Thursday, October 15, 2009

What are the disadvantages of standards-based grading?

Sorry for the lack of updates. The power cord on the ibook I use broke and I can never remember to bring mine home from school. I'm in dead-battery land so using my laptop at home is a stressful race against time. I'll be better. I promise.

So what are the disadvantages of standards-based grading?

When you compare it to traditional grading based on points and percentages, I don't think there is one. I think standards-based grading is superior in every way. However, there are valid criticisms that I think should be addressed. It's a long post so I'm going to break it up into a few parts.

Part 1 - the criticisms from my staff
Part 2 - incompatibility with current structures
Part 3 - the sacrifices

Part 1 I'll write about today. Part 2 this weekend.

The following are the most common complaints from the rest of the staff each time I present assessment ideas:

1. Parents/kids won't get it.
2. Kids won't do X if they're not graded for it.
3. It's my class and I'll do what I want.
4. It's too much work.

Parents/kids won't get it.
False. They do get it. It just takes time. If you're a teacher, you know we live in fear of the hands-on (read: helicopter) parents. We hate posting grades at 3:00 and getting an email from a parent at 3:01. We don't like having to explain ourselves. In my experience, the key is the kids. They really have to get how it works deep in their very souls. For me, nearly two months in, I fully admit that not all of my kids understand how the grades work. I try to take a few minutes every week to highlight certain key points to the system to the whole class. When students are working solo or in groups I'll take a few kids aside that I know don't get it and try to break it down for them. It takes time. It doesn't really click for a lot of kids until two weeks before the first trimester ends when all of a sudden they're very interested in their grades. By second trimester it runs smoothly. Expect confused and annoyed parents at first.

Two things really save the day for the parents in the end. First, the kids by in. If you really work at teaching the system, the kids can explain it to their parents and really sell it to them. The second thing is the portfolio system. If your students are keeping track of their own learning, you probably have some sort of portfolio system showing their progress in their learning goals. Bring it to a parent conference. At our school we have these cluster conferences which consist of all the teachers, an admin, parent, and kid. It usually devolves into 8 adults yelling at a kid and at least 2 people crying. Not good, not helpful. It really clicks with parents though the conversation goes like this:

Parent: Why does Student have a 1.0 GPA?
Math teacher: Student doesn't do his homework. He has a 45% in class. He's failed his last 4 quizzes. He needs to work harder and stop talking in class.
Me: Here's Students's portfolio. Student what have you learned and what do you still need to learn?
Jose: I already know when an object is in motion and how to calculate acceleration. I need to learn how to calculate the speed of an object and the difference between speed, velocity, and acceleration.
Me: When Student learns those things, his grade will improve.

Ok. I admit I'm embellishing that conversation. Usually I have to read the portfolio to them but in my perfect world, that's how it goes. Either way, the path is clear and parents get that "learn this and your grade goes up" is far more clear than "you need to pass your next test and start doing your homework."

Not only do parents/kids get it, but most of them really believe in it. There are definitely students that don't like the system, for reasons I'll post on later, but so far, students really buy in.

Kids won't do X if they're not graded.
True and false. I have 8th graders. By now they know how school works and they can spot a waste of time. If you're wasting their time, they won't do it. The history teachers at my school have an assignment early on where students need to color in the map of the US and label all of the states and capitals. They lose points for not coloring neatly enough. Clearly, this is a waste of time. If that was my assignment, I'd just copy it. If you want your students to know the fifty states and capitals, clearly there's a better way. In standards-based grading, students probably wouldn't do it. What they will do is anything that's clearly related to learning the standards. I have this conversation a few hundred times at the beginning of the year:

Student: How many points is this worth?
Me: You don't get points for doing work. It will help you make progress on your learning goals. If you learn it, your grade goes up. If you just do it and turn it in but don't learn anything, it won't help you.

You'll get that a lot. If you make it clear that THIS is the learning goal and this assignment will help you reach that goal, they'll do it. If your assignment is a waste of time, they won't. And you know what? They shouldn't.

It's my class and I'll do what I want.
Ok, that's not what teachers really tell me, but I can see it in the back of their minds. First off, it's not your class. You're being paid by the state to educate children. You're not working for yourself. We are not lords ruling over our fiefdoms. Second, nobody is telling you how to teach your content. Standards-based grading is a way to assess. You can still teach how you want to, but you now need to assess differently. There are clearly some best practices that standards-based grading lends itself to but if you still want to teach the same way you can. You're really missing out though. In school meetings we talk a lot about formative versus summative assessments. Generally, people say things like, "Formative assessments are quizzes and quick things, summative assessments are tests." Generally, people are wrong. Formative assessment needs to change your instruction. It's what you do with it that matters. Standards-based assessment makes it much clearer what the teacher and student need to do next.

It's too much work.
True and false. At first, switching is a god awful amount of work. The front-loading is ridiculous and you feel like you're spending all your time just teaching your students how to tell what their grade is. It's terrible. But where you lose time on the front-end, you make up for it in instructional time once things start moving. I have been able to gain weeks of instructional time by cutting the fat out of my curriculum. By focusing on the standards I was able to cut out a lot of the extra stuff. In terms of grading itself, it's a breeze.

Grading goes faster as well. In the old way, you were an accountant. You made little red marks all over the page and tallied up points and it took forever. Now, a quick glance tells me where they are on their learning goals and I can focus on writing feedback. Yes, it's terrible at first and yes, you will have to re-write every assessment you have but you'll gain time and it will be focused time.

Part 2 will be coming shortly.

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