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Traditional Grading Systems vs. Standards-based Grading Systems

October 11, 2023

If you’ve been a part of conversations about student-centered learning or personalized, competency-based learning, chances are the topic of standards-based grading has come up. We’ve got a few distinctions between standards-based grading and the kinds of grades you might be used to to help you make sense of this approach – and why it’s so powerful for teachers and students.

Grades aren’t just a reflection of a single point in time.

In a traditional grading system, if learners do not “pass,” they have to retake the entire course.
In a standards-based grading system, grades are feedback that show specifically what needs to be re-learned. Rather than having to retake the entire course or test, learners have the opportunity to focus on individual competencies or standards where they haven’t yet demonstrated mastery.

A focus on growth and failure as part of the learning journey.

In a traditional grading system, a failing grade signifies to the student that learning has ended – and there are limited, if any, opportunities to retake assessments. Students are expected to take the same test, at the same time, regardless of readiness, and are rarely able to recover from a failing grade.
In a standards-based grading system, educators cultivate a growth mindset: failure and making mistakes are part of the learning journey. Students are given multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery and have input on how they show what they’ve learned.

Making decisions for the classroom versus cross-disciplinary decision-making.

In a traditional grading system, teachers often operate in silos, making decisions in their classroom, for their classroom. They assess based on criteria developed largely on their own which leads to different grading criteria from classroom to classroom and the possibility for unintentional bias. This makes it difficult to show equitable grading practices.
In a standards-based grading system, teachers collaborate with each other and make decisions together that influence what teaching and learning looks like throughout the school building, across disciplines and grade levels. Far from losing autonomy and creativity, this kind of support network empowers teachers to design learning experiences that will serve their learners even when they are no longer in their class because expectations are transparent and school-wide, leading to shared accountability as a system.

Learning isn’t a mystery.

In a traditional grading system, what learners need to know and be able to do is owned and controlled by the teacher. Often, what comes next from one grade level to the next is not transparent or understood. This leads to a lack of ownership for learners, and reliance on teachers for expectations and pacing.
In a standards-based grading system, educators, families, students and community members share a common language, engage in shared decision making and are able to understand and articulate the what, why and how behind teaching and learning.

Grades reflect what’s actually learned.

In a traditional grading system, a grade may include a student’s behaviors, whether they completed extra credit or even if they’ve donated tissues to the classroom. They are inconsistent, varying from teacher-to-teacher, and invite unintentional bias and inequitable learning experiences.
In a standards-based grading system, only the standard or competency is being measured. Grading practices and policies are transparent for students and families, and learners are able to understand what they’ve learned and what they’re learning next.

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