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Why I struggle with standard-based grading

Since I began teaching, I’ve wanted to make standard-based grading work. I’ve read huge amounts, realigned my curriculum, collaborated with colleagues, and overhauled my thinking many times.

And I still haven’t figured it out. I still struggle with standard-based grading.

I think it’s hard for two reasons: (1) Standard-based grading is better when there are concrete, discrete standards, which is much harder to pull off in English. (2) Standards-based grading works best in a binary assessment system, where standards are passed or not-yet-passed. Most of my attempts have not included concrete standards that students could check off as passed. Nor have I been successful getting rid of points and conversions in a standard-based system.

This year, to regain some sanity, I’m retreating to a points system. And I must be honest: I think it will benefit my students.

One of the requirements of points-based grading, of course, is that there is a finite number of points, and the teacher has planned ahead of time where those points will go. Otherwise, those points don’t have any worth in the moment. Not knowing where each point will go leads to unfair grades, end-of-semester assignment point inflation, and students asking for extra credit.

I’m happy with what I’m trying this semester: 1,000 points. That’s 300 for each five-week unit and 100 for the final examination.

This system worked for me 10 years ago when I taught Government and Economics. When combined with a stern no-late-work policy, it sends a clear message to students to take care of business, not to procrastinate, and to live and work in the moment. Especially when working with seniors, with their graduation on the line, grading must be transparent and easy to explain.

While I understand that a points system may not correlate well with learning, I challenge the argument that standard-based grading is the only way to make grades mean something. After all, because I’ve already set up my assignments, my students this semester will be able to track their strengths and weaknesses in a number of skills.

In addition, even though standard-based grading has enjoyed some traction the past few years, it still takes a huge public relations campaign to explain it to students and families. This year, I’d rather spend that time creating strong lessons and looking and my students’ writing.

Maybe I’m getting more conservative. Perhaps I’m just trying to keep things simple this year. But I do believe that it’s OK to take a break from my quest for the perfect standard-based grading system for a while and still have something that works.

Please share your brilliant insights!