Five Problems With Standards-Based Grading

A SBG report card sample from Sahuarita Unified School District in Sahuarita, Ariz.

Standards-based Grading (SBG) is the solution to a problem that most parents and teachers never knew they had.  It is a solution to a problem the educational-technology companies have created. Ed tech wants to know: How do we make children learn “stuff” and evaluate exactly what they have learned and predict what they are able to learn in the future?  

SBG is helping to turn the art of teaching into a science.  In the process, it’s getting so education is no longer inherently valuable, a benefit for each, individual child, but rather just a data point for outcomes and predictability.  

SBG turns your child into nothing more than a widget.

1. SBG Limits Education

SBG completely removes the incentive for teaching anything other than those standards that are graded.  “That which is measured, improves” is seen in stark and concerning reality with SBG.  

When teachers had the autonomy to decide what and how they would teach certain subjects, there was a phenomenal, widely varied range of things that were taught throughout this country.  In my fifth-grade class, we spent a month learning about logic during our math instruction.  We ended up getting around to all the standard math “stuff”, fractions and whatnot, but taking the time to learn about logic was invaluable and my teacher’s freedom to take that detour was a blessing to all her students.  

If a teacher has a great passion and presentation for the Holocaust or the Civil War, for example, he can enrich his students’ understanding and love for learning by sharing it with them. But with SBG in place, an enriching detour that doesn’t fit into the standards goes unaccounted for in the grading structure because it doesn’t recognize teaching more than what’s in the standards. Instead of supporting education as a broadening of experiences, it will ensure that each student is taught no more and no less than every other student.  

The question then is, what will be lost?

2. SBG Facilitates Data-mining

SBG allows for data gathering on children to be linked directly to the standards. During the 2012 Datapalooza, the CEO of Knewton, Jose Ferreira, talked about his company’s software being able to predict a child’s grade – as long as teachers were consistent graders. SBG is the solution to that irksome old problem of unpredictability!  

The bottom line is: SBG is the next level of data mining on our kids. You don’t have to compare end of year assessments across schools or states. SBG can be linked nicely to ed tech programs that will pump out a 1-4 grade per standard, presented in real time.  Johnny’s parents may someday know that he is ranked 111,114 in the nation in math,and then, be able to predict whether or not he’ll be accepted to Stanford at the age of 8. Talk about a brave new world of potential-limiting prophecy!

3. SBG Is Overwhelming

Parents and teachers hate SBG because the sheer volume of grades is overwhelming. 

Rather than getting an A in English and a B in math, a child receives a grade of 1-4 (or similar) for every single standard in English and the same for math, etc. Looking at one grade level for a rough measure we find there are roughly 80 English/Language Arts standards alone! 

The argument is made by proponents of SBG that then parents will know if their kid knows quadratic equations but doesn’t understand exponential equations.  But parents will have to be able to decipher the jargon used in the standards.  For example: Use tiling to show in a concrete case that the area of a rectangle with whole-number side lengths a and b + c is the sum of a × b and a × c. Use area models to represent the distributive property in mathematical reasoning.(CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.3.MD.C.7.C)  

Now, how many people can understand that?

In the case of the frustration and burden placed on teachers, they often must show evidence of each student’s mastery of each concept.  And if a test question covers three standards and another question covers two different standards, then they have to track all of that information for every student in their class.  25 math standards times 25 students times 10 tests….  Well, you get the picture.  

Of course, the ed tech companies are poised and ready to solve that problem! Teachers, just turn your teaching over to the ed tech companies! They can provide you – for a few taxpayers’ dollars – with nice computer-based programs that even produce gradebook reports to track all of the standards, with each student’s proficiency included.  Phew!  Now teachers won’t have to teach anything above and beyond the basic common standards. Where would be the motivation to do so?

4. SBG Limits Students’ Desires to Achieve

Proponents of SBG claim it will incentivize students to try harder and put them in charge of their education.  The reality is that in many situations, parents are finding their students less inclined to try past the “proficiency,” or level 3, mark.  

Some of this comes from no one defining what it takes to go “beyond” proficiency.  If a student writes a decent research paper that meets all the expectations, she gets a 3, a proficient score. But trying to relate the SBG grading with A-F grading usually equates a 3 as a ‘B’.  So, what does it take to get an ‘A’? Often no one knows, because, again, we are only measuring the standards.  SBG doesn’t define what it means to go “higher” than the standard.  

When students are unsure, they stop trying.  And if you tell them they’ve met expectations, well, why should they go any further?  Even worse, when something is actually defined as “exceeding expectations.” the requirement is set so high that the pay-off for going above and beyond just isn’t there.  Students are learning to do just enough but no more.

5. SBG Will Remove Societal Knowledge

The worst part of the adoption of SBG for society as a whole is the loss of knowledge which it will facilitate over time. In the course of a single generation, we could very well lose knowledge of anything that isn’t contained in the standards. How do we teach future generations what we, ourselves, do not know?  

Currently, many states have adopted or will be adopting the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).  As Fordham Foundation noted in its review of NGSS, “In reality, there is virtually no mathematics, even at the high school level, where it is essential to the learning of physics and chemistry. Rather, the standards seem to assiduously dodge the mathematical demands inherent in the subjects covered.” Using SBG for the Next Generation Science Standards, the nation’s loss could be large portions of chemistry and physics and the actual math that is associated with those two disciplines.  

Are we sure Standards-based Grading is our best option?

The A-F grading system is not standardized. It leaves room for subjectivity on the part of a teacher.  But in America, standardization is rarely a virtue.  The beauty of what our Founders gave us was the freedom to be individuals. Education that limits knowledge to a discrete set of standards, applied nationally, will limit freedom. 

Congressman Rob Bishop (R-UT), a former high-school teacher, said of education, “Ever since…the mid-sixties, …we’ve been consistently fighting that battle over standardization versus freedom. Freedom should be our goal.” 

Standards-based grading will lead us further away from freedom and individuality and could, sadly, lead to a complete loss of selected types of knowledge in America. Even worse, it could lead to generations that lack the will or desire to reach higher and to do more.

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