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Herriman Journal

Shifting the mindset from letter grades to standards-based grading

Oct 01, 2022 06:40PM ● By Jet Burnham

By Jet Burnham | j.burnham

The traditional letter-based grading system is being replaced with standards-based grading in Jordan District. Bastian Elementary is one of six schools piloting the program at the elementary level. Principal Amanda Edwards said her faculty, who has been laying the groundwork for the transition for a few years, jumped at the chance to be a part of the pilot because they have seen the benefits.

“It has brought back the excitement in teaching for me and provided so much more clarity in exactly what I need to do to help these children succeed in their educational needs,” first grade teacher Kelli Sundquist said.

Jenniffer Green, who teaches third grade, said standards-based grading has changed her perspective of her role as a teacher.

“It is helping us all focus on progress versus an endpoint—it's more about the journey of learning.” Green said. “It will allow teachers to pinpoint exactly where students are performing in relation to the most important concepts and fill in any holes.”

What is standards based grading?

Teachers have identified power standards, which are skills from the grade level curriculum that are most important for students to master. These are then broken down, step by step, into learning scales to identify what a student needs to know to advance in each level. Teachers can easily identify students who need remediation or extension work.

Standards based grading uses a 1–4 scale to identify a student’s progress toward proficiency in a skill.

1- below proficient

2- approaching proficient

3- proficient

4- highly proficient

The goal is for students to earn a 3 for each grade level standard by the end of the year.

 “We're looking at evidence of student learning towards a standard that they should have mastered by the end of the year,” Edwards said. “So by the end of the year, a 3 is proficient, meaning they can meet the expectations in the standard and do them independently.”

No more A’s

Parents who think their kids should never get anything less than an A or the top of the scale will need to adjust their expectations. With SBG, growth is the goal, not earning the top score. A 4 represents a student who has moved beyond proficiency and needs extension learning and increased rigor.

“The most challenging part of switching over to SBG is it doesn't look like what we are used to seeing,” Edwards said.

Teachers are working with parents and students to help them adjust their view of academic growth.

“Change, even when it's a positive thing, is hard,” sixth grade teacher Amanda Rasmussen said. “However, I have found that by explaining the how and why this system truly identifies how students are performing, they get it. Seeing how the learning scales clearly state what is required to master a certain skill set, they can better focus their learning.”

Assignments and assessments provide teachers with the evidence of a student’s learning. These are collected into data notebooks, portfolios or evidence of learning folders—each grade level has chosen a different name—which give an accurate view of a student’s growth.

“Even if they're still sitting in proficiency levels of ones and twos, we're able to see all that growth and celebrate it, which, before, wasn't quite as easy,” Edwards said.

The problem with letter grades is they don’t always represent what a student knows. Instructional Coach Bobbie Evans said often students received a grade based on just completing their work or on “busy work” rather than proficiency.

“Traditionally, teachers would teach the curriculum and hope a standard is mastered,” she said. “But with standards-based grading, teachers are focusing on what needs to be taught and using the curriculum as it is intended, a tool for learning.”

With SBG, teachers have clearly defined what students need to know to earn a 1, 2, 3, and 4. The number grade students receive gives them feedback about what skills they need to practice. They are given chances to continue trying until they become proficient.

“It takes all of the subjectivity out of grading,” fourth grade teacher Jessi Berry said. “Standards-based grading has changed the way that I think about teaching because it's no longer about percentages or if students necessarily are completing all of the work. Instead, I focus more on whether a student does a skill consistently or not.”

A learning journey

Rasmussen said SBG enables teachers to effectively teach learning standards.

“It directs our teaching in a natural sequence, giving clear expectations of every step of the learning process as students master each skill,” she said. “It just makes sense. Standards often build off each other, so you know when a student has a skill down, they are ready to move on to the next level.”

Third grade teacher Kristi Marriott said she’s had to change her mindset of how she perceives students who have not mastered grade level skills.

“I can still celebrate growth but also be aware that many of my students aren't there yet and it is OK to see that reflected on a report card, especially at the beginning of the school year,” she said.

SBG supports a growth mindset; students may not have all the skills yet, but teachers can see, according to the standards breakdown, exactly where to target their teaching to get them there.

“I have changed where I am truly looking at the individual student more as to what I can do for them to get them to meet standards,” fourth grade teacher Blaine Bjarnson said.

Megan Dahlgren said having skills broken down into steps helps her easily identify what concepts she needs to focus on by looking at where her kindergartners are scoring low in proficiency.

“This gives me another chance to teach it, both on the basic level and in an expanded level for those who do understand it and, hopefully, I improve in my instruction which will help my students to grow and improve in their understanding,” she said. “Standards-based grading gives the opportunity to show growth in learning. It shows that it’s OK to not understand a concept at the beginning of the year, but that you have the whole year to demonstrate growth."

When students see they are making progress, even at lower proficiency levels, they are motivated to show what they know and to take responsibility for their learning journey, said Rasmussen.

“I love that students have a vision of these steps and the ultimate goal,” she said. “I think it gives them obtainable goals in each step, which drives their motivation to succeed. Student success is the whole purpose of standards-based grading.”

Second grade teacher Amanda Bruce said it is beneficial to have clearly defined learning scales and rubrics so students understand what skills they need to learn.

 “This perpetuates deeper learning of content, measures student learning, and understanding of instruction's effectiveness,” Bruce said. “This is powerful because it provides a framework to measure student progress regularly. Teachers who have a continuous understanding of proficiency can better adapt instruction to meet student needs, leading to more effective and engaging education.”

SBG works well for reluctant learners because it makes the work the student does valuable and meaningful, Edwards said. Instead of asking a student to complete a worksheet of 50 math problems, the student can show their teacher they understand the math concept after five or ten successfully completed problems.

 “Some kids just won't do anything so they're going to fail no matter what,” Edwards said. “But if we can get them to show us what they know, then we know at least where their learning really is, what they can do versus what they're not willing to do.”

Fewer report cards

Instead of quarterly report cards, SBG schools will generate two report cards each year, one at the end of each semester. Parent teacher conferences will be held midterm, to discuss students’ learning journey and determine how teachers and parents can support them in working toward skill mastery.

“I think that's really empowering for my teachers and for parents,” Edwards said. “The absolute best piece of all of it is we know exactly where kids are and what we need to do to help them move forward.”

At the conference held the first week of October, about eight weeks into the school year, many students will still be scoring 1s and 2s.

“They are below proficient because we haven't taught an entire standard yet. We're building a skill set to get them to eventually be able to meet that standard,” Edwards said.

Moving toward full implementation

Todd Theobald, administrator on special assignment in the Teaching and Learning Department at Jordan District, is consulting on the transition to SBG. He said the district is following a nationwide trend toward more meaningful grading.

“Around the country, there's a shift in how we grade students and it's really looking at the standard and their progress towards mastery, rather than a percentage that gives you a grade,” he said. “It reflects the shift that has already taken place in instruction, of really focusing on standards in a very deep way, not just learning and grading and telling people how much homework they turned in and just this general percentage on the test, but really digging into what is that skill asking for.”

While SBG has been implemented at the secondary school level, the transition is in the early stages at the elementary level in Jordan District. Bastian is one of six elementary schools piloting SBG this year. Oak Leaf, Mountain Shadows and Riverside in West Jordan and Jordan Ridge and Daybreak Elementary in South Jordan are also participating.

 “Being able to pilot the new report card is exciting, as it feels like the final piece to the puzzle is coming together,” Evans said.

Over the next few years, all JSD elementary schools will transition to SBG as they are ready. Several, who’ve begun to adopt some of its principles, will begin full implementation next year. Laying the necessary groundwork will take other schools a few more years.

“Teachers are putting a lot of time in upfront, but ultimately, it gives them so much deeper, better information about where students truly are and what we need to do to help students progress, that they're all saying it's completely worth it. They're loving what we're getting on the flipside of their effort,” Edwards said.

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