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The Standards-Based Backlash: A Transition Guide

Standards-based grading is gaining momentum, but many administrators are facing strong resistance. What can be done to make the transition a positive one?

Standards-based grading (SBG) is gaining momentum across the country. The body of research in favor of it is growing, technology solutions supporting it are becoming more readily available, and educators finally have high-quality academic standards at their disposal. Few other educational concepts have greater potential to transform the way we think about student achievement.

Despite this momentum, many administrators are facing intense backlash when attempting to move to a standards-based model. There are even a number of districts that started the transition to standards-based grading and decided to reverse course because the response from their community was so negative. Why does there seem to be a brick wall between innovative leaders and the future of education?

Whether real or perceived, the cons of standards-based grading have the potential to stymy even the most well-intentioned implementation plan. More often than not, these points of contention arise due to less-than-transparent plans and a lack of comfort with or knowledge about the new grading system among those who have direct contact with the public – not to the actual learning that’s happening.

The standards-based backlash is not inevitable. There is a path forward for superintendents. How can you avoid the PR nightmare that those who came before have had to deal with?

At the core of standards-based grading is the idea that students should persevere until they achieve competency, even if that means trying many methods on the road to mastery.

Make your Game Plan

Information on the what and why of standards-based grading is becoming plentiful – what’s a bit more elusive is the how. The quickest path to a fledgling standards-based grading system is to dive in without a strategy. First, you have to understand the challenges you’ll likely face, from public perception to day-to-day operations, and have your game plan ready.

1) Use Backward Design

Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Backward Design framework can help you plan a more effective implementation. It starts with identifying the desired results – when it comes to standards-based grading, what do you want teachers to know and be able to do? What about parents, students, and community members? Once you’ve identified the “need to know” understandings, you’ll be better able to work backward to select materials, plan learning opportunities, and create a more realistic timeline. You’ll also be modeling an outcome-based planning process that teachers can use in their classrooms.  

2) Build a Toolkit

Though the transition to SBG will look different for every district, you can still anticipate questions and provide your team with a one-stop resource. A curated collection of high-quality content can help you explain, inform, and persuade stakeholders of SBG’s benefits and decrease the likelihood that they will see it as a passing fad or just another initiative.

A standards-based toolkit is a great place to start building. You can add promotional videos, informational articles, instructional guides, FAQs, district policy documents, and links to the standards. Consider including case studies or testimonials from nearby districts that have successfuly made the move. Nothing provides a greater boost to buy-in than anecdotes from parents or teachers in places where the SBG concept is working.

Treat your toolkit as a live document by adding resources as you go, and make it available to everyone by posting it to your website, publishing it on your SIS dashboard, and promoting it through social media. Remember, the focus should always remain on your students. Standards-based grading is about better preparing them for college and a career; it's not about staying inside the comfort zone of your adult stakeholders.

↪  Building your toolkit? Consider including this article on Standards-Based Grading basics.

3) Model Perseverance

No matter how you feel about the many uses of the word “grit,” you’re going to need it in your transition to SBG. At the core of standards-based grading is the idea that students should persevere until they achieve competency, even if that means trying many methods on the road to mastery. What message would it send if you decide to stop the transition because of negative feedback or a few bumps in the road? It’s important to address the doubts and criticisms of your community, but think twice and consider all alternative solutions before you decide to reverse course.

Standards-based grading should become the heart of your staff’s conversations and the center of their instruction.

Train Your Teachers 

Whether a teacher has been in the field for three years or 30, the shift to standards-based grading will either challenge or reinforce his or her most deep-seated beliefs about education. This means that you’ll have to address and work through the challenges that SBG presents so teachers can maximize its benefits. When implemented well, standards-based grading should become the heart of your staff’s conversations and the center of their instruction.

1) Philosophy First

If you are planning to lead your staff through the transition to standards-based grading, you’ve likely already dug into its concepts by exploring the literature, debating with colleagues, and considering potential pitfalls. Standards-based grading isn’t an add-on program or initiative; it’s a way of thinking, a philosophy. The time spent reading, discussing, and questioning SBG is a necessity, and cutting corners is the quickest way to end up with a staff that’s not fully invested in the process.

If you want to talk the approach through with those who are already immersed, consider joining the #sbgchat or #sblchat conversation on social media. There is a lively and active community out there – there's nothing wrong with taking advantage of the work that's already been done.

2) Low-Stakes Learning

An Illinois State University study on teacher perception of standards-based grading shows that teachers have a wide range of confidence levels and experience with SBG. For instance, teachers with 0-10 years of experience were more likely to agree that SBG better allows students to identify areas of strength and weakness than were teachers with 11 or more years of experience.

Something as simple as a Likert scale can help you gauge your teachers’ perceptions of SBG and know where to begin with staff development activities. If the majority of your teachers disagree with the statement “Students should be allowed more than one attempt to show mastery,” it would be wise to take your implementation slowly and help them adjust to a new way of thinking.

 ↪   Take a look at how Standards-Based Grading works in Skyward.

3) Cover Your Bases

With teachers’ plates piled high these days, it falls on you and your leadership team to prepare them, educate them, and support them in this endeavor. Some essential to-dos include selecting technology that supports your initiatives, drafting clear and fair district-wide retake policies, and providing high-impact professional development experiences.

A study published in the Journal of Educational Leadership in Action describes how one school took an intentional approach to professional development by concentrating on the implementation of a few key grading guidelines: separating academic performance from behavior; allowing late/resubmitted work; and eliminating zeros, extra credit, and grading of homework.      

Ultimately, parents are most interested in knowing how standards-based grading will affect their children's futures.

Improve Parent Perception

Parents have long relied on the same set of truisms when discussing grades:   

                She got straight As. He’s a B student. Cs get degrees.

It’s no wonder they might have some qualms about accepting a system that requires not only a new set of terminology, but a whole new outlook on learning, too. Help them let go of “the way it’s always been” by building a close working relationship, a better report card, and a clear path for their children's success.

1) A Close Working Relationship

In their paper on the challenges of standards-based grading, Thomas Guskey and Lee Ann Jung point out that “successfully implementing standards-based grading and reporting demands a close working relationship between educators and parents.” Build this relationship on the basis that student success is everyone’s top priority and that your school embraces parental involvement and input.

Stand firm on the principles of SBG, but also seek out ways to be flexible during the transition. A study by Tom Buckmiller and Randal Peters shows that something as simple as continuing to use letter grades on report cards and transcripts can do a lot to “lessen the effect of the paradigm shift.”

2) A Better Report Card

Even with the multitude of high-tech communication options available nowadays, the report card still often serves as the starting point for the relationship between home and school. In the first chapter of their book on standards-based report cards, Guskey and co-author Jane M. Bailey suggest that developing a standards-based report card is “one of the most difficult and challenging tasks in modern education.” If parents can’t read and understand the report card, all other efforts are in vain.

While choosing or designing a report card, it helps to keep two simple questions in mind: “What is the grade?” and “What does it mean?” If the answer to either of these questions is unclear, find out what’s preventing comprehension. Do you need a simpler layout? Better explanations? A more reader-friendly design? Don’t underestimate the role the report card can play in making or breaking parents’ attitudes toward SBG.

3) A More Certain Future

Ultimately, parents are most interested in knowing how standards-based grading will affect their children's futures. They want to be reassured that their kids will be on equal ground with kids who receive traditional letter grades, and that they’ll be just as well, or better, prepared.

A study done by the Illinois State Board of Education’s 2014 Student Advisory Council found that 100% of public universities and 82% of private universities in Illinois were supportive of standards-based grading. Support varies across the country and you’ll have to check out the trends in your region, but in general, the tides are turning in favor of standards-based grading. Until it becomes a household term, it's especially important to nurture an open dialogue with parents and to advocate for post-secondary acceptance of standards-based grading.
There's nothing more frustrating than being forced to confront a groundswell of popular opinion based on misperceptions and outright fallacies. Public sentiment often relies on which side is controlling the discussion. Never has it been more important for educational leaders to have a positive, open, and collaborative relationship with their communities. 

There’s no sugarcoating it – running into a brick wall can be painful. But by standing firm in your knowledge of best practices, gathering a team of advocates, and arming yourself with essential tools, you can break through any barrier and move beyond traditional grading practices to a new model of learning, one that will benefit all students. 

Ready to put your plan into action? Get started with this SBG primer, then contact us when it's time to start the transition.


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