Why Implementing a Fair Grading System is So Challenging ?

Fair Grading System

As educational institutions embrace standards-based grading, striving to delineate academic proficiency from behavioral aspects, numerous are deemed to be “falling short dramatically,” as per experts’ observations.

Prior to ascending to prominence as a distinguished scholarly figure in the realm of assessment and grading, Thomas Guskey honed his skills as an educator, imparting knowledge in high school mathematics.

When Grades Eclipse Learning

One day, while conversing with an eighth-grade student he considered a “superstar,” he inquired if she had prepared for the day’s test. To his astonishment, she had not.

“Mr. Guskey,” she said, with a puzzled expression, “I’ve calculated it. I only need a 50.2 to secure an A in the class. There’s no need for me to study for a 50.2.”

This was a moment of realization for him. “This 8th grader had worked it out to the tenth decimal place what she needed to do to get an A in my class,” he said. “And she was surprised I didn’t get it. And I thought, ‘Wow. What have I done?’” 

For this student — and so many others — school was not about learning. It was about getting a good grade. And with flawed traditional grading systems, those two outcomes didn’t always coincide.

Embracing Standards-Based Assessment for True Academic Evaluation

Whenever Guskey shares this story with fellow educators, he observes them nodding in agreement and offering comparable stories. Experts in education concur, pointing out that schools have overly relied on grading students by their submission of work or punctuality, rather than assessing their understanding of academic material. This practice may result in final grades that do not accurately represent or convey the students’ actual knowledge.

In the current climate, as schools address learning disparities intensified by the pandemic, the limitations of traditional grading systems have become more apparent. They often mislead parents into thinking their children are on track, while in reality, the students may be struggling.

In the pursuit of greater clarity and transparency, many schools and districts are adopting standards-based grading. This system and communication tool distinguishes academic proficiency from behavioral factors. If implemented properly, it can more precisely represent students’ knowledge and address issues of grade inflation and deflation.

Challenges and Considerations in Implementing Standards-Based Grading

But a misunderstanding of standards-based grading’s true principles, a lack of proper training for educators and a rush to quickly adopt a complex new system often leads to messy implementation, various experts told The 74. And, they warn, districts looking for support are turning to grading consultants, a number of whom aren’t qualified in the field.

“Numerous districts are embracing this approach, only to falter significantly,” remarked Guskey, the esteemed authority on grading and assessment, and professor emeritus at the University of Kentucky College of Education. “Schools are immersing themselves in this initiative without a clear understanding of its implementation and the prerequisites required for a standards-based system,” he elaborated. “Consequently, when challenges arise, they find themselves with no alternative but to completely abandon it.”

In the quest to address the deficiencies in education, the adoption of standards-based grading emerges as a seemingly expedient remedy. However, as Laura Link, an associate professor of pedagogy and leadership at the University of North Dakota, astutely observes, this approach holds the potential for swift implementation but also carries a significant risk of unintended consequences.

In a paper published in 2022, both Laura Link and Guskey highlighted, “Despite the initiation of standards-based grading (SBG) reforms by numerous educational institutions, there exists a notable lack of consensus regarding the precise definition of ‘standards-based grading.’ Consequently, the execution of SBG exhibits substantial divergence.” This inconsistency fosters ambiguity, perplexity, dissatisfaction, and opposition, potentially culminating in the abandonment of the approach, as elucidated by the authors.

The many meanings of a “C”

Standards-based grading isn’t a novel concept. Although it’s difficult to determine the exact number of schools adopting it, the interest in this system, which is perceived as more precise and fair, seems to be increasing post-pandemic.
Link is currently working with the Bethlehem School District in Pennsylvania to facilitate implementation. Additionally, this methodology has gained popularity in a school district in the San Francisco Bay Area and has notably spread across educational institutions in Wyoming, New Hampshire, Maine, and Wisconsin. As reported by EdSurge in November, this approach is progressively gaining ground in areas like Connecticut, New Mexico, and Oregon, with more examples coming to light.
Here’s another smart person, Cathy Vatterott. She wrote a book called “Rethinking Grading: Strategies and Techniques for Effective Assessment in Standards-Based Learning Environments.” Now, Cathy holds the distinguished title of professor emeritus in The educational programs offered at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. That means she’s super experienced! She said something interesting: “After we got through COVID, all of a sudden I started getting offers to come and speak to people about standards-based grading.” So, after the whole COVID thing, people wanted to hear what she had to say about grading. Cool, huh?

Understanding the Complexity of Assessment Criteria in Education

Regardless of what model teachers practice, they typically grade using three different criteria: what academic skills students have learned and are able to do, such as solving for “x” in an algebraic equation; what behaviors they bring that enable learning, such as attendance and turning in work on time; and how much they’ve grown and improved.
In old-school ways, teachers mix these three things up, making it confusing. They give one grade, like a letter or a percentage, for each assignment. Then, at the end of the term, they average all those scores for a final grade on your report card. But some people who support standards-based grading think this isn’t a good way. They say it makes it hard for parents, students, and colleges to understand how well someone’s doing.
“It renders the grade indecipherable,” Guskey points out. For instance, a “C” on a paper might indicate that the student’s comprehension of the material is at a “C” level, or it could signify that they submitted an outstanding paper, albeit two weeks tardy. Compounding the confusion is the fact that grading criteria vary widely among teachers and schools.

Addressing Disparities Through Standards-Based Grading

Traditional assessment methods not only raise concerns regarding accuracy but also regarding equity, as asserted by Matt Townsley, adjunct professor of educational leadership at the University of Northern Iowa. “For instance, in the event that we allocate points for tasks completed daily—referred to as homework—outside of classroom hours, one can envision a scenario where certain households possess greater advantages in fulfilling these requirements,” he elaborated.
Certain students benefit from access to a serene environment conducive to study, tutors, supportive parental guidance, and other essential resources, whereas others engage in after-school employment or undertake responsibilities for younger siblings. According to experts like Townsley, when educators assess homework, they are essentially evaluating these circumstances rather than the genuine extent of students’ comprehension and learning.
Standards-based grading addresses this issue by taking a different approach. Instead of combining academic, behavioral, and improvement grades, it distinguishes and reports them separately, providing what Link refers to as a “dashboard of information.”

Integrating Behavioral Assessments in Grading Systems for Academic Progress

Frequently, she remarked, consultants and individuals purporting expertise, devoid of research credentials, advocate for the complete abandonment of behavioral assessments. However, she cautioned that such an approach swiftly engenders complications. “We must refrain from utilizing our grading systems as instruments of punishment and coercion. Yet, it is equally essential to acknowledge that those behavioral elements serve as catalysts for academic progress, a fact that we are cognizant of,” she emphasized.

Reporting it out separately makes students recognize that these other components still count and, in some ways, it makes them each count more because they can no longer be disguised by other factors, like extra credit, according to Guskey.

It’s crucial for educational institutions to establish clear priorities regarding behaviors they wish to emphasize, be it attendance, work ethic, or responsibility. Subsequently, they should develop guidelines outlining how teachers will assess these behaviors. “Providing such informative dashboards enables colleges, vocational schools, and other institutions to gain insight into the type of students they are admitting to their programs and the level of support they may require during their college experience,” stated Link.

Adopting Standards-Based Grading and Multiple Opportunities for Mastery

Academic grades ought to reflect grade-level standards and learning objectives, such as the capability to identify robust evidence to back a claim when a student is composing a paper or responding to a test question.
A second crucial criterion involves shifting from distributing percentage grades out of 100 to employing a smaller scale, such as 0 to 4. Additionally, students could be assessed on each standard as “exceeding,” “meeting,” “approaching,” or “not yet.” Guskey pointed out that although these methods may seem innovative and uncommon, they have been in use for decades in various countries, including Canada.
A third aspect — offering students various chances to show their grasp and command of a standard — is frequently the source of significant debate and the point at which issues may arise. Some teachers believe that students should have endless chances to revise certain assignments. However, researchers like Link contend that while students require numerous opportunities to exhibit their understanding, this does not imply they should repeat the same task.

The Role of Retakes in Standards-Based Grading

Many non-academic advocates suggest that standards-based grading implies offering unlimited retakes until mastery is achieved. This is not accurate. Such a practice pertains to assessment, not to grading itself.
While offering a second chance on an assignment may seem fair, it does not necessarily align with the principles of standards-based grading. She stressed that if schools decide to allow retakes, the approach must be intentional: students who do not understand the material initially should receive targeted feedback and guidance. However, if they fail to grasp it after a second opportunity, their grade should be recorded as is, and the class should proceed, she advised.
There is a lack of empirical evidence to support the benefits of unlimited retakes, and such practices can demand an impractical amount of time from teachers, she noted.

Clarifying Implementation and Misconceptions

Guskey pointed out that many who write about and consult on testing lack a full understanding of the implications of assessing students multiple times. As a result, their often untested recommendations on the best methods are not practically supportable. This inconsistent guidance can cause teachers and administrators to abandon attempts at grading reform.
Understanding standards-based grading is crucial, but it’s equally important to clarify what it isn’t. According to experts, at its heart, it serves solely as a means of communication. It doesn’t dictate how educators should design assessments, develop curricula, or handle behavior. It allows for the possibility of teachers giving more personalized feedback and students progressing through necessary skills and knowledge at a comfortable pace. However, these aspects are not intrinsically included in it.

“Basically everything is just to pass.”

When Kenny Rodrequez assumed the role of superintendent of the Grandview school district ten years ago, he recognized the imperative need to overhaul the grading system. He harbored concerns that the conventional grading model they adhered to failed to effectively convey students’ progress to their parents. Consequently, district leaders, situated just outside Kansas City, made the collective decision to transition to a standards-based grading system for students from kindergarten to 6th grade.
As he enters his eighth year as superintendent, and overseeing the ninth year of the transition, Kenny Rodrequez expresses satisfaction with their achievements. He attributes a key element of their success to the strategy of “not attempting to do everything simultaneously.” While the urge to “just dive in and implement everything at once” may be strong, he emphasizes the importance of resisting this impulse. Instead, they sought a balanced approach, allowing for thoughtful policy adjustments that didn’t overly prolong the implementation process.
Over the past nine years, Superintendent Kenny Rodrequez has guided the Grandview School District through the transition to standards-based grading.

Another crucial element was ensuring strong buy-in from teachers and parents. Especially in the first year, staff members were apprehensive about explaining the new system to parents when they were still grasping it themselves. Rodrequez mentioned that they developed talking points for teachers and provided the necessary resources.

Implementing Standards-Based Grading in High School Settings

Moving forward, the district envisions extending standards-based grading to classrooms encompassing 7th through 12th grades. However, Kenny Rodrequez foresees challenges, especially at the high school level. “Our dilemma lies in the fact that nationally, our system remains heavily reliant on letter grades,” he explains. “This system, which has persisted for so long, was never originally intended to fulfill the objectives we’re currently striving for.” Particularly problematic are the demands for GPAs and class rankings, which often conflict with the standards-based model but are frequently essential for college applications.
In the vibrant landscape of a New York City high school, a tapestry of trials and tribulations unfolded, a narrative shared by parent Talia Matz. As the curtains rose on her stepson’s journey into the realm of 9th grade at Future High School in the heart of Manhattan, the school orchestrated a symphony of orientation sessions. Their purpose? To illuminate the intricate nuances of their standards-based grading system, casting light upon the labyrinthine path for parents to tread. Despite the meticulous efforts invested, an aura of skepticism cloaked both Talia and her husband, a shadow cast upon the precipice of understanding. Over the expanse of three years, their doubts burgeoned, a revelation unveiled in Talia’s discourse with The 74.
Several of the principal assessments employed by the school in lieu of statewide Regents examinations “are somewhat lacking in seriousness,” she remarked, with students escaping accountability. “Essentially, the objective is merely to achieve a passing grade. The quality of one’s performance holds no significance,” she articulated, further stating, “there appears to be a dearth of genuine passion for acquiring knowledge. It seems primarily a matter of fulfilling obligations.”

Balancing Standards-Based Grading and College Preparedness

Contrary to recommended protocols, his report card lacks distinct evaluations or assessments on behaviors. All criteria are evaluated on a scale of 0 to 4, and both parents and students can access these grades through an online platform named JumpRope. However, the school then transmutes this scale into a conventional percentage grade, which is subsequently transmitted to colleges — a practice frowned upon by experts. (As per the NYC Department of Education’s website, schools are afforded the liberty to opt for various grading systems, including the A-F scale, but it seems that irrespective of their choice, all grades are ultimately translated into percentages.)

An example from the School of the Future High School transcript shows that grades are not delineated by standards and are instead converted into percentages. Experts in standards-based grading advise against these practices. Parents are advised to consult online resources for a detailed breakdown of grades.
Students are afforded multiple chances to revise their assignments without definitive repercussions for tardiness, according to Matz. Instead of receiving grades for daily tasks, he is evaluated on a “Work Habits/Independent Practice” scale, which his stepmother mentioned does not show up on transcripts. She believes this lacks the motivation for timely submission or accuracy on the initial attempt.
Requests for comment from school administrators went unanswered. However, according to the school’s website, there is a clear stance: The official policy indicates that the “Work Habits/Independent Practice” score contributes 10% towards a student’s overall grade. Failing to report the behavior grade or include it in the final grade contradicts established best practices in standards-based grading.
Matz is apprehensive that these changes may lead to a decline in standards, potentially leaving her son ill-prepared for college. With plans for him to attend SUNY Buffalo in the fall, she expresses concerns about the shift in expectations. Matz emphasizes the need for independent study skills, as in college, opportunities for second or third chances may not be as readily available.

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