If a student masters first-semester algebra, but doesn’t turn in a few homework assignments and goofs off a bit in class, should he get an A on his report card? Or should he be penalized with a lesser grade, even if he aces the material?
If another student struggles through that same class, but toward the end of the semester finally puts it all together and demonstrates mastery, is it fair for her grade to reflect her earlier difficulties or should it reflect her final knowledge?
These scenarios, in essence, help illustrate why a practice known as standards-based grading is becoming more common in Kentucky schools, doing away with classic letter grades.
“There are so many reasons why people give grades; there’s often a lot of ‘noise’ that gets introduced to that signal,” said Dr. Gerry Swan, University of Kentucky associate professor of instructional systems design who has worked with Kentucky districts that have converted to the system. That “noise” can include attendance, behavior, homework and other measures that do not reflect whether a student has mastered the subject or set of standards.
“Standards-based grading doesn’t mean we’re getting rid of grading or tracking or monitoring,” Swan said. “It’s just saying, ‘OK, we’re going to revisit how we use this stuff so we’re doing it in a manner that makes the most sense.”
He said he wouldn’t be surprised if 75-100 Kentucky districts had schools that are doing something along the lines of standards-based grading.
From foreground to rear, Joe Harrison Carter Elementary students Chloe Jones (counting on her
fingers for a little help), Klaire Leslie, Bailey Pennington, Kayden Walker and Mikey Hammer
take a Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessment in mathematics. Standards-based grading
does not do away with formative assessments like these.
“I would say there are many districts that are doing something in the realm of revisiting grading and there’s quite a few that are definitely doing what we might consider standards-based reporting,” said Swan, who also is assistant dean for program assessment in the UK College of Education.
Monroe County schools were among the earliest adopters of standards-based grading in the state, aided by Swan’s work. Today, all three of its elementary schools use a report card that grades students based purely on academic performance with separate notations for those other factors.
Several principals heard about standards-based grading in a professional development session and pitched the idea to district leadership about half-dozen years ago. The school board gave the go-ahead for a one-year trial and a team of district and school administrators worked to develop the new system.
The first report card was unwieldy, with students rated “line by line” on mastery or nonmastery of learning targets with no letter grades, said Elementary Instructional Supervisor Christie Biggerstaff, at that time a principal.
“It was like a book,” Superintendent Amy Thompson said. “You live and learn.”