Implementing Standards-based Grading

Implementing Standards-based Grading

Dear Rick:

We are working towards standards-based (SB) grading at the middle school level. The sixth grade math teachers are going to be using SB grading this year. They have done professional development (PD) around this, and our PD Director who helped with all this last year feels they are ready to go. After reading your book and having lots of discussion over the course of the summer and the beginning of this year, the 6th grade language arts team really wants to implement this as well. I am ecstatic that so many middle school teachers are on board and beginning to implement the principles of SB grading, but I don't feel we have a common vocabulary or have done enough to make sure ALL teachers are consistent with the principle of SB grading. So my quandary is this: I don't want to halt progress, but I also don't want to roll something out that isn't ready to "please" a small group of people and then deal with the backlash. What would you do in this situation?

Rick’s Response:
Thanks for taking this on. I appreciate your situation; it's hard to tell what might happen when we address core values in teaching. It can get personal and defensive if communication isn't clear.

My first thought is for your students: What goes unlearned and unachieved because teachers are not using standards-based grading? Doug Reeves and others have research that standards-based assessment and grading actually increase student maturation, motivation, and academic performance more than traditional assessing and grading practices. This means the larger question to ask is, "If we don’t do this, what will we sacrifice?" It's probably worth the potential issues with uninformed teachers and parents to push ahead and support teachers who want to do this. Let them, encourage them, and facilitate them doing this.

For those teachers who are not trained in these practices and just heard the news, we can honor their frustration and moderate panic. We can recognize it in our conversations with them. Just as importantly, however, is to help keep their eyes on the prize, so to speak. Here, the district needs to step up to its leadership role: I would tell these teachers that the district is moving towards SB approaches and would welcome teachers’ input and wisdom as they do so. These teachers will be given two to three years to avail themselves of the necessary professional development, and they will be supported as they seek their own development, too. At the end of that time, it will be a part of their professional evaluations. Prepare a multi-page list of talking points for anyone interested -- burning issue questions and the district’s response to them. Ask teachers to ask their most daring, awkward, and candid questions, and then answer every one of them thoughtfully. Make sure the questioners are anonymous so people feel comfortable being honest.

Make sure the teachers who are doing SB assessment and grading get ample opportunity to give testimony to the positive effects in their teacher lives as well as in student learning. That will carry weight. To change structures and programs without changing teacher beliefs will kill this. Recognize the wisdom of cultivating positive emotional aspects with SB techniques.

As for parents, inform them all you can through evening programs, school literature, newspapers, and on-line. It will help spread the message positively, too, if your teachers are well-versed enough to become mini-ambassadors for standards-based assessment and grading. Make sure your teachers have solid responses to parent questions. To be honest, parents like standards-based approaches more than most of us imagine they will. There’s far more information coming home, there’s hope for their children, and assessment and grading are all about communication and hope. You may get a few louder individuals who don’t fully understand it or are being irrational, but appeasing these individuals is never justified if we sacrifice students’ learning. Be sure, though, to invite parents to every teacher training you do – book studies, conferences, in-services, everything, and if they can’t show up, do parent training in the evenings or weekends as well. If they have a seat at the table, they are more likely to engage positively.

Students will be the least of your worries, as they catch on quickest of all. A few discussions, maybe a demonstration or two, and one grading period using the SB approaches, and they will be on board.

I hope this helps. Let me know how it goes. -- Rick