Why use standards-based teaching and learning?

Abner Oakes

Abner is the director of School and District Partnerships at the US company JumpRope. He spent 16 years teaching Middle and High school students, helped to start a public charter school in the District of Columbia, and for the last 18 years has worked with a variety of school improvement-focused organizations, helping teachers and school and district administrators on issues ranging from implementing the Common Core State Standards to developing rich, culminating performance assessments. He lives in the Washington DC area with his wife and son, and plays a lot of ice hockey.

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I just hated getting my son’s report card these last several years. Funny, too, since I was a Middle and High school Language Arts teacher for 16 years and sent out report cards very similar to the ones I was now receiving. I guess that we get a more clear-eyed view of things as a parent. I just did not feel that these report cards helped me understand what our son excelled at and what he needed work on. Sure, there were the letter grades. But just what went into that A- or B, beyond the grades on a set of assignments?

Conferences with his teachers were mostly no help. The report card and a bunch of graded assignments in a manila folder served as fodder for our short conversation with the teacher. It was great to see when our son did well on a paper, for example, and how the grade he received on the paper upped his overall mark. But I would wonder: What was special about that paper? What specifically had he figured out in it - maybe a more thoughtful thesis statement or really sharp supporting evidence - as opposed to the papers that were not given a high grade? Just what was the specific evidence that added up to that A-?

A small but growing number of schools and districts in the US are addressing this lack of clarity with a new approach to grading - really, a new approach to teaching and learning. It is called by different names in different regions of the country - standards-based grading, proficiency-based grading, mastery learning - but at its heart is connecting student learning with specific skills and knowledge and being very transparent about student progress on the skills and knowledge. Here, for example, is part of a standards-based progress report:

Notice that the information about Mary’s progress is tied directly to standards, as they’re called in the US, such as, “Support claim(s) with logical reasoning and relevant evidence.” Notice too a few other parts of this report that relate to important practices of standards-based teaching and learning:

  1. More often than not, schools and districts use a rubric scale, such as 1-4, with a 3 as mastering the standard and a 4 as going above and beyond - as truly exemplary.
  2. Standards related to habits of work are graded but are separate from of the overall mark. In this case, the Overall Academic Mastery is 100% of Mary’s grade in this class. Some schools will approach this side of standards-based teaching and learning slightly differently, including habits of work in the overall grade in order to maintain accountability. But the purest approach is to focus just on the academic side of things. That, ultimately, is what young people as well as educators are measured on, right? The primary accountability system should focus on what a student knows and secondarily on what they do. At the very least, let’s distinguish between the two!  
  3. Lastly, as you might imagine from this progress report, teachers create and grade assessments differently in this system. When a teacher assigns an essay on, say, William Faulkner’s short story The Bear, s/he will state that she is measuring three standards in the essay, for example, and will ideally share with her students a rubric that outlines a 1, 2, 3, or 4 on each standard, using a template such as the one below. In standards-based teaching and learning, transparency and the student agency that can emerge from that transparency are vital.

It’s not an easy switch to this approach to teaching and learning. Ideally, teachers need to come to an agreement on just what constitutes a 3 or a 4, to ensure consistency and coherence across a school building or a school district. Thoughtful communication needs to happen with students, parents, and community members, given the sea change of this switch; most parents did not go to a school that used standards-based grading and therefore need help better understanding this new approach. Discussion even needs to happen around end-of-school-career transcripts; a few US schools and school districts are sharing with post-secondary institutions transcripts that are standards-based - for part of one, see below - and now these schools and school districts need to educate the colleges and universities to which seniors are applying. As with parents, they need to help this important outside audience understand the skills and knowledge that students have mastered.

My son continues to get a traditional report card, one with generic letter grades placed next to the course US History or Honors Biology, telling me little. Sure, teachers will often have a formula for how each letter grade is arrived at, with percentages being applied to homework, class participation, tests, and papers - but the lack of transparency comes at that assessment level, with little information about just what was measured on each assessment and how it was measured. Standards-based teaching and learning pulls the curtain back some; it encourages teachers to align every assessment with standards, and it shows all school community members - students, teachers, parents - what is specifically being learned. In fact, US schools and school districts that are several years into their standards-based work have rich data across a school or multiple schools; they can identify specific areas on which an entire grade level might need work and develop strategies to address those areas.

I’d like it if my son came home with a standards-based report card. He and I could discuss his difficulties writing incisive thesis statements, rather than just look at a generic grade in that class. He and I could discuss ideas, not just grades. I’d like it even more if that information were available to the colleges to which he will be applying in three years; those colleges would get an even clearer picture of his strengths and weaknesses, given the specificity from this approach to grading.

Do you take a standards-based stance on teaching and learning? Share your experiences in the comments below.

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