Junior honors students have recently been provided with the opportunity to experience the standards-based grading system at Daniel Hand High School. Standards-based grading eliminates the fear of failure associated with grades. If a student unsuccessfully takes a risk, he or she is not penalized by a grade. The absence of apprehension stimulates a constructive learning environment.
Four standards were emphasized during the first trimester:
- sentence-level writing
- critical thinking
- continuous learning
Due to the high volume of class pursuits dedicated to improving each of these standards, students were well prepared to defend their achievement of the guidelines. For example, one day in class, we were asked to peer edit each others’ essays for grammatical errors. This activity demonstrated that students were not only meeting the sentence-level standard, but that they were also teaching and evaluating the standard. The thought-provoking classroom discussions resulting from that activity and others like it allowed students to improve their proficiency in writing and demonstrate a high level of reasoning. Everything we did in class could have been used as evidence of mastery for the grading conference.
The grading conferences are one of the most important factors of this grading system. They force students to present information in a setting that is uncharacteristic to traditional classes. We were asked to reflect on our improvements and to present evidence of mastery in each of the standards. The conferences allowed me to strengthen my argumentative skills. They also taught me how to present my argument in a clear and concise manner, as there was a time constraint.
While the grading conferences teach students how to effectively argue, they also administer an individualized guide for improvement. Teachers were able to give feedback on why students were specifically meeting the standards and in what specific ways they could improve upon those standards.
The first time my class took part in the conferences, students felt that the eight minute limit did not provide enough time for them to effectively present their arguments. In the second set of grading conferences, the fifteen minutes of time allotted proved to be the right amount for effective communication between student and teachers. Students should be given enough time to discuss how they had met the standards, but also to understand the steps they can take in the future to improve their skills.
There are many educational aspects which are unique to the standards-based grading system. Without the instant gratification of a grade, students must learn the skill of self-motivation to be successful with the system.
One thing that students really struggled with in the first part of the trimester was the absence of feedback. However, to increase the amount of feedback, for the second part of the trimester, our teacher set up a system where we would fill in a chart every Friday with evidence of how we were meeting each of the standards. He then left feedback on the chart either confirming our own evaluations or suggesting ways that we could improve. It is important for students to receive feedback from the teacher as they continue to improve as writers within the freedom of not being graded. This new system was really helpful because it gave students an idea of where they were at in terms of meeting each of the standards.
Another condition of standards-based grading is the concept of continuous learning: the ability to apply learned knowledge outside of the classroom. Continuous learning occurs when a student takes an idea in class and furthers his or her own understanding of that idea. One way that I achieved the continuous learning standard was through bringing in the modern essay called “Relation Between Individual and Society” by Anayet Hossain. In a book group meeting focused on Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville, I was able to further the discussion of transcendentalism and individuality with this essay. The continuous learning standard asks students to add meaning to the concepts they are learning in class; and in the process, students obtain enjoyment from what they are learning.
The structure of previous English classes has allowed juniors to be prepared for the creative thinking that comes with standards-based grading. During freshman and sophomore years, students develop their skills as writers, as they learn how to write and argue in a structured environment. As juniors, students are provided with ample opportunities to improve their skills in an independant environment because they already know what is expected of them. Together, the writing conferences and writing freedoms promote a balance which provides enough structure to keep students accountable, while still allowing them to make individual writing decisions.
Under standards-based grading, high achieving students are free to focus on developing their individual voice, taking risks, and doing their best work. The greatest obstacle to the system is explaining the grading process in a way students and parents can understand prior to their experiencing it. Students are concerned about the system in the beginning of class because they don’t understand it. However, after completion of the course, one will find that students will be eager to share their individual experiences with the grading system.