Is the traditional public school grading system racist? Part I: Standards-Based Learning

by James C. Sherlock

Standards-Based Grading (SBG) is a way to visualize student progress against proficiency levels for multiple standards in a specific grade-level teaching course.

This contrasts with the traditional method of relying on a single level representation as the sole performance measure for a grading period in a specific class.

It is not difficult to find favorable ratings of standards-based grading. Like any other scoring system, it has advantages and disadvantages.

But now SBG is being sold – and bought – with an “equity” tag.

If you don’t use it, your school system is told it’s presumptively racist. Teachers are accused in the dock. Parents and children are positioned as helpless victims of the scoring system without regard to results. In some ZIP codes, this predictably caused panic buying.

The backlash is fierce. To see Standards-based grading will ruin education. The author, a teacher, is completely negative about the new system.

It will be a two-part story. Here I will describe standards-based ranking in the eyes of proponents and opponents. In Part 2, I will describe its transition from an alternative way of noting to a cornerstone of progressive education.

The two scoring systems

Courtesy of Powerschool

Standards-based grading in Virginia is based on the Learning Standards (SOL) of Virginia. Virginia launched the SOLs in 1995 instead of the common core.

As an example of SBG, if you are a teacher of Economics and personal financeyou can upload SOL documentation for your course and create a spreadsheet that displays each standard and each skill for each standard.

Go here to see an example spreadsheet for the Virginia Economics and personal finance SOL quality “book”.

This requires creating another system to reflect attendance, personal school/classroom behavior, effort, homework completion, etc.

Even its proponents admit that the standards-based grading process combined with the recommended process of re-teaching, re-testing, and re-evaluating (updating grades) each student based on recognition of below-average skills takes a lot of time.

Then, the grades should be weighted over the duration of the course to ensure that the overall course grade reflects the knowledge of the material at the end of the course. Like “grade book” calculations, weighting can be done with formulas in a spreadsheet. Some students like the grade point average, some don’t. Assignments, quizzes and class participation, considered learning experiences, do not count towards the grade, only tests.

Proponents argue that mastery of the material at the end of the course is the primary goal, so the standards-based grading system is designed to reflect this.

Opponents say it’s a huge waste of time. They argue that everyone, teachers and students, outsmarts the system to a greater or lesser degree and that it’s not worth the time it takes to try and get it right.

The time spent on standards-based grading may be the most compelling reason to stick with traditional grading. Our teachers don’t have a lot of free time.

In the right hands of the teacher, it can work, but the old system can work too.

But standards-based ranking is now tied by some enthusiasts to fairness. Opponents say that now that a racial justice nexus has been established, progressive educators will declare it successful no matter what.

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