Analysis of standards-based grading reveals advantages


graphic by Jocelyn Wang

Throughout the beginning of the school year and the schedule-change frenzy that accompanies it, certain questions are often heard in the hallways at Gunn: “Is this teacher an easy or hard grader?” “Which classes are easy A’s?” While these topics of conversation are common at a high school with rigorous academics, they hint at an unsettling trend: the prioritization of a letter grade and pursuit of academic perfection has promoted an unhealthy view of what “learning” and “success” means.

In recent years, educators have introduced and analyzed a myriad of ways that students learn best, with a common theme emerging: the most effective learning occurs when students receive immediate and specific feedback. Standards-based grading (SBG) prioritizes academic growth and may prove to be a viable alternative to traditional grading systems. Implementing SBG in Gunn classes will help students reach their highest potential by fostering a growth mindset toward their academic achievement, encouraging teachers to provide meaningful feedback and aligning classroom instruction and assessments with relevant standards. In time, this grading scale will redefine how learning is measured, challenging the traditional grading system’s all-or-nothing approach to academic success.

The history of SBG, also known as proficiency-based learning or competency-based learning, traces back to 1956, beginning with educational philosopher Benjamin Bloom’s discussions of student development of “higher-order thinking skills.” In an attempt to reform education, individual learning standards came to define “proficiency.” This grading system uses a one to four scale that reflects students’ increasing mastery of a subject. Since the general goal is an understanding of essential knowledge, students failing to meet “proficiency” standards are not marked with a permanent F; rather, they receive additional instruction and one-on-one academic support from their teacher.

Nonetheless, SBG’s recent arrival in various science classes has received conflicted responses, some of which are quick to disregard its benefits. Adopting a completely different grading scale at Gunn will, like most new concepts, cause confusion and require time for students and teachers alike to adjust. However, students should bear the end vision of SBG in mind: to create a grading system that benefits every student’s learning style and preferences. If Gunn can give SBG the chance to integrate into classrooms, its advantages will follow.

Aligning Gunn courses with SBG sets an educational precedent about success and learning. In 2009, the Marzano Research Laboratory conducted a comprehensive review of instructional strategies and found that scoring scales and a focus on student progress (both of which are pillars to SBG’s function) improved students’ performances. In addition, it found positive correlation between feedback and additional instruction and achievement.

SBG also encourages teachers to take an active role in supporting students. Science classes with SBG require teachers to provide frequent, in-depth feedback on all assignments and tests. This allows students to specifically target areas that need improvement. Teachers then provide opportunities for revision, including having students complete worksheets on difficult topics or meeting to discuss study habits. This cycle of feedback encourages teachers to be more invested in their students. It creates a classroom environment that allows for mistakes without the fear of a permanent failing grade. When students take ownership of their learning, they adopt a growth mindset that values constructive feedback and long-term improvement.

Classes adopting an SBG scale will have to align with specific learning targets. Students can then study more efficient- ly and stay on-track with the curriculum. Assessment rubrics will correlate to these targets, allowing students to determine which areas need improvement. The one-to-four grading scale easily measures gradual progress. In time, SBG may cause classes to correlate what is tested to what has been learned in class, thereby creating a well-organized curriculum.

Roughly 63 years later, Bloom’s research into the distinguished types of human cognition—thinking, learning and understanding—continues to shape teaching. SBG re-defines how students approach academic success, whichmay be exactly the shift in mindset that Gunn needs.