PSSAs, SATs, FourSights, ACTs, and other standardized tests create a learning environment driven by test scores. Unfortunately, the variation between these exams and their grading scales produces inconsistent results. What does a 1300 on the SAT really mean? How does that compare when achieving a 28 on the ACT? While these exams are broad examples of how student assessment is difficult to meaningfully measure, there are ordinary examples found in classrooms today, including traditional letter grading. With the emphasis put on grades, students are prioritizing high scores over learning the source material, itself. Some educational professionals have entertained the notion of an ungraded classroom. Instead of emphasizing letters, percentages, or any other variation of scores, educators are evaluating students based upon skill achievement. Schools have implemented ungraded classrooms across America, but their effectiveness and credibility are up for debate. One way that schools have tried to achieve a gradeless education is through the utilization of a standards-based grading system.
Standards-based grading is a concept, rather than a specific system, like the system we know as “traditional grading”. Moreover, standards-based grading transitions to a grading system that is closely aligned to the standards that teachers are teaching in schools (Potts, 2010). Grades are broken down into individual concepts and teachers evaluate students based upon those specific skills. For example, in Honors Geometry, students would traditionally receive an A, B, or C. However, in a standards-based system, a student would receive a marking for each category in geometry, such as vocabulary and notation, coordinate geometry, and properties of circles. Students then receive feedback for each concept. Because standards-based grading is an idea for an overall different grading system, there is no correct way to implement it within the classroom. On a report card, success in a concept may be represented by a “+,” “✓,” “O,” or a number on a scale (Colby, 1999). As schools experiment with standards-based grading, educators will find methods that best fit their students and reflect their students’ successes.
Importance of Feedback
Because of the reliance on the evaluation of students in our educational system, the traditional letter grade system is a simple, easily understood method. Grades are both a motivator and a way for teachers to reflect on their teaching skills (Anderson, 2018; Lehman, De Jong, & Baron, 2018). Understanding why educators evaluate students is a key aspect to exploring what these grades should look like. Glenda Potts, a school teacher, writes that it is hard for her to discern what work should be given an 80%, rather than a 79%. This is a difference between a B and C for students, which may negatively impact their overall GPA in school (2010). Potts is arguing that the traditional letter grade system relies too heavily on points and not enough on the information being learned. This notion has led educators to explore different modes of grading that measure students’ knowledge efficiently and are deemed acceptable by the greater educational community (Potts, 2010).
The thought of an ungraded classroom is misleading. Ungraded classrooms do not remove the observation and evaluation aspect of learning. Instead, it is the way that teachers assess and evaluate students that will change dramatically (Pratt, 2018). Instead of letter grades and percentages, which hold very little meaning for students, teachers are advocating for a system that tells students more about which specific concepts need improvement. A single grade for each content area does not provide students with enough information to reflect a student’s progress and learning (Lehman, De Jong, & Baron, 2018). Educators have found that students lose self-interest in their learning experience when evaluated under traditional grading methods. These struggles are inherent to the notion of grading itself. Students no longer feel the need to learn because they wish to increase their knowledge; instead, they learn to achieve high grades. To avoid this, schools are moving towards a qualitative approach grading. Unlike the majority of schools, students of these experimental grading classrooms receive a narrative report in addition to their report card (Long, 2015). Because of the strict standards that states carry, narrative reports may be a difficult feat for classrooms today. Still, some schools are making an effort to adapt their grading system so that it focuses more on individual skills rather than an overall grade.
Today, schools are advocating for a standards-based grading system (Long, 2015; Anderson, 2018; Lehman, De Jong, & Baron, 2018). Standards-based grading removes any behavioral aspect of a grade and provides focused, specific feedback to promote student growth. The goal of this system is for every student to be proficient at every standard (Lehman, De Jong, & Baron, 2018). Education is becoming more rigorous. Both students and teachers are having trouble reflecting on what exactly a letter grade means. If a student receives seventy percent on an exam, what was the thirty percent that the student missed? The standards-based grading system says that thirty percent of content is important and then identifies specific skills that need improvement. Parents of students in Virginia’s Fairfax County Public School district, a school utilizing standards-based grading, were appreciative of the change and felt that they better understand how to help their children succeed in school (Long, 2015). Most importantly, the students themselves are advocating for a standards-based grading system. While they may not know the name of the system, a majority of students want feedback that is more expansive and properly reflects all that they learn. The standards-based grading system removes the traditional grading system from the classroom and takes a step towards the ungraded classroom model.
Although educators have used the letter grading system for centuries, they understand that the traditional grading system no longer has the capacity to measure students’ knowledge in today’s classroom. Typically, letter grades do not help teachers know how to improve their instruction, nor inform students on how to improve their learning (Anderson, 2018). Educators want to promote higher thinking by grading student upon specific skills. This can only happen when educators provide feedback that is timely, specific, understandable, and productive (Fisher & Frey, 2011). Grading systems like standards-based allows for teachers to achieve all four of those objectives, while most educators agree that the traditional grading system only meets timely. Replacing traditional grades with written narratives may be unrealistic (Lehman, De Jong, & Baron, 2018). For teachers who teach over 160 children over the course of a school day, narratives as a means of grading would be cumbersome. Even then, written narratives could be difficult for students to digest and doesn’t necessarily align with the standards being taught in classrooms today. Grading systems are meant to be easily understood, while also providing ample feedback (Potts, 2010). Educators can find a happy medium in a standards-based grading system.
In southern Pennsylvania, Emory H. Markle Intermediate School transitioned to a standards-based grading system in 2014. Over the past five years, this new grading system has been revised and altered to best fit their particular school. Eric Klansek, an assistant principal at the time of the transition, describes the transition as a positive change in the EHMIS learning community. Because students come to middle school with all different backgrounds of learning, a standards-based system is the best way to meet their needs (E. Klansek, personal communication, October 23, 2019). Educators use standards-based grading systems to outline student goals for each subject. Instead of feedback showing up as an encompassing percentage, teachers break down their class into concepts, and the teachers assign grades per concept. Each of those individual markings is shown on a student report card at the end of each marking period.
Specific Feedback and Student Growth
Arguably, the most important part of a standards-based grading system is giving students specific feedback (Lehman, De Jong, & Baron, 2018; Fisher & Frey, 2011). Percentages hinder a teacher’s ability to assign meaningful grades. When students receive eighty percent on an assessment, educators consider the performance to be acceptable. Students will accept that grade and put the exam aside, but what about the twenty percent of information that was missed? The fifth of information that was incorrect will hinder the student’s ability to grow upon their preexisting knowledge in following units (E. Klansek, personal communication, October 23, 2019). Moreover, teachers in the classroom bear heavy weight when determining a student’s final grade. One percentage point has the ability to directly impact a student’s GPA (Potts, 2010). Instead of trying to figure out whether a student is worthy of a 3.5 or 4.0, teachers can focus on awarding student grades through their competency in specific skills.
A standards-based system makes assessments actionable by outlining what improvements must occur for the student to perform better on the next assessment. Chris Conover, a current technology teacher at the EHMIS, believes that standards-based grading focuses on content knowledge. By linking standards directly to grades, there is a clear understanding of which concepts that each student has mastered (C. Conover, personal communication, October 27, 2019). This is the specific feedback that students that is necessary for students to continue growing. While it sounds counter-intuitive, broader marks like satisfactory and unsatisfactory leave room for teachers to provide specific feedback (Pratt, 2018). By giving students a general idea of their progress, there is a clear idea of what they have yet to learn. Some students view success as seventy percent or higher, while for others it may be ninety percent. Standards-based grading clearly designates what is proficient.
R.J. Long serves as a current assistant principal at the EHMIS. Long experienced the standards-based grading system, as both a teacher and administrator for the district. He noted that one of the biggest shifts away from a traditional grading system is the promotion of proficiency amongst all concepts. A standards-based grading system provides measurable milestones and objectives for students. All students are free to show how well they have learned information in varying methods and amounts of time (Long, 2015). In conjunction with knowing what grade indicates proficiency, students are aware of various standards that teachers will test them on (R. Long, personal communication, October 28, 2019). When students receive their assessment, they can immediately reflect on their feedback and understand the exact concepts that need improving. Even students who earn close to perfect scores receive feedback on which concepts they got incorrect. Students will strive to achieve high grades in each category instead of just an overall grade in the class. This ensures that all students, even those who are high performing, are still learning and growing (E. Klansek, personal communication, October 23, 2019). Theoretically, this will lead to higher proficiency in each content area for all students. When schools provided parents with both traditional and standards-based grading report cards, parents appreciated the amount of detail the school had provided in the standards-based grading report card (Long, 2015). By understanding which concepts students were proficient in parents felt that they could better help their child improve.
By creating specific feedback that promotes student growth, educators assist students in meaningful learning. Instead of earning an A in a class, teachers give grades for each concept (Long, 2015). Since the goal of standards-based grading is proficiency for each student, the system allows for students to maintain proficiency at their own pace (R. Long, personal communication, October 28, 2019). Students would be able to complete retakes without worrying about how that should affect their overall grade.
The controversy around test retakes would be obsolete in a standards-based grading system, because it removes competition from the classroom (Lehman, De Jong, & Baron, 2018; Potts, 2011; Anderson, 2018). Without competition, learning becomes a collective, meaningful classroom achievement. Students will no longer feel that their grading is “unfair.” For students who struggle with content, they can celebrate the little successes. Just as a standards-based system shows excelling students what they need improvement in, it also shows struggling students what they are excelling in. That boost of confidence impacts the mindset of the struggling student (E. Klansek, personal communication, October 23, 2019). The standards-based grading system is rooted in a growth mindset. If a student earns low percentages, they experience learned helplessness; a standards-based grading system prevents that from happening.
Students in southern Pennsylvania participated in a poll conducted by the author regarding their feelings about their current grading system. In this study, regardless of the child’s grading system, 91% of students said that their report card does a poor job of displaying what they have learned in class and 92% said that they wanted more feedback on individual concepts learned in class. Often, students in traditional grading systems do not believe that their report card encompasses all of their progress in their classes. An 86% in 11th Grade English tells you the proportion of points earned out of possible points earned, but it is missing the fact that they learned, and does not explain the progression of their skills. Such a percentage grade does not highlight their achievements in writing arguments on discipline-specific content and creating research projects, or signify their struggle to work under time restraints. A standards-based grading system would give students this information. Standards-based grading is student centered and takes into account their interest, depth, and preferences in learning (Long, 2015). Overall, it is about motivating students to do their work intrinsically.
Student feedback is an integral part of the education system today; however, the traditional grading system that teachers are currently using is not meeting the needs of students. Because educators are preparing students to learn more than just facts, grades need to be more expansive than just a percentage. A letter marking cannot discern the problem solving skills that schools are trying to educate students on today. Feedback must include specific information on the tasks that students are expected to know. While this paper gathers information that is unique to the EHMIS and southern York County, other schools are beginning to adopt standards-based grading across America.
A standards-based grading system raises some concern for high schools and college acceptance. Colleges rely on quick information like grade point average in order to gauge how well students performed in school. The impacts on the college acceptance process have yet to be researched. By removing overall grades, high schools and colleges will have to rearrange how they view their students. To cut down on the amount of time that colleges review each student, acceptance teams may require colleges to put more emphasis on student SAT scores or on personal statements.
More studies on the effectiveness of gradeless classrooms are needed in order to be certain of its effects on students. As schools continue to experiment, it is likely that an increasing number of schools will transition their grading system to one that provides in-depth feedback, beyond a percentage or letter grade. Students will have clear goals regardless of their rank in the class. Through current research, teacher and administrator’s perspectives, and student opinion, education stakeholders support a standards-based system, due to its ability to provide specific feedback, promote student growth, and make learning meaningful. As the education system adapts, educators must be able to reflect those changes in a way that is advantageous for the students. The grading system is a reflection of the changing twenty-first century; educators must adapt.
Anderson, L. W. (2018). A Critique of Grading: Policies, Practices, and Technical Matters. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 26(48), 1–21.
Colby, S. A. (1999). Grading in a Standards-Based System. Educational Leadership, 56(6), 52.
Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2011). The purposeful classroom: how to structure lessons with learning goals in mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Holder, M. H. (2019, October 23). Student Opinions on Grading. Message posted to https://www.instagram.com/
Lehman, E., De Jong, D., & Baron, M. (2018). Investigating the relationship of standards-based grades vs. traditional-based grades to results of the scholastic math inventory at the middle school level. Education Leadership Review of Doctoral Research, 6, 1–16.
Long, C. (2015, August 19). Are Letter Grades Failing Our Students?
Potts, G. (2010). A simple alternative to grading. Inquiry: The Journal of the Virginia Community Colleges, 15(1), 29–42.
Pratt, M. (2018, August 22). Gradeless classrooms: Education’s newest trend.