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How Standards-Based Grading Enables Student Ownership

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Standards-based grading can empower students and revitalize performance in any subject, but it is particularly well-suited for STEM fields. Here, a former math teacher walks us through the rewards of adopting SBG, and what steps your school or district can take to smooth out the transition. 

SBG and Student Equity

Ken O’Connor, educator and writer, has asked an essential question for educators about grading: “How confident are you that the grades students receive in your school are consistent, accurate, meaningful, and supportive of learning?”

As you probably know from your own experience, how grades are determined can not only vary by state and school district, but also by schools, grade levels, and classrooms. With no consistent, unified method for determining grades, mastery of content is impossible to measure by grades alone.

Unlike traditional grading practices, standards-based grading provides opportunities for teachers to be more intentional in creating meaningful assignments designed to understand learning and adapt instruction. SBG also provides more opportunities for students to receive feedback on their progress. Fewer formal assessments and more meaningful feedback allow teachers more time to differentiate to meet the needs of their students. As Shawn Cornally says, there’s no need to simply regurgitate content, but rather focus on actual learning.

Standards-based grading shifts the focus from performance, which includes measures like effort and completion, to mastery, which is based solely on meeting the criteria for success. While standards-based grading can be used in any content area, it has a natural fit in math, science, and other STEM fields where much of the content is objective rather than subjective. In general, standards are already written in a progressive way. The student either can or cannot demonstrate mastery of skills, such as adding fractions with unlike denominators or creating a testable hypothesis.

The Benefits of Standards-Based Grading

Across content areas, standards- or mastery-based grading intentionally makes learning student-facing, student-focused, and student-friendly. Rather than framing from a teacher’s perspective of “my students will be able to…,” language is framed from the student’s perspective of mastery: “I can….” This shift contributes to increased student engagement and ownership in their work. Furthermore, because grades in this model are measured solely by mastery, less pressure is placed upon mandatory assignments driven by completion. Students are more likely to complete assignments on the path to mastery than for compliance’s sake.

Using Kiddom, teachers can leverage a database of national and state standards to track student achievement in easy-to-read standards-based reports. No school is the same, so teachers and schools can create custom standards, goals or outcomes related to particular academic skills and content which will generate in reports as well. Kiddom’s standards-based reports provide a way for teachers to easily digest class and individual student progress and make informed decisions relevant to which standards students have yet to master.

For instance, if a student has not yet mastered adding fractions with unlike denominators, they will likely have more investment in completing the additional practice on that skill to move toward mastery. Rather than doing homework just because it was assigned, the student is focused on a specific set of tasks to master a skill.

Another example would be a student who did not successfully demonstrate mastery of phase change. There is a greater incentive to redo the lab assignment beyond “I got the answer wrong.” Because the grade isn’t final until the end of the term, students have multiple opportunities to improve. As a result, they learn that failure is okay and they develop the grit, tenacity, and perseverance to keep striving toward mastery.

Kiddom’s tools for teachers makes it easy to personalize assignments by allowing you to give an assignment to one, several, or a group of students based on mastery, bringing teachers closer to targeting intervention while moving students forward. For example, when creating an assignment, you can assign a group of students according to their mastery level or assign to individual students based on their readiness.

Kiddom’s Planner and Timeline are curriculum tools that work together to help you plan ahead, then modify assignments when you need to. You can think of Planner as a digital curriculum binder, storing and creating resources like lesson plans, activities, worksheets, and videos for later use. These assignments can be organized in units and playlists to structure your instruction by topic, standard group, or project.

Once you’ve made an assignment or playlist in Planner, you can drag it over into your Timeline to assign it to an individual student, a group, or the whole class. The original assignment remains exactly the same in your Planner to be reused again in any of your classes, and a copy of it is created in your Timeline. You can now edit the assignment that’s in your Timeline to modify standards, rubrics, points, a due date, or more detailed instructions for your current class. Working with these two tools in tandem, you can plan the general structure of your curriculum, and then adapt as you learn more about your students’ strengths and needs.

This facilitates an atmosphere driven more by the process of learning than the destination. When the pressure of getting the correct answer right away is off, students don’t have to feel doomed because they didn’t learn a skill as fast as a peer. They don’t have to feel hopeless, because they still have time to succeed. They can safely take risks and make mistakes on their way to mastery. The finality of traditional grading often halts learning. Standards-based grading opens up the opportunity to continue a dynamic, self-motivated process of learning.

This is particularly helpful in math, a content area in which, traditionally, speed and accuracy have been rewarded. You’ve likely known students or even other adults who dislike math or have some sort of anxiety around it. This can be attributed to the value placed on rapid mastery vs. depth of learning. But in many ways, this mentality is counterproductive, as the best mathematicians are known for being slow, deep thinkers.

Challenges of Implementation

One of the most common challenges to standards-based grading (SBG) is the critique that it’s not realistic, particularly when it comes to the opportunity to “try again.” There is a perception that kids will think they always get a redo, but this isn’t the case. When implemented with appropriate parameters, students are able to benefit from additional opportunities to succeed, only after they’ve demonstrated the appropriate practice and effort to improve their skills. For instance, retakes may be limited to once a day (or perhaps every two days), or students may use an online form or other protocol to prove they took action to better learn the skill. To the contrary, the SBG approach helps students develop a persistence to achieve and improve within themselves; by further developing their ability to reflect and become more responsible for their own learning.

Another challenge for some schools is determining how SBG connects with scheduling. Teachers may question if there is sufficient time to provide such in-depth feedback to students, especially if they may specialize in a content area and serve hundreds of students. But when implemented well, formal assessments become less frequent and more meaningful, which means less grading for teachers and more opportunities to build practice. This frees up time for deeper learning and questioning.

Using Kiddom, teachers can search by state standard or skill to discover rigorous, quality third-party content, and personalize assignments for students with curated lesson plans that include videos, lessons, quizzes, and interactives. Kiddom also allows teachers and students to communicate 1:1 in real time, bringing learning beyond the class walls as they embark on this new student-centered approach.

An additional challenge is that some students may experience a disconnect between what is valued in the classroom and what is measured. Educators know that classwork, homework, and practice build the skills and habits that lead to mastery and thus an improved grade. However, when these aren’t mandatory or contributing directly to their grades, students may struggle to have the investment in completing them.

Likely, standards-based grading is significantly different than what they’ve experienced in other settings, so it may require a) more intentional messaging around the importance of those skill-building activities or b) provide clarity and systems by which students must engage in those activities before being eligible for reassessment.

High School Teacher Evan Weinberg suggests building an investment in students’ work by using positive peer pressure and sharing data on how many reassessments have been taken. This allows students to see their contribution to the total without sharing specific data on other students.

Where to Start:

Adopting standards-based grading requires not only shifts in practice, but also in mindset—for both educators and students. For many educators, one of the most significant shifts is no longer including behavior-based activities into the score. It’s important to note: this does not mean that educators shouldn’t track those activities. It just means they aren’t computed in the grade. Completion and participation don’t equate to mastery, so including these measures doesn’t inform students that they’ve actually learned the content. While they support the learning process, they themselves don’t demonstrate to what extent a concept was learned. 

Teachers should find other strategies for tracking and sharing this information with students and families that exist beyond academic mastery. For instance, teachers may track Social Emotional Learning (SEL/CASEL) or Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) skills as custom standards on the Kiddom platform and share with families accordingly. Including this as an SEL standard conveys a level of importance for all stakeholders. It can then be leveraged as a data point for ongoing conversations with students and families, including at conferences.

Another thing to consider is that with traditional grading, given assessments can vary in depth and complexity. Some assignments could be completed rather easily and earn the score of an ‘A,’ but this doesn’t necessarily mean the student has mastered the skill. Since grades should measure a student’s individual performance, group work also shouldn’t be included. As stated by O’Connor, “Students’ grades appear on their personal report cards and therefore should not be contaminated by the achievement (or lack of achievement) of other students.”

Another significant shift is becoming more comfortable with the fact that grades are fluid and not final until the end of the semester or time frame. Students will have opportunities to retake assessments to demonstrate increased progress on performance.

Shifting your grading and assessment practices will take time for families and students to get comfortable with new language, and for you to find resources to fit new student needs. Kiddom can support you by taking some of the stress out of planning – use our content library to find high quality standards-aligned content at a range of levels to give you more time to research, reflect, and talk to your students.

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