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Standards Based Grading and the Need for Balanced Assessment (1/4/14)

Discerning the true meaning of letter grade based measures of student learning is a complex matter. The traditional marking system used in many PK-12 districts throughout the United States should clearly inform students, parents, and other relevant stakeholders on what students know and do not know in regard to the curriculum. However, the problem in clarity of meaning of letter based grades is that the markings are based on a vast array of measures and scales of performance used throughout the United States. The result is that there is not a true standard of consistency for what letter grades mean not only from district to district but in many cases from teacher to teacher, within the same school building.

In response to increased accountability for student learning in PK-12 schools over the past 15 years, standards based grading has emerged as a method to more clearly inform students, parents, and relevant stakeholders about student learning on the curriculum. In a distilled form, standards based grading measures student performance on a continuum of performance levels from not evident/does not meet the standard to exemplary/exceeds the standard. This continuum of ratings is typically accompanied by a performance rubric that clearly defines student performance at each of the rating levels. Grades assigned using a standards based system of this type are usually in numerical form with a digit being assigned for each area of the performance rating rubric.

This system for rating student performance typically works well, except at the high school level where letter grades and GPAs are still needed for translation for admissions decisions for post-secondary education. In this instance, the focus remains on the use of best practices to ensure mastery learning by the students. The result of which is often quantified by state accountability tests and college admissions exams.   

In a 12/22/13 article carried in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and in Education Week, Jessica Bock details the transition experience of several Missouri school districts as they implement standards based grading practices in their schools. In her article titled “Think homework can help your kid’s grade? Think again” Bock explains that in their implementation efforts many of the school districts have approached standards based grading through one or a combination of four methods: elimination of homework as a scored grade to address grade inflation, elimination of zeros for graded work, retesting on classroom assessments to hold students accountable for the content, and requiring students to complete homework before retest opportunities are given. According to Bock’s article, responses from students, parents, teachers, and other stakeholders, to the districts’ standards based grading efforts, have been mixed.

Bock’s article is significant, because it brings to light the need for balanced assessment in school districts throughout the United States, as we refine our methods of measuring student learning and reconcile them with accountability standards. Balanced assessment, as it is defined here, encompasses a system of multiple methods of assessment that allow students to demonstrate their learning. These include the use of extended projects, rubric based grading, multiple formative assessments within a unit to determine student mastery and standards to be retaught, differentiation of instruction focused on the development of artifacts that demonstrate student learning, and common summative unit assessments of instructional standards. 

Through the use of effective systems of balanced assessment, educators gain greater insight into what their students know and are able to plan for appropriate remediation of targeted deficiencies. In this way, educators are able to ensure mastery learning and provide student grades that more accurately reflect knowledge of the curriculum. The result of fidelity to this process is a heightened level of teaching and learning in schools.

In closing, public schools in the United States face great challenges in the areas of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. At the same time, the current era of accountability in PK-12 education in the United States has helped us more clearly focus on all aspects of our work. Many dedicated educators are working each day, using evidence based practices to improve outcomes for students. It is only through this work and the use of best practices that have a demonstrated history of results that we will continue to see student achievement rise. I am confident that our schools will meet this challenge.  


Shawn McCollough
President & CEO