Okay, I’m about to break some rules here. Really. What I am proposing is a grading/reporting system that violates the Standards Based Learning (SBL) canon but gives permission for some sort of hybrid/user-friendly reporting system. I’ll save you the review of SBL practices, O’Conner’s 15 fixes, Marzano’s 4.0 scale, Wormeli’s redos, Reeves’ power standards, and Gusky’s mark (plus Black, Chappuis, Pickering and countless others). These authors are my professional heroes and their work should be pillars of every educator preparation course -all educators should be baptized in their logic about grading and denounce our historical system-wide grading insanity. Do not underestimate the pervasiveness of the traditional grading system. It will rear it’s ugly head in everything we do and we must be vigilant to fight the urge to “nail them with a zero” or “teach them a lesson of responsibility” by devaluing their academic efforts with punishment. That is a critical component of my suggested grading system.
From this new grading framework – we need to take these great new insights and shape it to serve us, the students, and most importantly our parents and families for which the traditional “grade card” is a critical communication piece. In a recent conversation with Doug Lemov about some of the ideas in his Teach Like a Champion book, I was struck by how simple, straight forward and no nonsense his techniques were. Plus, some of his ideas for high expectations/high standards seemed to be a bit “old school” compared to the redos, retakes, and academic vs behavior framework in which I had been steeped. One technique, “Right is right” suggests that the teacher only accept work that meets the high standard of being “right”. It reminds me of Reeves comments on eliminating the zero in favor of “getting the work done” for as long as it takes. This flies in the philosophical face of ignoring quality, neatness, punctuality, and other behaviors in the overall grading/reporting scheme. In a way, these examples reflect a natural common sense that is equally compelling to the crisp SBL doctrine.
Moving on, through this conversation with Lemov, he mentioned that as a parent and consumer of individual student data (specifically a consumer of his own child’s report card) he was overwhelmed with the standard based report card (even when it was whittled down to power standards). The detail was so specific on every standard that it undermined it’s own utility. Lemov suggested that this level of “trees in lieu of forest”!data was probably very helpful for teachers but not very useful for parents (and possibly even students). This rocked my world. Who could argue with SBG? Who could question my Mount Rushmore of educational thought leaders? Then I realized that maybe the next natural evolution of SBG is to control, summarize, highlight, and even thoughtfully communicate (through professional judgement) the most important elements of the overall SBL report card to parents. Give them an overall general score, then highlight a few strengths and weaknesses. Maybe offer some feedback an suggestions for growth. Maybe knowing every genome sequence in your child’s current educational DNA isn’t that desirable to a parent. Woah.
So, I started re-exploring some of my own concerns/opinions about Standards Based Grading. Specifically my own experiences about grade inflation, the real world of work, and education’s quest for excellence. I love SBG. As a learner, I always hated the “game” of grades. Turning in stacks of low level homework and worksheets to prove that I had done the grunt work to earn a decent score when I could have made a B+ on the test after the first week. SBG could eliminate the game, focus on student learning only, drive the rockstars to the top, restore my faith in “excellence”! But them there is he new loser in the SBL world. The hard worker, the above average academic who compensates with a great work ethic, value of responsibility, respect for rules and order. What about this archetype of student? They had the farthest to fall, right? They were this years twelve Valedictorians who earned every point available over the course of four years who stood to lose everything to some slacker pink with rocket scientist brain matter. Where did these kids end up when our new SBL grading system is rewarding the new “google” archetype. I thought of people I knew personally and professionally and their skill set for being responsible, organized, detail oriented, focused, and tolerant of tedious work. I thought about their value in the world of work and how the creative/brilliant type wasn’t always an ideal match for a business world that seeks uniformity and accountability in practices, policies, and procedure. Surely there is a place for both of these “types” to be valued equitably.
The solution: Use standards based grading as the fundamental grading approach on all summarize assessments (and reporting formatives along the way). This is no difference to SBG canon. But, we should also report on the “soft skills” like; work habits, responsibility, the ability to follow directions, meet deadlines, and collaborate with others. To me, these reflect some of the Teach like a Champion values of “Right is right”. These are equally important from a life long employability standpoint. We want students to possess these skills and they aren’t less desirable in comparison to being a strong abstract thinker.
From there, educators need to summarize all of the discrete individual standard details into a summary grade for academics and combine it with the work habits grade. I think the ideal “mix” is about 2:1 (or 66% assessment to 33% work habits). To test the quality of the mix, I put in hypothetical scores for the following archetypes… the brilliant slacker and the above average hard worker. When you enter in stereotypical scores for both dimensions, the result is a system that equally recognizes/rewards/values both archetypes. Obviously, the overall well-rounded student would possess strengths in both areas. This is how I would calculate their final grade for the course.
As far as reporting, I would want to start with then overall composite grade of the two major educational domains of academic standards and academic behaviors at the 2:1 mix or 66/33 weight. Then, I would highlight the relative strengths and areas for improvement of the learner. This could include standards and behaviors as they are equally important. This would make the overall grade report much more user-friendly and reflect the value of a well-rounded learner where the typical SBG model recognized academic intellect divorced from academic habits. I think this proposed model would better reflect the more general qualities that are sought in a diverse vocational environment over the purely cerebral ones. Of course, our ultimate goal as educators is to instill excellent work habits and a keen malleable intellect to serve our students in any vocation they choose. We would be “Grading like a Champion”.
More importantly, this modified (some would say compromised) grading system might save the bigger war over new grading techniques. The fight over the Valedictorians and GPA and just the simple elegance of the B+ are sacred cows – not just of education, but of American culture. If we totally trash those traditions we may lose the larger argument about our poor grading system. Even when discussed with logical people it still suffers from the equivalent of a “let’s go metric” position (many benefits, little support). Here’s a great blog post by Doug Reeves that relates to many of my points. Don’t forget the parents! They want this info and they want it to be user friendly. In the grand scheme of things, they will be the ones supporting it fighting the new grading systems – make it work for them as a communication tool.