Making the move to standards-based grading: How we did it & what we learned

Here are some tips, tricks, and benefits from a district that has successfully switched to standards-based grading

Traditional letter grades have been around since the beginning of the 20th century. Today’s parents received As, Bs, and Cs from their teachers when they were in school, and most parents expect to see similar letters on their child’s report card.

Yet, for years my district—Alpine (UT) School District—struggled to justify our traditional grading model. We felt as though letter grades were losing meaning and leading to less personalized instruction. As someone who taught for many years, I watched traditional grading struggle to tell students, parents, and teachers the whole story. Simply put, it didn’t guide instruction.

We knew our grading style needed to change, and standards-based grading (SBG) fit what we were looking for. Still, with more than 80,000 students, a transition to SBG required complete buy-in and careful planning. Making the switch on such a large scale was uncomfortable, but well worth the results we are seeing. Throughout our switch to SBG, I compiled a list of tips, tricks, and benefits we discovered that might be useful for any other districts looking to make a similar change to their grading scale.

Creating buy-in
Changing to SBG can seem like a daunting task, especially when the first impressions of so many parents, teachers, and students are at risk. Taking this into account, we hired a marketing firm to ease concerns and communicate the benefits of SBG. The marketing firm made a video that we sent to every parent in the district about the move to SBG. In doing so, parents knew the changes to expect, why we were making the switch, and the benefits that would come with switching.

To help create faculty buy-in, we made sure our essential standards were firm. Teachers, principals, coaches, and curriculum directors met to ensure we were on the same page district-wide.

To strengthen our communication, teachers used our parent portal to communicate the different aspects of SBG. In their messages, they reaffirmed to parents that if their student receives a 3, which is standard mastery, that it is worth celebrating.

The takeaway: First impressions mean everything. If you decide to make the switch to SBG (or any other grading scale), prioritize the needs of your stakeholders. While not every district can invest in a marketing firm to help ease buy-in, it’s important to find ways to relate to the people who will be using SBG most: teachers, parents, and students. Start with the benefits and set realistic expectations for how long it will take to get everyone up to speed. Our teachers took on this task with passion, as we have amazing educators who are willing to do what is best for their students.

Using technology to map out the specifics
In the past, traditional grading made it hard for teachers to evaluate how well a student or class was performing on a given subject. SBG gives students, teachers, and parents a much clearer picture of whether a student has demonstrated mastery on a given essential standard and subject.

By using Skyward, our student information system (SIS), staff and teacher teams outlined the paths each student needed to take to demonstrate mastery. Our teachers collected assessments being used throughout the country and imported them into Skyward. From there, teachers set an event for a given point in the school year. For instance, if a teacher has a standard that requires students to count to 100 by the end of a school year, the teacher added an event earlier in the semester that explained counting to 30 was mastery at that given time. This eased expectations on students and allowed them to stay on track throughout the school year, while still having expectations for a rigorous curriculum.

Because we used our SIS’s gradebook for both grading and communicating with parents, it worked as our main hub throughout the transition. SBG may appear to have a lot of components on the outside, but technology helps ease that transition.

The takeaway: Don’t make the change harder than it needs to be for your school or community. We found that our technology had many features that limited the amount of workload on our staff, and actually improved their ability to evaluate and intervene with students. One side benefit to using technology? Paperless grading and assessment. When parent-teachers conferences come around, teachers simply pull up a student’s performance chart (see example below) and explain to the parent where their child has met mastery, where they have exceeded mastery, and where they fall short of mastery on each essential standard.

Creating new report cards
One feature that has added even more value to the education experience in our district is our SBG report card, programmed and designed by Ana Thrupp, our database administrator. We replaced the typical A, B, C model with a more customized and informative report on student performance. Our new report card (see below) showcases the essential standards we teach and communicates the curriculum at each school. If students fall behind in those essential standards, parents are assured teachers will intervene.

The report card is the face of communication to a lot of families. It tells the story, and thanks to our report card, we are now telling the complete story. Having high-quality standards-based report cards has led to students experiencing more “aha” moments and finding that they have additional areas to improve on.

The takeaway: Don’t underestimate the power of report cards when you make the move to SBG. Our district is located in the silicon slopes of Utah and I’ve had CEOs of several big technology companies say the report cards we’ve created are the most helpful and descriptive they’ve ever seen. One CEO noted that his child received A’s his whole life because he was never a problem in school. Once the child hit sixth grade, teachers discovered the student couldn’t add. The parent told me our new report card changed his life because he can identify exactly where his child needs help, which is all we could ask for. Guiding instruction was our primary goal and building a thorough SBG report card was an enormous boost towards reaching that goal.

Transitioning schools
Due to our large size, students frequently change schools. In the past, our teachers had to rely on letter grades that failed to inform them of where students left off in their education. Thanks to our district-wide use of SBG (grades K-6), data follows each student. As a result, teachers know exactly which essential standards students succeeded at and which ones required extra attention. With the click of one button teachers have every score from the previous school and know where the student was at with every single standard.

The takeaway: Think of every student’s future. Families move, and students change schools. That doesn’t mean your district passes on the responsibility to the next school or district. Whether a student moves to a school that uses traditional grading or one that uses SBG, it’s important to have a system in place that paints a complete picture of every child. If your grading system fails to do that, students can fall too far behind either at your school or the next school they move to.

Some districts may be ready to switch to SBG right now, and others may view it as an option down the road. Speaking from experience, we evaluated our long-term goals and kept our Vision for Learning at the forefront of our decisions. Don’t just troubleshoot what’s going on from week to week. Instead, look at where you want to be and how you can get there. Our goal was to improve instruction and student achievement. We are so happy SBG is helping us reach that goal.

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