From Traditional Grading To Standards Based Assessment

Assessing student achievement is an essential aspect of what good schools do. The main purpose of assessment is to provide meaningful feedback to help guide students as they endeavor to develop and improve. Assessments also inform teachers and parents about the progress a student is making. The traditional system of grading dates back over 100 years and is still the practice of most schools around the world. However, a substantial body of current research questions whether the traditional system of grading, where a student receives a single letter or number to represent a wide variety of learning, is the most effective means of providing students and parents with meaningful feedback. I was surprised to discover that a book written as far back as 1913(!) raised concerns about the efficacy of grading:

“…we can but be astonished at the blind faith that has been felt in the reliability of the marking system. School administrators have been using with confidence an absolutely uncalibrated instrument…

(The Marking System in Theory and Practice, I.E. Finkelstein, 1913)

Below is a sampling of current educational research on the effects of grades on student learning:

“…evidence from several studies that investigated the effect of differential feedback on learning suggested that using grades to improve learning was simply not effective. For example, Butler and Nisan (1986) compared effects of constructive feedback and grades. The researchers concluded that grades emphasized quantitative aspects of learning, depressed creativity, fostered fear of failure, and weakened students’ interest. Quite opposite to this pattern, no negative consequences followed from the use of task-specific individualized comments. In a later study, Butler (1988) found that the group that received comments specifically tailored to students’ performance showed a significant increase in scores (by almost 30%) on a task. The group that received only grades showed a significant decline in scores, as did the group that received both grades and comments. Analysis of students’ reports of interest in performing the task demonstrated a similar pattern, with interest being undermined for both graded conditions. (Butler, 1988).

Similarly, Elawar and Corno (1985) investigated the effect of teachers’ written feedback provided to students’ homework. The researchers found a large effect associated with the feedback treatment, which accounted for 24% of the variance in final achievement. Students who received comments performed significantly better then those who received grades. The latter led to inhibition of students’ performance.

-(Response to Assessment Feedback: The Effects of Grades, Praise, and Source of Information, Anastasiya A. Lipnevich, ETS, Princeton, NJ, Jeffrey K. Smith, University of Otago, New Zealand, June 2008)

As the research makes clear, the practice of traditional grading, where a letter or number is used to represent a wide variety of skills and understandings in a particular subject, can be an obstacle to the goal of engaging and empowering learners. This is because it focuses the learner’s attention on obtaining a grade and can limit the student’s desire to take valuable risks in the learning process.

Other questions about the accuracy of the traditional grading system have also been raised, such as:

  • Does the inclusion of “non-academic” or behavioral issues such as lack of preparation or poor behavior, obscure an accurate representation of academic performance?
  • Is the method of averaging test and homework scores to derive a grade, an accurate way of representing student learning?
  • Are the grading methods used in a school consistent from class to class?

Instead of focusing on using a letter or number grade, many schools are paying attention to the research and are employing criterion based or standards based assessments, which reflect key areas of learning and skills identified by the school within the curriculum. With this form of assessment, the learner and parent receive much greater detail and more useful feedback about what a student has learned or can do and enables the learner to see specifically where their strengths and weaknesses lie within a particular subject. So instead of receiving a C+ in Science, which gives the student and parent little information about the student’s capabilities, they would instead receive an assessment based on specific criteria or standards and benchmarks.

For example, at the International School of Prague, each subject area is defined by performance standards and benchmarks, “which encompass the essential competencies and enduring understandings a student needs to be an effective and engaged learner and practitioner” (ISP Curriculum Handbook). The standards and benchmarks are the building blocks of our curriculum. Well articulated criteria, such as the following ISP Science Curriculum Standards, can be used as the bases for student assessment:

  1. Students identify problems and collect suitable background information to formulate scientific questions and make predictions
  2. Students select and use appropriate scientific tools and methods to carry out practical investigations
  3. Students process, analyze, interpret and discuss data
  4. Students formulate valid scientific conclusions and communicate experimental findings with scientific honesty
  5. Students use scientific information and ways of thinking to identify issues and to inform decision making about personal, community and global issues

International School of Prague, Science Curriculum Standards

Clear descriptors of the competencies we expect of students, such as those above, can provide meaningful feedback about how well a task is accomplished, as well as establish clear goals for the learner to attain. For example, if students are informed that their performance for standard 3, does not meet the criteria, they have been guided to the area in which they need to pay attention in that particular subject.

Having said this, I must also make clear that a standards based approach will naturally look different for different sections of a school. High school assessment especially must consider issues such as transcripts for university admissions when designing a standards based assessment model. Nonetheless, a standards based approach, even in high school affords students and parents with far greater feedback about student learning as compared to a single letter or number grade.

Teachers understand better than most how fundamentally important effective feedback and accurate assessment is for the learner. This is why faculty at the International School of Prague have been actively engaged in developing more effective assessment methods, to ensure that students are receiving ongoing meaningful feedback, and that student reports accurately reflect the learner’s development and achievement.

This is a challenging process that requires professional dialogue and debate among all school constituents of a school, with the ultimate goal of developing an assessment model that serves the best interests of all students.

One comment

  1. Standards based assessment in high school will still run into the wall of grades at the end of a semester. This severely limits its effectiveness as an alternative to current practices. High schools need to make a serious effort to create standards based transcripts that are not connected to current models of GPA. I have seen no examples of such transcripts at the high school level.

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