In both school and in society, many institutions and traditions require radical change. However, grading is not one of them.
Ever since Mount Holyoke College introduced it in 1887, most American high school students have been assessed on an A-F scale. But in recent years, many teachers, including Paly’s entire world languages department, have switched to a new system called standards-based grading. While it is supported by many teachers and administrators in the district, the decision to adopt standards-based grading will be left to individual teachers.
“There is energy and momentum around the practice,” Palo Alto Unified School District Superintendent Don Austin said. “But we have no plans to mandate it globally.”
Under standards-based grading, every test is given a whole number grade on a scale of one to four, as opposed to a percentage score which is used currently. A 4 corresponds to an A, 3 to a B and so on. Teachers then use a weighted average to calculate a student’s overall grade for the semester. Many teachers see standards-based grading as a more holistic method, rather than the points-based A-F scale.
“The old model relied on tests … which tend to show what students didn’t know,” Spanish teacher Kevin Duffy said. “With standards-based grading, every assessment is a chance for students to demonstrate skills that are important for Spanish.”
However, standards-based grading is nearly universally despised by students. While designed to increase fairness and focus on student improvement, it in fact does the opposite, and is full of flaws. One of standards-based grading’s major faults is that homework is not incorporated into the overall grade, instead being thrown into the meaningless “formative” category.
Proponents of standards-based grading argue it gives all students the chance to succeed. However, by not giving a grade boost to students who do their homework, it rewards naturally talented students at the expense of hard workers who may not be as naturally talented.
In high school, students learn to work hard, and incentivizing homework through grades is one of the best ways to do so. World language teachers often tell students homework is necessary to become fluent or to do well on the tests. However, with no tangible benefit in the form of a gradebook, many students opt to ignore their assignments in favor of work from other classes.
The adoption of standards-based grading throughout PAUSD would only serve to decrease student work ethic and student performance. Lack of a homework category also significantly reduces overall grades. For many students, the homework category provides a much-needed boost to their grades. Switching to standards-based grading lowers many students’ grades, and is harmful.
In addition, the four point scale which standards-based grading uses is too coarse. It groups large swaths of students together, and students can improve significantly without seeing any improvement in their grades. For example, in Spanish this past semester, percentage-wise I only needed a 78% on the final in order to earn an A in the class. However, with the only possible scores being 1, 2, 3 and 4, standards-based grading meant I needed to get a perfect 4 to achieve an A.
Finally, rather than helping students improve, standards-based grading actually hinders them. On the rubric, a 3, which corresponds to a B, is phrased as “meets standards.” This leads many teachers to give a 3 on an assessment with an explanation like, “It was good, just not great.” The current letter grade system, where teachers mark mistakes with a number of points penalized, is better equipped to offer specific, objective feedback. The best way for a student to learn is to understand where they lost points on an assessment, rather than receiving a general metric of how well they did.
Students deserve a fair grading system which fosters hard work and improvement. The current letter grade system does that better than standards-based grading.