‘Standards-based grading’ treats homework as unscored practice, eliminates extra credit, and focuses on proving mastery of the material
When a public school system in the San Francisco Bay Area explored replacing traditional grading practices with a form of “standards-based grading system” meant to eliminate bias, it sparked widespread opposition from parents. They signed petitions and showed up in force at school board meetings to rail against the changes.
The proposal, which leaders of the Dublin Unified School District began testing with a cohort of teachers last year, was pitched as a way to shift emphasis from winning points on tests and homework to student mastery of the material — and to improve equity by better-supporting students who might take a bit longer to learn. So it put opponents of the plan in the somewhat awkward position of vocally fighting something named “Equity Grading.”
But one after another, parents at a July school board meeting did just that.
Some complained that the change to the grading system made their students guinea pigs in what they saw as an unproven approach. Several others objected to a system where a student could get a high mark even if they skipped the homework, as long as they could prove they understood the material.
As parents wrote in their petition: “Do not take away the reward for rigor, hard work, and participation in the classroom!”
This school system is hardly alone in drawing controversy over changes to grading systems. Even fans of reforming school grading admit that making a switch can be challenging and that it can go off the rails if efforts are not made to educate parents and teachers on the how and why of throwing out the A-F system that most Americans experienced as students. Instead of giving a letter grade based on a percentage of points achieved, standards-based systems start with a list of proficiencies to achieve and then assign students a number from 1 (below standards) to 4 (exceeded standards) for each one.
The interest in revamping grades has been slowly growing over the past decade, but it got a boost in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic when many schools and teachers were more forgiving on deadlines and more open to experimenting with formal systems to try to better meet the challenges students were facing in their family lives. That’s according to Matt Townsley, an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Northern Iowa, who has written books about changing grading systems and who has helped schools switch to standards-based systems. After getting a “taste” of such reform, he said, “many thought it made sense to do it on a more permanent basis.”
While Townsley said there isn’t national data on how many schools have made the switch to standards-based grading, a 2021 statewide survey in Wyoming by the state’s Department of Education showed that 10 percent of middle schools and 5 percent of high schools have fully implemented the approach and that 53 percent of middle schools and 30 percent of high schools in the state have begun to implement it. The approach is more prevalent in some “pockets” of the country, Townsley says, particularly New Hampshire, Maine, and Wisconsin, with more recent adoptions in schools in Connecticut, New Mexico, and Oregon.
Even amid some opposition, many teachers and students in Dublin, California, embraced the grading changes. Katherine Hermens, who teaches biology at Dublin High School, spoke at the same school board meeting, saying that before the COVID-19 pandemic, she would have rejected Equity Grading.
“What I understand is that the pandemic fundamentally changed me,” she told the school board, noting that she saw more clearly during remote teaching the struggles many students experienced in their home lives. “It changed us.”
“The old practices we cling to were born in a different era, under different circumstances,” she added. “It is time to emphasize learning over effort. Prioritizing learning is exactly what Equitable Grading is. It recognizes the individual journey of every student. It acknowledges that we all learn differently at our own pace and in various ways.”
Opponents and Champions
Cody Whitehouse was teaching social studies at Wilson College Prep High School in Phoenix when the school system rolled out a standards-based grading system last year.
At first, Whitehouse liked the sound of the plan, especially the part that emphasized students would get multiple chances to show what they know. “I agree that a student should have more than one chance,” he said. “We all have busy crazy lives so things happen.”
Once the system was in place, the teacher said he quickly soured on it seeing how his students responded.
A key part of the new approach, which is sometimes called evidence-based grading, is that homework scores are not counted in the final grade for a class. Instead, like an athlete training for a big game, practice is seen as what it takes to get ready for the final match, and what happens on game day is what matters. Game day consists of tests that measure whether students have mastered the required material.
For students, though, the takeaway was that homework no longer mattered at all, said Whitehouse. “If you don’t grade it, the students won’t do it,” he said. “Every teacher has had students say, ‘Is this being graded?’ If not, they’re not going to do it, or they’re not going to do it as well.”
His approach before the change was to focus on project-based assignments, but he found less engagement for those with the grading changes.
“It’s teaching to the test — the assessment is all that matters,” Whitehouse said. “Students will find that, and they’ll game the system. Many students want to do as little as humanly possible. They want to skate by.”
That means students missed out on a positive side effect of a stressful homework assignment.
“Completing homework and meeting deadlines are important life skills that should be
fostered at school,” he said. “There is utility in developing positive study habits and dependability among young people.” He has since left the school system, in part over frustration with the policy, and now teaches overseas.
Some students haven’t reacted to new grading systems like Whitehouse’s did, however.
Aakrisht Mehra, a junior at Dublin High School, the California district where parents protested the new grading system, said that he didn’t see high-achieving kids suddenly slacking off on homework. After all, those students still wanted to do well on tests to get into top colleges. (Mehra himself said he has a 4.5 grade point average.) But he said he is “sympathetic” to the concern that suddenly changing the grading system might lower a student’s GPA right as they are applying to selective colleges. “I am all too familiar with the competitive nature of high school,” he said.
He said the goal of the new system is to help students who were not doing well in the old system. After learning more about the approach, he said, he believes it can especially help students with ADHD, dyslexia, or other neurological differences. And he said the old system often led to favoritism by teachers toward some types of students who are most interested in trying for points. “I think standards-based grading just benefits true learning,” the student argues.
In a district poll of students, the vast majority favored the new system.
Chris Funk, the superintendent of Dublin Unified, led the charge for the new grading system in his district.
His main motivation, he said, is to address the inequities that he sees in who performs well in the current system.
While African American students make up 3 percent of the district’s students, he said, 55 percent of them got a D or an F last school year.
One reason, he said, is that students who get a low mark or neglect to turn in an assignment early in a term were often statistically doomed to fail in the old system.
“In my 34 years in schools — most in secondary schools — I’ve seen students who have an F at the first grading period lose hope that they can pull themselves out and pass that class,” he said. “They see that, ‘If I get a zero on an assignment, it’s going to have to get a perfect score nine times to eliminate that zero.’ Even for our best students that’s not reasonable.”
And once a student loses hope in a class, he said, “they become a behavior problem or a chronic absentee.”
So a key aspect of the new grading system was setting a floor of 50 percent on every test or assignment so that getting one F isn’t such an unshakable anchor.
Parents who oppose the system, though, seized on that detail of the plan, complaining that it lowered standards by giving half the points on each test for doing nothing. But Funk points out that 50 percent is still failing, so it hardly gives students an incentive to turn in blank pages.
He points out that in the current system, high-achieving students often find ways to boost their grades even if they haven’t truly mastered the material, by doing, say, extra credit projects that bring up their averages. “We call that grade inflation,” he said.
Funk said the first cohort trying the grading system had been going well, and he was surprised by the opposition this summer led by what he described as “a group of 35 to 40 parents who became very active.”
At that board meeting in July, the board voted 3-2 to suspend the grading pilot project at the middle and high school level, ending the move to what was called equity-based grading.
Individual teachers are still free to choose the new system, Funk said, and many teachers in the experimental cohort have opted to do so. But as a matter of policy, the status quo will largely remain for now.
Funk said if he had it to do again, he would have done a better job communicating the goals and practices of the new system to parents, pointing to one training by outside expert officials hired who used examples that weren’t a fit for the Dublin system and that muddled some of the issues.
Townsley, the Iowa professor who has worked with schools to change grading systems, said he’s seen similar scenarios play out at other schools.
“Often, it’s not the ideas that are being pushed back upon, it’s the roll-out — it’s the implementation,” Townsley said. “Sometimes it’s too quick, and there’s not enough time to explain why we’re doing this. And there’s a lack of, or not sufficient training on, what this is all about.”