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School of Thought

Insights & Ideas for Online Teaching

Culture Shock Ahead for Standards-Based Education - From the Trenches Part 2

So, you are thinking about changing the way you grade?  Traditional systems do not work for you?  Get ready for a culture shock.  Most grading systems are antiquated and are used to rank and sort students. They create cultures of compliance, competition, and fear.  Yet, many in our profession cling to them like glue.  They are afraid to analyze why they grade, how they grade, and what they are communicating to students and parents.  They hide behind percentages and letters.  This culture must shift.  Compliance must be replaced with citizenship, competition with collaboration, and fear with risk taking and confidence in the learning process.  

Grades and scores are communication.  They represent a student's proficiency level in relation to standards at a given moment in time, nothing more, nothing less.  But are grades this simple in today’s schools? No, they are not.  Grades are a haphazard mix of achievement, growth, and behaviors.  They are used by some as motivation and repercussion, when in reality they can elicit the opposite result. Grades are not punishment, nor are they a means to encourage positive behavior in the classroom.

The premise of moving to a standards-based system is a simple idea.  Learning is the most important feature in a classroom.  Everything that we do should be learning centered-- including grading and assessment.  Learning is messy and chaotic.  Learning does not involve a teacher handing out information and the students regurgitating it.  Learning is taking a risk, trying something new, persevering and relentlessly seeking new and further understandings.  We must take this idea and make it apparent in everything we do as educators.  No time can be wasted in a student’s mind worrying about how many points they need to earn a grade, when they should be considering how to grow their proficiency and improve their mastery.

Just because the premise is straightforward doesn’t mean that converting to a standards-based system is easy. Grading is a very personal part of what we do as educators.  Deciding to analyze your grading procedures and practices is a reflective experience that takes bravery and honesty.  Changing to a standards-based system is a complete paradigm shift from what most of us were taught and practiced during our teacher preparatory programs.  It is a shift from the way we “did” school, from the way it has been done for generations.  It is a shock to our system, but a wonderful way to model learning, growth, and change for our students.

Creating and nurturing a standards-based culture for learning is no easy task. Diligence and grit are required to evoke and maintain change.  All must make a commitment to learning--students and teachers alike.  We are a community of learners struggling, growing, improving, failing, recovering, and succeeding together.

Read Garnet Hillman's full series From the Trenches:

  1. A Teacher's Journey of Positive Deviance
  2. Culture Shock Ahead for Standards Based Education
  3. Separating Student Behavior in Standards Based Learning
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