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Effective Grading Practices
November 10, 2011 | Volume 7 | Issue 3
Table of Contents
Launching Standards-Based Grading in a Points-Based World
As a teacher in one of the highest-achieving schools in New Jersey, I can attest to the difficulty we face in trying to implement new programs when old ones seem to work just fine. But given what I knew in theory of the benefits of standards-based grading, I decided to evaluate my students using that system, despite my school's culture of points-based grading.
Standards-based grading is a system of student evaluation that relies on student mastery of carefully predefined learning goals. In my course, these goals involved chemistry content knowledge and several cross-disciplinary skills important in all learning, including reading, writing, and teamwork. Assessment questions typically require students to complete a particular problem using several skills, each of which is evaluated independently, regardless of the student's overall solution. This allows an instructor to offer specific feedback on a student's strengths and weaknesses.
As a student's mastery of a particular skill improves, his score for that skill is updated to reflect his best work—that is, his most current ability. During the course, students build on numerous opportunities to refine their skills, and early, less-successful attempts to demonstrate mastery have no effect on a student's final grade.
The following four reasons led me to implement standards-based grading:
Involve Stakeholders to Minimize the Risks
Any effort to bring change to a school brings with it academic and professional risks, so be sure to first honestly assess your school culture. If you feel the school culture could adapt to a paradigm-changing idea, then consider the perspectives of all stakeholders before moving forward.
Building a Standards-Based Grading System
To address challenges and satisfy each set of stakeholders, the following strategies may help maximize your chances of success.
Be prepared to defend your decision to implement standards-based grading. The first question most people ask is, "Why change to standards-based grading when points-based grading works just fine?" Have literature available to defend your claim, and be sure to refer the biggest skeptics to it.
Most important, you must believe that standards-based grading gives students more learning opportunities, more specific feedback, and a more realistic evaluation of their overall mastery in a subject. This is not something you can do if your heart is not in it.
Know from day one what your students need to be able to do before they leave your course. It is crucial that students and parents know up front exactly which content knowledge you will assess and which cross-disciplinary skills you will evaluate.
Carefully analyze your curriculum and your local standards to generate two lists of skills indicators—those for specific content skills in the subject area, and those for cross-disciplinary skills, like writing, reading comprehension, and teamwork. Expand each indicator into a list or even a narrative of specific skills required for mastery.
Create a consistent evaluation system. Just as important as what is being assessed is how it is being assessed. In my course, I used the same rubric, which describes levels of mastery on a 1–10 scale for each content knowledge indicator. Cross-disciplinary indicators, such as writing and teamwork, had their own rubrics. Stick to these rubrics and be as objective as possible when evaluating student assessments. The way you grade student work must be just as standards-referenced as your choice of skills to assess.
Be prepared for breakdowns, modifications, and mutiny. Develop a general intervention plan for students who have difficulty adjusting to standards-based grading. Know how you'll respond if one or more students rebel against your efforts, and be sure to document how you will modify and accommodate your system for special-education students.
Write it down. When the school year begins, it's crucial to have available all the information necessary for students and parents to understand how your standards-based grading system works. Prepare detailed documents that contain all of the information discussed above, plus comprehensive information on the nature of the standards-based grading, its rationale, and any modifications you made to get the new grading system to mate properly with the school's grade-reporting system. Including sample assessments and, if possible, student work can make all the difference for fostering understanding.
Grading Reveals Final Level of Mastery
I first implemented standards-based grading with my midlevel chemistry students, and I met much less resistance and a higher degree of success than even I was expecting. Standards-based grading typically uses a four-point scale to report the degree of student mastery in each indicator. Instead, I chose to score each indicator (e.g., states of matter, chemical nomenclature, etc.) on a 1–10 scale to ease the transition for my students accustomed to the points-based system that reports grades as percentages.
Students had difficulty adapting at first. They found it most difficult to accept the seemingly small number of scores that determined their grade for each term, because my school's reporting system required grades reported as a percentage. Students felt that each indicator seemed to have greater weight because there were so few numbers to average together. By the end of the year, however, they had begun to understand how each of those indicators contributed to an organic whole.
Despite the initial perception that there were only a handful of indicators in each term, my students realized that these reflected the equivalent of a portfolio of hard work. For every student, each indicator had undergone several refinements and ultimately revealed their mastery of the course content much more accurately and specifically.
At the end of the course, I received generally good feedback from my students. Students felt that they were under far less pressure from day to day and that they had more opportunities to concentrate on learning rather than stockpiling points. I was pleased with the results by the end of the school year.
This success drove me to pitch standards-based grading to my colleagues to convince them to join me in using the new grading system. They were quite willing to listen, but in the end, they were uncomfortable with departing from the established culture. Although I haven't recruited any converts, I remain committed to standards-based grading as we move forward in the new academic year. After all, change must take root somewhere.
Mike Dappolone teaches physical science at Cherry Hill High School East in Cherry Hill, N.J. For information about his standards-based grading strategies, go to http://www.digitaldapp.org.
ASCD Express, Vol. 7, No. 3. Copyright 2011 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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