Understanding “Standards-Based”: an important movement in education

Education is always evolving, and for most of us, our children’s learning experience in school is quite different from what we experienced growing up. At AISB, we are continually examining our educational program in light of current research, with a view to providing the best learning experiences for our students.

An important current trend in education is the movement toward what is commonly known as “standards-based” reporting of student achievement, with the goal of providing students and parents with better-quality, more helpful information about students’ learning and achievement. Students are better able to learn, and parents are better able to help them, when they are given clear information about exactly what students can do now, and can’t do yet. But traditional systems provide limited, and often misleading, information about student achievement that can obscure a student’s actual abilities and impede their learning.

The problem with “traditional” grading systems
In traditional grading systems, a student’s various achievements, including test scores, quizzes, assignments, projects and so on, are combined -- and usually averaged-- with other information such as participation to yield a percent score. The percent score is then assigned a corresponding letter grade. In this system students effectively gain points by getting things “right” and lose them by getting things “wrong”, or by handing in assignments late.

In this way, the final result -- say, a B, or 85% -- bundles up many different kinds of data into a single descriptor. Students are discouraged from experimenting or taking intellectual risks, since “getting it wrong” will result in points lost. “Re-takes” and “extra credit” may be offered, but students typically are not able to revisit their work to show greater understandings.

Traditional grading systems have further complication in that a student’s grade is impacted by how quickly she or he masters the material. Take for instance a hypothetical student in a beginner’s French course. The student struggles to master ‘er’ verb conjugations. He fails his first test with a 25%. Our student studies hard but, part way through the term, is still struggling to grasp the material; he scores a 50% on the next test. After more work and more time to consider the problem though, it finally clicks -- he has mastered the material and he “aces” the last exam with a perfect score of a 100%. He now understands, and can conjugate any regular -er verb correctly, forever.

Traditional grading would average our student’s three test results, yielding a 58% -- that is to say, an ‘F.’ This in spite of the fact that after several weeks of hard work the student has actually mastered the material to a high level -- and not only that, has developed valuable skills in studying and persistence that, in this traditional system, go completely unrecognized.

Furthermore, in traditional systems, student are awarded (or lose) points for behaviors entirely unrelated to their understanding of the learning goals -- such as tidiness, timeliness, homework completion, effort, and participation.

In such a system, it is impossible to differentiate between a student’s behaviors and his or her actual mastery of the material. This can -- and does-- lead to confusion and misconceptions about the value or meaning of grades for students and parents alike.

What “Standards-Based” looks like: a truer picture
By contrast, in a “standards-based” reporting system, learning targets are clearly defined in terms of individual “standards”, or learning goals. Assessments may include one standard or several; either way, students are assessed on the individual standards, and a student’s progress toward mastering each individual standard is reported separately.

In this system, students know what the standards are and how to meet them, and they are given many and varied opportunities to demonstrate their growing mastery. Data on their learning is gathered continuously throughout the reporting period and is then combined -- not averaged -- to yield detailed information that offers the truest available picture of the student’s current knowledge, skills, and understandings.

Standards-based systems sometimes, although not always, use indicators such as “Meets the standard”, or “Approaching the standard” rather than a letter grade to report a student’s performance on individual standards. They may or may not provide a single “overall” performance grade. But regardless of its form, a student’s grade in this system accurately reflects his or her actual performance -- that is, his or her mastery of the standards. Behaviors that impact learning, such as effort, timeliness, engagement, persistence, tidiness and so on are reported to parents, since changes in these learning habits will impact a student’s learning and performance. But these other attributes do not impact the student’s grade.

“Standards-Based” at AISB
At AISB, we have been gradually moving towards a standards-based assessment and reporting system for some time. If you have a child in Elementary, you are already familiar with a standards-based report card; AISB Elementary has never used any other system, although we do continue to work for improvement of that system.

If you have a child in Secondary, you will have noticed last year the change in the quality of your child’s narrative; report card narratives now include specific information about what skills, knowledge and understandings exactly were assessed, and how; and about how your child performed in relation to those standards. Information about your child’s learning behaviors -- homework completion, engagement during class, organization, and so on -- is shared with you, but is not factored into his or her grade. Currently, Secondary students still receive a summative grade that represents their overall performance; but our hope is that students and parents will focus more on the specifics and learning standards, and less on the grade.

These were important steps toward the realization of better, more transparent reporting, and AISB’s assessment and reporting system will continue to evolve, to better meet our students’ learning needs. We believe, and the evidence is strong, that standards-based approaches to assessment and reporting are helping our students to learn better, to take greater ownership of their learning, to be more creative, and more willing to take intellectual risks. A student who can say clearly, “Well, I can do this part, and this part here, already. I can’t do this other part yet -- but I know what to do and here’s how I’m practicing,” is an empowered learner, and empowering students is our goal.

 Standards based grading and its relationship to more ‘traditional’ grading methods has become a common topic for discussion in education; even as this newsletter was under construction, we came across yet another interesting discussion of it, this time in a Wired magazine article. If you skimmed this article (we admit it’s a bit long) and would prefer just a quick introduction to the main points, check it out!