Standards Based Grading Offers Centennial a New Perspective on Learning and Grades

This article was written with Faith A. Middleton.

Centennial High School students have been accustomed to the regular letter grading system for years, so when Standards Based Grading was put into practice, the idea seemed strange to many. The introduction of the grading system raised a few questions that are now, a few months after its introduction, being answered. Adjustment to this new policy takes time, but hopes that the policy will help students strive fuel Centennial to continue investing in it.

Throughout the last three or four years, some teachers have participated in Professional Learning Community conferences in order to learn more about this grading system. This year, Freshman and Sophomore core classes, along with a few other classes, started using Standards Based Grading. Instructional coaches Stacy McAndrew and Nikki Miller help teachers incorporate this change into their classrooms.

“We’re really here to support teachers, and that may be –– as far as they change assessments or what assessments look like –– helping them write the different assessments and coming up with the rubrics used to grade the assessments. We work at a bigger scale, too. At a district level, we help with the policy writing just to give some more input,” said  McAndrew.  Miller added, “For some of the classes that are looking for SBG for next year, [we’re] helping them develop their standards and performance indicators based on what’s worked or not worked in the last couple of years.”

The idea of Standards Based Grading has existed for a long time, and it’s hard to tell who came up with it since it comes from researches on best teaching practices. Some teachers and administrators saw the benefit in this system and began to use it in classrooms.  McAndrew said, “What’s driving more of an emphasis on Standards Based Grading is the expectation that if you’re in a class in Illinois versus a class in California, the expectation is the same material will be taught. SBG is a way to help ensure that those standards are being met.”

As far as grades go, there are a few differences compared to the old grading system. Instead of a grade being an F all the way up to an A, Standards Based Grading is made up of a scale of 0 through 4. A 4 means that the student really understands what’s being taught, and a 0 means that the student struggles with the material.

Another drastic change with this policy is in regards to homework. The homework assigned to students is technically not for a grade; it’s more for practice.  Miller says, “The reason homework is not part of the grade is so that the grade that a student gets in a class is truly a reflection of what they know and understand. It’s not just taking the homework points away, but really trying to work with students, teachers, and parents at understanding the [new] purpose of the homework. Hopefully the homework that’s being given has a direct tie on what’s going to be assessed later, so it’s practice. We want students to understand that homework is still really important. It is not a direct numerical part of the grade, but it does support how [students] will perform later. That’s a big shift, and it’s going to take a long time for students to buy into that.”

Centennial science teacher Noel Peterson can relate to that. He said, “Students that wouldn’t do [the homework] when it was graded are not going to do it now. Students that are trying very hard are going to do it the first time around. Since [students] have to show proof of studying to retest, a lot of them do it so that they can retest.”

Standards set up to match each class are the basis for the grading system. According to Miller, “the standards are written based on what the curriculum is set to be. We use the knowledge we want the students to leave the class with to guide what standards and indicators would be.”

These performance indicators have to be tested on several times in order for teachers to get a clearer understanding of the students’ learning progress. Tests are composed more of questions that prompt students to show their understanding, like short answer questions.

Peterson said, “It’s a lot of grading for teachers, but that’s part of being a teacher. It takes longer to grade. A lot of it is because [tests] are not multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank. They’re short answers, essay questions, and thought questions. When [teachers] have to stop, read, and see what the students are saying, of course it takes longer to grade.”

Because of the many performance indicators, figuring out a student’s grade can be tricky. For that purpose, teachers are dependent on a computer software to average out the students’ grades. “I think that the computer is a whole lot smarter than I am, and they’ve put in a formula in there that accurately averages a student’s grade. Because I’m no math whiz, I would be scared to death if it was me figuring every student’s grade using a calculator,”  Peterson said.

Standards Based Grading has been implemented in several foreign language classes. Madame Abigail Wilder, Centennial French teacher, had some notes on the new system. The Centinal asked her how SBG has changed the process of homework, testing and retakes.

“Since homework isn’t counted, I think fewer students are doing the homework,” Wilder said. “I’m not seeing a huge increase in retakes.”

When asked how she thinks SBG changes the students’ perception toward homework and grades, Wilder said, “I don’t know if we’ve gotten far enough along for students to realize that they need to do the homework. [The students] need to take charge of it in order to learn. The goal is that students take charge of their work and learning.”

Freshman and sophomore classes make up the majority of classes with Standards Based Grading, but there are some junior and senior courses which use SBG. Some students like SBG, while others think it is not helpful.

“It doesn’t give me enough motivation to do homework, so I end up not studying,” junior Taylor Phillips said. “This leads to getting low test grades.”

Senior Thomas Peisker holds the opposite opinion. “I love [Standards Based Grading] because it judges students on their understanding of the material as opposed to their ability to turn in an assignment,” Peisker said.

Freshman Rachel Stickels sees the advantages and disadvantages of Standards Based Grading. She said, “I like how we can work until we get the grade we want, but I don’t like that people can kind of skip homework and still get away with [a good grade].”

From the looks of it, Standards Based Grading is here to stay. This innovative grading system provides a better understanding of what students are learning so improvements can be made. Miller said, “I think it’s fair to say that [incorporating Standards Based Grading into every class next year] is a goal, but we’re also trying to make that transition as ‘painless’ as possible because it is a change.” McAndrew added, “That’s more of an administrative call, but I definitely can see more wanting to go towards Standards Based Grading in classes.”