A Standards-Based Approach in a Traditional School Setting

English teacher Denise Earles from Madison Public Schools, CT is part of an innovation project to experiment with standards based grading in a traditional school system.
Kevin Siedlecki is in his 8th year as an English teacher at Daniel Hand High School. He also coaches freshman boys football and varsity girls lacrosse.

For six weeks, the environment in our American Literature Honors course was simply amazing. Students were enthusiastic every day. They came to class extremely prepared to have thoughtful, complex discussions. They developed skills of respectful discourse, inquiry, and initiative in their work.

And no one asked “how will this be graded?” Not even once.

Everyone bought into the idea that they could learn for the sake of learning — that grades were an unnecessary, restrictive pressure that hindered the learning process. No one thought about grades at all. Until it came time to enter something into the traditional gradebook.

Kevin’s wife, an art teacher in the same district, once made the point that grades only contribute negatively to classroom culture. If students get good grades, they are simply feeding an unhealthy reliance on extrinsic motivation. If they get lower grades, they blame the teacher, the assignment, unclear expectations: anything to place the experience outside of themselves.

Shifting the Grades Mindset

With that in mind, we have done our best to shift thinking about grades in our classroom, to withhold them as much as possible, and to put them in the hands of the students whenever possible. That’s how we came to a standards-based approach. Our district, while supportive of the philosophy, does not have a mechanism in place to execute it fully, so eventually, students have to be labeled with numbers and letters.

The first time we have to put a letter on them is six weeks into the school year, when the first progress reports are due. We managed to go six weeks without entering a single grade, committed to using the standards we selected as most important to the first unit as the only way we evaluated the students.

For progress reports, we conferenced with students about whether they were meeting the standards or not. Students gathered evidence from their work so far, and we had a conversation about how they were performing in each standard.

Two Different Perspectives

During the three days of presentations, we (the teachers) thought things were going extremely well. Students were making visible their personal experiences in the classroom: each his or her own journey through the stages of learning new skills and concepts.

Our principal sat in a few conferences, and told us how valuable it was for students to reflect on and understand their own strengths and weaknesses. And what a great opportunity, he said, to make that reflection meaningful.

Just about everyone was meeting just about every standard, some at a very high level, and we felt great as we settled back into the classroom to start working towards exceeding the standards and introducing new standards.

The students, it turned out, were not as thrilled. Even though we told them that: we weren’t even going to discuss the level beyond meeting standards, the progress report grades would be erased when we did our final grade conferences at the end of the course, it is the experience — not the grades — that we were concerned with, the students had mostly negative reactions to the conferences.

The actual articulation of negativity varied. Most said they didn’t have enough time to present their evidence fully. Some said they didn’t have enough feedback about the standards going in, or that they would have liked us to do a shorter conference earlier, to give them practice. Some said they didn’t like being graded on their ability to present instead of what they actually produced.

All of those complaints are in some ways valid and in some ways not, but they can all be phrased like this: “I would have gotten a better grade if…”

The True Meaning of a Letter Grade

From our perspective, since the grade was only for a progress report – not a transcript – there was no need to fight for an A. We wanted students to know if they were meeting standards or not. The next step — the work that could earn them grades in the A range — was to be explained and executed during the second half of the trimester.

We didn’t consider anything beyond meeting the standard. We told them would revisit the grades in each standard on their final report card, after they had a chance to develop beyond “meeting” standards. Meeting the standard was an 85: a solid B. To us, that was all we could expect from students at this point, with a few students meeting at a higher level and earning up to a 90.

We think that doing what you’re supposed to do gets you a B. An A is something beyond that, something that students can work toward as we got further along in the curriculum.

Students had a very different expectation. They thought they were being judged, because every time they have gotten a grade in the past, it has been the last word. To them, doing as they are told earns an A, and a B on a report card means they have done something wrong. We saw some of that during the conferences, most obviously in the standard we call Academic Initiative.

Students would rate themselves as exceeding the expectation – even though we made it clear we weren’t even considering whether they were exceeding – and their evidence was that they turned in all their work on time and kept up with the reading. Sometimes, with a couple exceptions even to those most basic expectations. They very clearly described meeting — or perhaps not quite meeting — the standard, yet they expected to be categorized as exceeding.

In some ways, students were exceeding – if not the standards – the level of work they had done in the past that had always earned them good grades. But our standards were high, so our expectation was that students wouldn’t be doing in any of them until they had much more practice, feedback, and instruction. Students had to reflect on where they stood, and work to improve. They shared in the process of evaluating their performance, so they were more engaged than they were used to being. Therefore, by the logic of traditional grading, they deserved very high grades.

Feedback Through Grades vs. Growth-Oriented Feedback

We didn’t give them very high grades because we spent six weeks transforming their ideas about what grades mean. We took away the concrete, objective feedback of numbers and letters, and gave them growth-oriented feedback.

On every assignment, comments were framed as “Here’s what you’re doing well” and “Here’s where you can keep improving.” For six weeks, it worked. Students took our comments to heart because it was authentic feedback about a piece of work, not a check mark or a numerical evaluation on a rubric. They used the constructive criticism to inform their learning process.

Students truly internalized the reward. They recognized — and were able to articulate — that they were doing the work for themselves and their peers, not for the teacher or the grade. They had to do the work because — if they didn’t — they wouldn’t be able to participate in class activities and discussions that they knew to be academically and personally enriching.

In short, they had shifted from results-oriented, extrinsically motivated, compliant students, to growth-oriented, intrinsically motivated, personalized learners.

Then, as soon as we reintroduced grades, they saw that all the personalized work they had taken so much pride in had only earned them B, and that letter was so loud that they could not hear us tell them that the B wasn’t like an “old B.” They still wanted the A.

The Long-Term Goal

For six weeks, we encouraged students to find their own personal routes. We asked them to learn at their own pace, in their own way, and to forget about what we wanted them to do. The hope was for them to do what they wanted to do, within the limits of each assignment.

They produced great work, had deep, thoughtful conversations, and took appropriate academic risks … all while having fun. They had been trained so thoroughly, though, to equate grades with self-worth and effort, that when their grades were not as high as they were used to, they forgot all about the experience that led up to the assessment.

To be successful in implementing Standards-Based Assessment in a school where a student’s transcript reports letter grades, students and teachers must work together to connect their performance in a class with the letter grades. All stakeholders must understand that the grades students end up with are a more accurate form of communication about how they are performing.

Shifting that understanding will be a difficult task, but the results in the classroom have been so strong that we are committed to making it work for everyone.

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