Classrooms Full of Learners: The Culture Standards-Based Grading Has Cultivated

Kevin Siedlecki

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.

The first time I heard about Standards-Based Grading was when Rick Wormeli came to speak at our school at the start of the 2016-2017 school year. He convinced me that I had to change the way I was grading.

I had recently done a lot of reading about motivation, specifically work by Daniel Pink (2010) and Daniel Siegel (2013), which led me to the conclusion that grades are counterproductive to real learning. Grades are the external motivators that help students do easy things like sit down and be quiet, but harm growth in higher-order skills like critical thinking, creativity, and analysis. Those thoughts I already had, but I had no idea how to implement that new understanding into my teaching practice. Standards-Based Grading sounded very promising.

In a conversation about Wormeli’s ideas and grading practices in general, my wife, also a teacher in my district, made a crucial point: “grades only have a negative impact on classroom culture.” That is an insight with huge implications, deceptively summed up in a relatively simple statement.

The first implication is obvious: when students fail to get the grades they want, they get angry.

Because the reward is extrinsic, students blame external factors: the teacher failed to teach the material, the test was worded poorly, or the teacher took points off without good reason. That leads to an adversarial relationship between the teacher and the student.

So what about the other side?

When students do get the grade that they want, do they contribute positively to classroom culture?

Not necessarily. They are, at best, satisfied: perhaps the worst feeling one can have in learning. As John Wooden said, “When you’re through learning, you’re through.” A student who is satisfied risks becoming complacent, or only submitting work that he or she knows will earn a good grade. That limits the students’ personal ownership of the learning experience, no matter what other strategies are in place to attempt to develop that ownership.

At worst, though, their good grade makes them feel superior to their peers.

The grades rank students, which creates a sense of competition that can be extremely counterproductive in a classroom focused on cultivating growth in higher-order skills. When the learning experience is is contextualized by comparison to others, it does not foster personal growth. That constant comparison leads to high stress and in-the-box, failure-averse behavior. Students want to do exactly what the teacher tells them so that they earn as many points as possible. If failure is the best teacher, what are students learning if they are never willing to fail?

None of this is the teachers’ fault. It is the fault of a system that values the wrong things. We live in a world where education is a commodity, and grades are a currency.

Teacher-Centered Learning

In an environment where everything is done for the external reward of a grade, and students produce through that lens, the products that students create are teacher-centered, no matter how student-centered a teacher’s instructional philosophy. Students are limited in exploring their learning from a personal perspective, because they need to keep up the grade.

And because teachers are constantly challenged by students, parents, and administrators to make expectations clear, give exemplars so students know how to get an A, students have learned that the best way to maintain high grades is to replicate the exemplar. They follow the rubric flawlessly so the teacher can’t “take points off.”

After years of spending too much time and energy justifying taking points off, I became frustrated with the adversarial relationship that created between me and my students. I wanted to spend my time teaching them, not justifying my numerical judgments of their work.

Standards-Based Grading

So when I made the switch to Standards-Based Grading, I stopped grading student work. I focused on pushing every student to improve, rather than pinpointing exactly where he stood at any given moment. Grades were based on a body of work collected in a portfolio, not a combination of individual assignment scores.

As a result of keeping grades separate from each specific assignment, I saw countless, rich, and immediate benefits in student achievement and classroom culture. I have not done a comprehensive study to collect real data, but my best guess is that about 50-60% of students are performing at the level the top 10-20% used to. Most of the rest are performing at least satisfactorily.

I see two reasons for that.

First, because we give students an opportunity to sit down and discuss what they’ve done before we decide on a grade, they are able to demonstrate their learning in ways we never would have seen if we just graded quizzes, tests, and essays, and calculated an average.

Second, they are working on only a few specific skills at a time, so they can really focus and improve.

When even a small part of a grade is based on the students ability to recall specific events from a novel, they aren’t really sure what they are supposed to be learning. They waste time scouring Sparknotes and Shmoop to make sure they don’t miss any details from the novel, so when a quiz asks, “what color is the light at the end of the Buchanan’s dock?” they know the answer is “green.”

However, when their grade is based on their growth in a standard — “Inquiry,” for example — then they can practice asking questions about that green light and its significance to the overall message. They know the content because they must have something to inquire about, and they can spend whole class periods coming up with interesting questions and answers about bigger-picture ideas. That intense focus is a kind of mental deliberate practice that leads to growth.

The Downside

On the downside, I do recognize a few students – no more than 2-3% – who are doing worse than they might in a traditional grading model. Without exception, those lower-performing students are simply not doing work.

There are two possible reasons for this.

First, those students have always been in honors and AP classes. I have yet to see a student in a college-prep course underperform. Those high-achieving students are more thoroughly trained with external motivators. They have been successful in the traditional system of carrots and sticks, so they are often more compliant, but less creative. Given the freedom to take risks and demonstrate their mastery in any way they see fit, they struggle.

Most of them are also taking three or four other AP classes at the same time. Their time is a very limited resource, so they are making the obvious adolescent decision to reach for the carrots offered in other classes, knowing that there will be no immediate stick from me. That would not be a problem is this were a school-wide reform, because there would be no carrots anywhere. However, this is a limited-scope pilot, so we still have to work within a mostly traditional system.

The other big drawback to the pilot is that we still have to give grades every six weeks. That arbitrary timeline did lead us to one good aspect: grading conferences, at which students present their work to prove that they are meeting the standards. The problem is translating performance in standards to a letter grade. That is going to be the big challenge going forward.

We are a high-achieving district, where the question is not if students are going to college, but whether the college they get into is good, great, or elite. They and their parents know that they need good grades. Too many value education as a commodity, not an experience. Most students and their parents would rather fight the teacher for As so they get into college than accept the honest feedback that a lower grade represents, even if that means they are better prepared for college.

After seeing what my students do without grades attached to each assignment, I am convinced that traditional grading forces even the most genuinely enthusiastic learners to become thoroughly compliant students. I am very happy with classrooms full of learners.

At the end of last year, one student said “Because nothing is graded, I put in actual effort. I’m doing the work more for me than for [the teacher].” Another student said “In all my other [high-level] classes, school is a game. There are winners and losers on every assignment, and we compare grades constantly.” We know that when work feels personal and the community feels supportive, people perform at their highest. That is the culture that standards-based grading has cultivated.

Teachers, help us out! Our goal is to continue to reflect and improve our practice. What questions do you have for us? What would you be interested in asking our students? Follow this link for a guest post by one of our students about her perspective.

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