Standards-based grading hinders student achievement

As more language and social science classes implement standards-based grading, I have to wonder why teachers would use a system that is not as clear, consistent or accurate as traditional, percentage-based grading.

In standards-based grading, students are graded on a scale from zero/one to four, with zero or one being the lowest and four being the highest. The levels correspond to four levels of understanding — needs improvement, foundational knowledge, meeting standards, and exceeding standards.

A growing number of teachers in multiple departments have transitioned to this wretched four-point system, confident in the idea that “good work” and “excellent work” are enough criteria for students to understand what is expected of them. But usually the standards are vague and unclear, making it difficult for students to understand what type of work determines their grade. 

In English class last year, this was the rubric requirement I needed to reach to get a four on my essay. 

“4 — Student produced work that demonstrates advanced progress towards application of skills and content related to the standard.” 

This type of abstract standard provided little information to me about what was expected to get a top score on the essay. 

Where are the days of teachers grading directly on vocabulary, cohesiveness and other specific writing elements? Why condense these elements into an arbitrary standard that only teachers understand? 

Isn’t the purpose of the rubric to give students an understanding of what they are being graded on? When I get a three, I got little or no feedback on what I did wrong or how I could get a four — isn’t that missing the whole point of giving students grades?

The four-point grading scale is also imprecise. Final grades have to fall into one of four categories, making a standards-based system less precise than percentage grading, which has 100 separate “categories.”  In standards-based grading, a 77% and an 85% could both fall into the three categories. But how can a 77% and an 85% end up being the same grade? 

To make matters worse, different teachers assign different letter grades to different numbers. Some standards-based teachers go with a system where an A translates to a four, which seems to make sense. Following this rule, a B would be a three, a C would be a two and a D or F would be a one.

But other standards-based teachers make a three an A, and a four an A+, and some even see a three as an A and four as exceeding an A.

Teachers say they use standards-based grading because it helps students understand, in words, how proficient they are at a topic, claiming it is more intuitive when grades tell you exactly where you are in relation to the class standards.

Although teachers may think that standards-based grading is more intuitive, most of us have a desired grade in our heads and are more receptive to letter grades. If I wanted an A on my essay, do I need a three or a four? And if a three is an A, then is a four just an A+? What happens if I get a two? Is that a B or a C?

The standards-based grading system isn’t incremental. It isn’t intuitive. It doesn’t help students learn what they did wrong. And it doesn’t translate well to percentages grade point average.

Grades are a major stressor for high school students. The added pressure of figuring out what grades mean and how standards-based grades translate to a grade point average is unnecessary. 

There’s no reason to make the lives of students more complicated. But standards-based grading does just that. All teachers should use a percentage-based grading system to help make grades easy on us, easy on them and easy to learn from.