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'Standards Based Grading' Takes Root In N.H., Around The Country

Sam Evans-Brown

Most of today’s students and their parents are used to report cards based on the letters A through F. But a new grading system is taking root in schools across the country that seeks to give parents a lot more information. Standards based grading breaks classes down to specific skills students have mastered.

A is good, F is bad. But what about E, M, IP, and LP?

Those are the grades that kids in Sanborn High School in Kingston get. They stand for exceeding, meeting, in-progress, and limited progress.

“Then there’s a category called ‘Not Met,’ NM. There’s a category called ‘Not-Yet-Competent,’ NYC. There’s one called ‘insufficient work shown’ which is IWS,” says Brian Stack, the principal at Sanborn.

That’s standards based grading 101: schools are changing their grades to get rid of A through F and the corresponding 100 point scale. They say such scales hide where a student is weak or strong by averaging all their grades.

In the old system if you were the parent of a first grader who comes home with a C in Math, what would that mean? “So does that mean she knows how to add? I wouldn’t know that,” says Jess Potter, the principal of Center Woods Elementary School in Weare, New Hampshire.

So here’s standards based grading 201: instead of just one grade for math or English, you get a series of grades for each skill. At Potter’s school these are called “I can” statements, and they are written in a way parents can understand, like this one for 3rd grade English.

“I can use words and phrases that I have learned through listening and reading,” says Potter, reading directly off the report card.

Like Sanborn High School, Center Woods uses a four-point scale, but instead of the crazy letters it’s just one through four.  A child who can use words and phrases learned from a book with the help of a teacher gets a two, if she can do it on her own she gets a three, and if she’s really good at it she gets a four.

Getting Behavior Out of the Equation

But here’s one thing that a lot of parents have a hard time with: those skills grades don’t measure how much homework the child does, how well they participate or pay attention in class, or a slew of other factors that are used to define good students. These grades are based only on how well the student can do the skill in question.

“Why would you get a lowered grade on ‘I can fluently add and subtract numbers through 1,000’ because you didn’t turn in your homework?” asks Denise Burke, who teaches third-grade at Center Woods.

But aren’t skills like showing up on time and doing all of your homework just as important as the academic stuff?

Principal Potter says, of course, which is why they give study skills and in-class behavior their own grades, which are on the front page of the report card. She thinks her new report card has an edge on the old system, by pointing out bad work ethic even when a student is getting a good academic grade.

“Under a typical or traditional report card, let’s say I didn’t do my homework. I get a grade and then I get to move on,” she explains, her rings clicking as she slaps the table, “Hopefully we catch them before they learn that behavior and we teach them that it’s not ok.”

Common Core Connection

There’s not much data on how many schools have switched to some sort of standards based scheme, but education watchers are seeing it all over the country.

“We’ve seen a lot of districts in Massachusetts move in this direction,” says Alissa Peltzmen, Vice President for state policy with Achieve, a Washington DC based group that pushes for education reform. She rattles off a string of districts: New York, California, Hawaii, Tenessee… “you’re seeing a sprinkling across the country,” Peltzmen concludes.

And while the schools that have adopted these report cards see plenty of reasons to like them, there is also another big reason that they are spreading.

“The common core offers the best opportunity for the adoption of Standards Based Grading around the country,” says Dan Domenech is the executive director of the American School Superintendent’s Association. As the Common Core, a set of shared goal-posts for what students are expected to know, has spread across the country Standards Based Grading has spread with it. “By moving in that direction it makes it more doable for individual school districts to develop the kind of grading system that’s tied to a set of national standards,” he explains.

At Center Woods the first Standards Based report cards went out last Friday. Principal Potter says she’ll be spending this week helping parents adjust to the new grades.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.

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