A Critical Lens: Standards-Based and Competency-Based Grading

As I’ve been learning more about Standards-Based Grading and Competency-Based Grading, I am struck by something: they don’t appear to be any different in practical application from traditional grade reporting. They distinguish themselves, but they fail to be different in an important way. I’m going to suggest that it’s best for almost any institution’s case to stick with letter grades but to modify how we talk about letter grades as well as change what the letter grades track in terms of data points.

I’m talking about successes and challenges as they’re reported here – the SBG and CBG stand-in for grading, specifically.

These two (SBG and CBG) reporting systems have some things in common. They select for standards, skills, and/or skill groups (let’s call these “learning goals”) by which to measure students. Then they have teachers employ rubrics and other measuring tools to evaluate student performances in specific areas, collecting data as they go on individual tasks tied to learning goals. Parents and their students receive reports on student progress specific to each learning goal – they receive them for each assignment tied to data points, and then they receive an amalgamated reporting of data points. Sometimes, the data points are averaged. Sometimes, the latest assignments and projects are weighted more heavily (or are the only assignments and projects of any weight at all).

These are a neat tools for improving precision for measuring student performance. It’s a logical next step in data science as applied to education on a micro level (from the teacher or school’s point of view, this is a micro-measurement – it has broader implications for other stakeholders).

Schools and districts spend a lot of time and money institutionalizing SBG & CBG teaching, assessment, and reporting systems. A lot of money and a lot of time. My wonder is, “Is it worth it?”

Here’s my concern: if these new reporting systems are merely distinctions without meaningful differences, then they’re not worth it. Let me spell out how they might not actually be meaningfully different from the traditional model in an altered form. (Here’s an implicit premise: it costs a lot less to modify an existing institutional pattern for reporting/grading than it does to switch to a completely new language for communicating student successes and failures. If the old system can be modified to solve the problems solved by the new systems – SBG and CBG – then it ought to be salvaged to do just that.)

Here’s my concern.

SBG and CBE seem to manage simultaneously being more precise and more vague as compared with the traditional grading model. They’re more precise in that they measure individual learning goals in finer grain than does the typical system of grading/reporting successes/challenges (there might be five, ten, or fifty individually tracked data points in a given skill group as compared with one letter grade for a whole subject area in the traditional model). These reporting systems are also more vague in that they’ve scaled out: there are 4 points in most of these scales rather than 100.  By necessity, the precision in any particular measurement disappears. The boundaries between “good” and “great” or “fair” and “poor” are blurrier than ever under this scaled-out view of things. They also require that students and families (the latter being the tougher group to move to a new system of reporting than the former) to learn a new lexicon – a new approach entirely – to understanding student-outcome reporting. That’s more than merely significant in terms of costs – it’s huge. It can disrupt a learning community for years. It need not, but it easily might. At minimum, a few years of training and adjustment are required for a full transition for an institution and its stakeholders.

Here’s the thought I have about a modified grade-based system of outcome reporting.

The benefit of additional precision in learning goal outcome measurement seems reasonably achievable using the letter-grade model of reporting. A system analogous to SBG and CBG with identical benefits of added precision would include measuring skills and competencies but to keep the same language as the traditional model of outcome reporting. In other words, if we fix the problems that we find with the traditional models of grading, it doesn’t require a new lexicon, and the new lexicon really is just a lexcial switch: it’s grading becoming known by a new name – the name is thoroughly different enough in appearance, though, to make it seem like a different thing – but it’s not.

Why not continue to use letter grades but modify such that “A” means “exceeds proficiency” and “F” means “fails to meet proficiency standard” according to learning standards that are just as clearly defined as the letterless SBG and CBG systems of reporting? We keep the benefits of SBG and CBG without incurring many of its costs. We gain the benefits reaped from more thorough data collection without needing years of revision to our old institutions. We still lose precision, though, on the one hand – in terms of losing percentages. That’s a problem to which I don’t have a solution.

Here’s another concern: when I look at a five- or a six-page SBG report, even as an educator, I become lost in the details and need that overall picture of student progress that grades-by-subject-area always gave me in the past. It’s a big like having a perfectly precise map in that the more details we add, the more precision we get – but the more useless the map becomes. The most accurate and precise map one can have is one with a scale of 1:1, but such a map is entirely useless. The point of the map is to have a less-precise-than-reality visualization of space through which I might travel on my way from here to there. Report cards are less-precise-than-reality visualizations of student progress and student challenges. The more precise we get, the less useful become the reports. They very quickly (for most of us non-data-analyst educators) reach and then blow past a point of marginal utility.

It’s for these reasons that I’m doing everything I can to learn about SBG and CBG models of reporting student outcomes. I’m always skeptical of change – I’m a conservative when it comes to institution- or profession-wide changes. At the same time, I’m always excited to try new ideas. I’m keeping an open mind, and I hope I can come to some satisfaction on these concerns about SBG and CBG.

Thanks for reading. Please comment below with your own impressions and experiences. Can you offer any other critical considerations I’m missing? Solutions?

About Steve Capone

Writer hailing from Salt Lake City, Utah. Interdisciplinary teacher (read: generalist guiding inquiry) at an independent school. Adjunct instructor at a medium sized state school. Lover of learning. Favorite destination: Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany. @CaponeTeaches on Twitter M.S. Philosophy (Univ. of Utah 2013) M.A. Humanities (Univ. of Chicago 2007) B.A. Philosophy & English (Washington & Jefferson College 2006
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