Making the Grade: Standards-Based, Traditional, or Both?

A cartoon hand with a magnifying glass exams a report card
(Image credit: Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay )

A bad grade can keep a student up at night but offers little in the way of constructive feedback. 

“When you think about a traditional grading system, there's one data point, 'I got a 75 on this quiz,' or 'I got a B on this essay,'” said John Camp, head of teaching and learning at the New England Innovation Academy. That’s part of why at his school the focus is on competencies rather than letter or numerical grades. “There are several data points for each assessment so that a student can understand what skills they're working on, and when they get that back with feedback, they understand how to improve,” Camp added. 

Camp and other education experts recently spoke about effective grading models at a Tech & Learning webinar hosted by Dr. Kecia Ray and sponsored by Otus. 

The webinar can be viewed on-demand here (opens in new tab).  

Key Takeaways

Traditional Grading is Losing Points 

Matt Townsley, professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Northern Iowa, said COVID helped speed up trends in grading toward standards or competency-based grading that were already present. “We want to create a system, a gradebook, that honors that students learn at different rates and different paces. We knew that before COVID, but COVID just kind of highlighted that fact for us,” he said. 

Camp added, “Not only do students learn at different rates in different ways, teachers teach at different rates and in different ways. A lot of times, that's super challenging when we're talking about the arbitrary nature of 'This is five points, this is 100 points.'” 

Updating a Grading System Takes Time 

Despite what advocates see as advantages for competency-based grading, education leaders should not try to move their district to a new grading system overnight. 

“If you're considering a change, I would say take it slow. Don't try to do too much all at once,” said Kendell Hunter, user community coordinator at Otus (opens in new tab) and a former teacher. “Make sure that teachers have the right tools to work smarter, not harder. I was in a school that went through a three-year transition to standards-based grading. At one point I was calculating my conversions, we were all sitting down and our heads were just spinning trying to crunch numbers. We don't need teachers to crunch numbers, we need them to analyze responses, guide instruction.” 

Getting Parents on Board

The first step for school leaders looking to update grading systems is to start with the why. “Clearly articulate what the purpose of grades is going to be in your school,” Townsley said. “Do not start by saying, 'We want to buy an awesome gradebook,' or 'We want to do this little change.' Start by creating consensus within the school around what the purpose of grades is.”  

The next step is communicating that to students and their parents. One of Camp’s students last year told him that while he understood the competency-based system he wasn’t sure what to tell his parents when they asked how he was doing in the class. “I said, ‘Tell them what you learned. Tell them what you're learning. Tell them what you're working on,’” Camp said. 

Keeping Students Motivated 

A common question about competency-based learning is in regard to whether students will be motivated to do daily homework if they’re not being graded on that work. The panelists agreed that the role grades play in motivation is overrated. “I can confidently say that the grading scale did not impact motivation in my experience,” Hunter said. “The students who struggled with motivation struggled when we were on points, when we were transitioning to standards, and when we were full on standards-based.” 

She added, “In terms of motivation, I always had the most success when I focused on things that I could control, like the learning activities, the level of excitement, the safety that my students felt in their classrooms, that collaboration.” 

Standards Aligned Grading is Not Grade Inflation

Sometimes competency or standards teaching is accused of being grade inflation by another name. The panelists disagreed with that assessment. 

“I would argue that it's not great inflation because you can really target how a student is performing on a standard,” Camp said. “Getting points for homework – that's the grade inflation, just getting points for compliance. In a standards-based system where you're focusing on specific skills, it's very clear you can't just get a high mark if you can't do the skill well, so it's much more targeted than a traditional system.” 

Standards Aligned Grading Is How the World Works

Another argument against standards-aligned grading is that it is “not how the real world works.” Townsley disagreed with that. “Never in the real world is anyone ever expected to be perfect the first time and every time thereafter,” he said. “Our aim in the K-12 system is to help as many kids as possible, get it. That's our goal. That's why we exist. So we should be figuring out ways to provide students multiple opportunities to learn the stuff that we're teaching them.” 

Effective standards-aligned classrooms allow students multiple opportunities but students have to earn the opportunity to retry an assignment or test. “It's not some free-for-all where we hand back the test or the project, then 30 seconds later they're doing it all over again. It's much different than maybe it seems from afar,” Townsley said. “There's a ton of things in life that you don’t get a second chance on. But there are plenty of things you do. You can take the GRE exam multiple times, the MCAT exam multiple times, the ACT multiple times, the driver's license test multiple times. Some of the highest-trained professionals I know, surgeons, they practice and make mistakes on cadavers time and time and time and time again before they're ever allowed to practice their surgical skills on real people.” 

Erik Ofgang is Tech & Learning's senior staff writer. A journalist, author (opens in new tab) and educator, his work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.