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.

Standards and Accountability Do Not Create Flexibility

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Sandy Kress who was a senior education advisor to President George W. Bush pushed back at The 74 against education reformers who believe we need to get away from standards and accountability.

He wrote

Here’s another baffling question: Why are reformers lambasting standards-based reform? Don’t they realize that without measurement and accountability, there is no effective way to show whether the status quo is succeeding and, thus, no basis to press effectively for reforms to the status quo

Simply put, without accountability, there is, for the most part, no strong case for reform or reformers. The keepers of the status quo will happily hold power and exercise it fully, especially if there is little data-based pressure from the outside to force them to do better or face change.

I understand what he’s trying to say here, but the problem is, however, standards and accountability have not created flexibility, quite the opposite.

Instead, we have a culture of “mother, may I?” at the federal level that never existed until President George W. Bush passed No Child Left Behind. This did not succeed in raising student achievement, but it did reveal the state of K-12 education in the United States.

So, if that was the goal, congratulations I guess.  There perhaps were some modest gains initially, but no one can deny we are stagnant. The standards and accountability movement has not raised student achievement. 

What it has accomplished is to create layers of bureaucracy both at the state and federal levels and has taken local control away from elected local school boards.

That’s not a win.

I do have to wonder what education reformers are arguing for this? None that I have seen. 

Education Is More Than Checklists

Joseph Ganem,  a professor of physics at Loyola University Maryland, wrote an op/ed for the Baltimore Sun entitled “It’s time to rethink the purpose of standardized tests.” 

He makes the following point that I think is spot on:

An approach to education based on standards invariably results in checklists being brought out and omissions noted, rather than accomplishments cited. It is a general truth of the human condition that the list of knowledge and skills a person possesses will always be short compared to the list that person lacks. Education, when viewed through this lens, becomes an exercise in futility.

Absolutely. With the current shift of education becoming about workforce development that has brought about standards-based reforms, students lose out on what was once a well-rounded education. Ganem continues:

Articulating and assessing “standards” is also a futile exercise. A list of skills for “college and career readiness” — to borrow a recent phase — is guaranteed to be obsolete before anyone has a chance to graduate, because the world is changing too fast. The history of Maryland testing shows this to be the case. However, there are two constants in all the change: the need for life-long learning and the fact that the economy is demanding a greater diversity of talents, skills and dispositions; not less.

Read the whole piece.

Study: Since Common Core Student Achievement Has Declined and School Choice Harmed

While U.S. academic performance has declined since the broad implementation of Common Core, school choice programs are increasingly hamstrung by regulations that require private schools to adopt a single curriculum standards-based test as a condition for receiving public money, according to a new study published by Pioneer Institute.

“When states mandate a particular curriculum standards-based test, private schools are essentially required to adopt the curriculum content and pedagogy on which the test is based if they want to increase the probability that that their students are successful,” said Theodor Rebarber, Chief Executive Officer of AccountabilityWorks, an education nonprofit, and co-author of “Common Core, School Choice and Rethinking Standards-Based Reform.”

Nearly two thirds of U.S. tuition grant (“voucher”) programs require schools to administer a single curriculum-based test, typically a Common Core-aligned test, in order to receive public money. Tax credits are less susceptible to government mandates than voucher programs are.  

Under tax credit programs, parents paying tuition or others that donate money receive a tax credit. The authors find that in 95 percent of cases, these programs are not subject to curriculum-based testing mandates.

Common Core is the logical endpoint of nearly three decades of Congressionally-mandated centralization through ‘standards-based reform’ that has moved key curriculum content, sequencing and pedagogical decisions away from local school systems and educators to the state and national levels. Instead of the promised accountability for results or informed school choice, the outcome at the local level has been a culture of compliance (“alignment”) that has intruded into the core function of curriculum and teaching. 

“With its near-monopoly status distorting the textbook and other instructional materials markets,” said Neal McCluskey, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, who co-authored the study with Rebarber, “Common Core blunts the innovation, dynamism and competition that is the heart of the school choice movement.”

The authors find that after several decades of only incremental test score improvements, which started prior to federal requirements for curriculum centralization, since Common Core was implemented in 45 states and Washington, D.C., student results are showing the first significant declines in achievement, especially for students who were already behind.

Fourth- and eighth-grade math scores were down overall on the 2015 and 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress. The declines among lower-performing students (bottom quartile) were even steeper. Fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores were flat, with declines among lower-performing students. At the same time, the U.S. is no closer to the internationally competitive performance in math and science observed in top-tier developed nations.

Instead of accelerating the curriculum to more advanced topics and following the practices of leading international competitors, Common Core’s politically-driven process resulted in the adoption of the mediocre curriculum sequences used in a number of mid-performing states and promoted progressive instructional dogmas shared by its developers. 

The authors do not recommend the adoption of a different set of national curriculum standards; rather they propose reducing federal mandates and permitting broader state experimentation.

At the state level, the authors identify two possible avenues for reform of public schools. The first is for states to emulate the pre-Common Core Massachusetts model, under which the state engaged a team of visionary curriculum standards drafters to develop clear and ambitious academic goals approximating the highest quality public and private schools. The reality, however, is that most states have not been successful in implementing this model and even Massachusetts in recent years has moved away from this approach in favor of the flawed Common Core.

“The second possibility is to re-conceptualize standards-based reform and accountability,” says co-author Rebarber. “We must shift standards-based reforms away from government central planners in order to disrupt the status quo and leverage innovative, ambitious curricula.”

Instead of the current federal mandate requiring that each state adopt a single, homogeneous set of curricular standards and test-driven instruction, states could be permitted to allow local districts, vocational-technical, and charter public schools to use the curriculum that best fits their needs and select from a variety of state-vetted assessments the ones that most closely align to the local curriculum.

Rebarber explains that “it would mean the end of the current misguided model of the national or state testing tail wagging the local curriculum dog, which parents oppose. The result would be a surge in investment at the national and local levels in far more diverse curricular and pedagogical models that do not conform to politically-established, lowest common denominator government curriculum standards.”

To empower states interested in such reforms, when the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act is next reauthorized, scheduled to occur in two years, the authors recommend that Congress eliminate the mandate that every state impose a single statewide set of curriculum standards and allow states to experiment with diverse approaches to accountability.

In a foreword to the study, University of Arkansas Distinguished Professor of Education Policy Patrick J. Wolf likens Common Core to “scientific management,” which is defined by standardization and command and control, and school choice to “liberation management,” which is marked by decentralization, choice and competition.  

“Diversity has long been a hallmark of these United States, especially in the area of education,” Professor Wolf writes.  “At its essence, this fine report gives us good reasons, at least in K-12 education, to favor more pluribus and less unum.”

Read the report below:

About the Authors

Neal McCluskey is the director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. He is the author of the book Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American Education and is co-editor of Educational Freedom: Remembering Andrew Coulson, Debating His Ideas.

Theodor Rebarber has worked on education reform and policy for three decades in the public, nonprofit and private sectors. He currently leads nonprofit AccountabilityWorks, which conducts education policy research and offers online testing services.

Patrick J. Wolf is Distinguished Professor of Education Policy at the University of Arkansas. He has led or assisted with most of the key evaluations of private school voucher programs over the past 15 years, including recent studies of programs in Washington, D.C., Milwaukee, and Louisiana.                     

About Pioneer

Pioneer Institute is an independent, non-partisan, privately funded research organization that seeks to improve the quality of life in Massachusetts through civic discourse and intellectually rigorous, data-driven public policy solutions based on free market principles, individual liberty and responsibility, and the ideal of effective, limited and accountable government.  

Four Thoughts About Education Next’s 2017 Common Core Poll

Education Next just released their latest poll on school reform that highlights Common Core, here is an excerpt of their findings:

The Common Core’s popularity had been sliding prior to Trump’s rise. From 2013 through 2016, public support for the Common Core steadily eroded, from 65% to 42%. Meanwhile, opposition more than tripled, from 13% to 42%. Yet this year that downward trend has suddenly come to a halt (Figure 4). At 41%, the level of support shows no real change from a year ago. The percentage opposed, at 38%, also tracks closely to 2016. The escalating trend of opinion against Common Core may have run its course.

Republicans remain more opposed to the Common Core than Democrats. Roughly half of Republicans (51%) oppose the Common Core and only about a third (32%) support it. The pattern is reversed among Democrats, who support Common Core by a 49%–28% margin. Teachers, meanwhile, are evenly split on the standards, with 45% in favor and 44% opposed, as compared to 41% support and 51% opposed in 2016. Proponents can hope that this upward shift in teacher support could prefigure gains more generally in the future.

Opposition to the Common Core partly reflects a tainted brand name rather than antagonism to the concept of shared state standards. Support for using “standards for reading and math that are the same across states” is much higher when no mention is made of Common Core. We identify this effect by randomly assigning respondents either to a version of the question that explicitly refers to “Common Core” or to a version that leaves the name out. A substantial majority of the public (61%) support the general concept of standards that are the same across the states—20 percentage points higher than the share that supports “Common Core.” The effect is even larger among Republicans, boosting support by 32 percentage points, to 64%. Among Democrats, support increases by 12 percentage points, to 61%, when the phrase “Common Core” is dropped.

Four quick thoughts.

  1. Some who have opposed Common Core have done so because they don’t like the standards, not because they are against common national standards. I disagree with that position, but I recognize there are a variety of opinions.
  2. Due to the advent of click bait news, there is a growing segment of our population who is not very interested in digging into policies. They know they are against Common Core but haven’t thought through exactly why. I can also say the same about people who support Common Core. Common Core and academic standards isn’t a sexy topic so on both sides there has been a lot of superficial opposition and support.
  3. Policy makers should not take away from this poll a belief that keeping Common Core is ok. If it has a tainted brand, there is a reason for that. They should move away from Common Core toward standards that are quality. I’ve not opposed the idea of state academic standards, but they need to be quality, approved through our elected representatives after public scrutiny and debate, and offer flexibility for local schools. Common Core was written in private, bypassed public and legislative scrutiny, and are not quality. States also need to recognize that standards are not a silver bullet for everything that ails public schools.
  4. Common Core opponents, myself included, need to focus more on why top-down national standards are not a good idea in general. I’m not saying we haven’t done that, I know I have made that case, but we need to do that more frequently and hammer the points home.