then you earn 2 points. Two points is enough to move on to other concepts. That would be like accepting a “C” and moving on. If you would like to learn the material better, and show that you have a better understanding – either to yourself, to college admissions departments, or future employers – you can work to earn more points. If you earn a total of 3 or 4 points that shows that you really “understand” the concepts and can “apply” them to new situations. In order to achieve more than the first 2 points, you might need to do some project or additional research, that a teacher can oversee, that relates to the concept being learned. Some students might choose to complete a bunch of concepts to the 2-point level and then go back and “level-up” to 4 points for as many of those as possible – in order to improve their “grade”, but more importantly, their learning.

This four-point system isn’t totally my idea – I learned a bunch of it from Summit Public Schools, a great school system in the San Jose, CA area and an excellent model for competency-based education. That’s also where I got the idea to differentiate between “Know/Do” and “Understand/Apply”. I’ll definitely be writing more about Summit in future posts.

In my vision of a true competency-based “high school” (a school where students learn what has traditionally been taught in a 4-year high school), it could take some students only 3 years and it might take others 5 years to prove (adequate) mastery of all standards.

Competency-based education is not just a slight adaptation of our current education system. It is way different, and it is much better. Although it’s a big shift, there are ways we can smooth out the transition.

(more to come…)


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