My standards-based grading (SBG) journey started as a solo adventure and has grown to a global mission. I started my teaching career nine years ago with class 709, as a 7th grade special education teacher at a public school in the South Bronx. I would venture to guess most public schools at the time were not using standards-based grading as the norm; my school did not break with tradition. Due in part to my teacher training, I implemented a system of tracking specific skills with a very low tech solution: a piece of chart paper and markers for color coding to create a bar graph of skills “mastered”. The benefits of this alternative approach to measuring learning were twofold.
First, students who were accustomed to failure could celebrate small wins when they grasped a particular concept, even if their overall grade was considered failing. Anyone who has taught students classified as having a “learning disability” can appreciate how important it is for them to know they can learn, even if it is just one or two of the multiple skills assessed on a quiz or test. Helping disenfranchised students believe in themselves made classroom management easier.
The other benefit to using a standards-based approach was that the standards served as my curriculum guide. I used the standards to backwards plan my units. My school did not provide me with a curriculum or an instructional coach, so it was invaluable to have a system in place for structuring assessments based on state standards.
After two years in a self-contained classroom, I was moved to a co-teaching class to “maximize my impact on students.” I was initially apprehensive about sharing my tracking system because I still considered myself a “new” teacher. However, I was confident the benefits I saw in my class could be replicated in a larger class setting. Fortunately my co-teacher was receptive to the idea and our collaboration over the next few years led to a stronger tracking system and grew to include class data celebrations. Having a thought partner interested in standards-based grading was refreshing. Instead of randomly spiraling previously taught content back into lessons, we used the skills-based data to determine what we needed to revisit or present in a different way. We consistently discussed the data because it meant something. We used it to group students for intervention and saw the impact immediately. Unfortunately, my other colleagues were not willing to adopt this new practice and mindset: my co-teacher and I remained the only class using standards-based measurements.
Later, I transitioned to a high school for over-age, under-credited students that proudly advertised outcomes-based grading (a form of SBG) to support their at-risk student population. The school was in its founding year and the entire staff was fired up about SBG. Joining a community of educators interested in designing curriculum around this practice appealed to me and within this context, I discovered even more advantages to the approach. There were bumps in the road as we brought different understandings of what constitutes “mastery” and how mastery translates into a “final” grade, but these conversations only strengthened my belief in this approach.
In this collaborative setting, I realized SBG creates flexibility in curriculum design. The final goal is clear, but how students access learning material and what they do to demonstrate learning can be personalized to student interests and learning styles. This became particularly useful when I volunteered to take on a recurring challenge at the school: low attendance. SBG coupled with elements of blended learning naturally lends itself to self-paced learning. For the first time in my teaching career, my students could advance on their own terms if they demonstrated mastery. This freed me up to find the time to provide practice opportunities and options for students that needed additional time and resources to master new content. Content personalization and pace: these are the true benefits of a classroom grounded in standards-based grading.
My experience implementing a standards-based curriculum within a variety of contexts informed my belief that SBG is a powerful tool for all educators. Currently, I’m fortunate enough to work for Kiddom, a free standards-aligned platform whose goal is to enable teachers and learners to unlock their full potential. Through this platform, I’m committed to supporting teachers around the globe as they navigate this new practice and discover the benefits of SBG for themselves.
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