It first happened to me about ten years ago. I was beginning my third year of teaching in a new school in Washington, DC. Social studies teachers were sitting at a department meeting, and the assistant principal assigned as our department head was explaining to us why standards-based grading was going to close the achievement gap.
"This is all very interesting," I said, "and I'm happy to get on board, but besides standards-based grading, what other legitimate grading practices are out there?"
"Well, whatever they are, we don't practice them here. Standards are about raising expectations, and that's what we're about." His response seemed designed to discourage me from inquiring further. In other words, my principal didn't seem to know.
I spent that year, and many of the years since that meeting, working furiously to become the best standards-based grader I could possibly be. That was not easy, as most teachers know that standards-based grading can be a pretty confusing endeavor. It comes with all sorts of differences in philosophy and application. I've had principals attempt to mandate everything from a no zero policy to a no homework policy to a "you can give homework, you just can't grade it" policy. Then there are the long discussions about whether attendance might somehow be counted toward a standard so that it could be included in a grade, or whether classroom behavior and timely submission of work can be included in a standard related to job readiness or citizenship.
There is a striking lack of clarity in the education community about just what standards-based grading is.
Nevertheless, in my first three or four years of working through standards-based grading, I was excited by the possibilities. In many ways, SBG seemed like it afforded more opportunities for students to demonstrate and be affirmed in their learning. Students could retake tests in the event they were having a bad day. They could demonstrate their learning in styles that better suited them as learners. And clearly defined standards helped student zero in on common learning targets they were receiving in a presumably comprehensive way throughout their time in school.
There were also struggles.
One of my biggest struggles was what to do with valuable learning activities that I couldn't figure out how with connect a standard, or activities that could fit five or six standards at the same time. There was the challenge of determining whether the assessments I gave actually assessed a standard. (Many professional developers in the world of SBG will spend hours with teachers "unpacking" a standard, claiming that most people don't really understand what's in the standard, as if reading what it says is not enough.) And then there were the mental acrobatics involved in finding a way to push all of those rubrics with circles on them into a single letter grade for students' transcripts.
In my beginning years, I was a vocal advocate for SBG, assuming that many of my challenges would fade with more practice. Over time, however, I ran up against problems that I began to see as immovable walls.
Three or four years ago, I stopped advocating for SBG. I began to understand that there are serious limitations to the practice, and I began to suspect that it needs a much clearer analysis than what most teachers have access to in schools whose administrators are SBG propagandists.
With the remainder of this blog post, I would like to suggest a clearer definition for SBG. I also argue that when it is applied poorly, it can function, like all forms of standardization in public education, as a tool of institutional discrimination.
Today, I believe that the most problematic feature of SBG is that many districts impose it on students and communities with the expectation that the only factor that can be included in a student's grade is evidence that shows achievement of content-area standards. I call this "pure SBG" to distinguish it from other grading systems where outcomes not connected to state standards are also included.
A different and more direct way to define pure SBG is to say that it is the practice of excluding from a student's grade any form of human ability or growth that is not seen by the teacher to be related to the teacher's content-area standards. Crucially, I think it's important that, in talking about SBG, we do not conflate it with reasonable outcomes-based assessment practices. The crux of standards-based grading is all in the name. Grades are based on standards. In my mind, all the philosophical discussions about how many opportunities a teacher provides to reassess or whether including zeros in the gradebook are discussions about outcomes-based assessment. And there's lots of room for great conversations about how to do that, but that's not my focus here.
Many people would argue that pure SBG is a reasonable practice precisely because the skills that students need are the skills that are in the standards. Primarily, they need to know how to read, write, and do math.
On this point, too, it is important to be clear. I am not arguing that skills included in the standards are not valuable. I believe many of them are, and they have an important place in a person's development. The problem I have with them primarily is the way they're being used, and secondarily how limited in scope they are in defining what counts as valuable human competencies.
Let's start with how they're being used.
Standards, as I see them, are best suited to serve as reference guides for professional educators who are entrusted to guide the learning of young people who they know and love. The term "standard" gives away an intended use we should problematize. It's borrowed from industries concerned with weights and measures of objects, where it's desirable to produce with consistency. That education has appropriated that term to refer to humans and human development betrays within the term itself the ways in which the use of standards will go wrong.
The beauty and value in human diversity is the diversity itself. It's a big part of how human populations are able to adapt and meet new challenges, by encouraging the innate strengths of their members. And while guidelines like learning competencies can assist professional educators in charting a trajectory for young people's growth, imposing them in ways that create barriers for students in the form of grades can become a form of structural violence.
I begin by making the point that the primary problem with standards is the way their used because if I begin by pointing out how insufficient they are in capturing the myriad forms of valuable human beingness and ability, the inevitable response is usually, "Okay, so we need more standards then." And, sure, we can write learning competencies until we're blue in the face, but we'll certainly never get to them all. And, in doing so, we often don't seem to realize that statements written about competencies are not and never can be a fully accurate descriptor of the competency itself. Language just isn't that advanced. Further, if we can't understand that any quantitative data we record in service of determining whether a student has met said competency is, again, not learning itself but a terribly rough and abstract representation of learning, we will be forever showing up to restaurants and eating the menu.
When we imagine that a stated learning target is the target itself, and that numbers generated from tests is learning itself, we impose our adult inability to understand reality onto students. We let our shortcomings show up in their grades, and then punish them until they become just as out of touch with things as we are.
SBG, in my experience, often comes with a philosophy that positions grades and standards as ends in themselves. In this model of thinking, learning is done in service of standards and grades. And we can imagine here how psychotic this must feel to a young person. No wonder interest in school declines rapidly as students get older. This is a sign that there's hope for our young people. They're not buying it, thank god.
This positioning of grades and standards as ends unto themselves also has grave implications for how we think about equity. When we position standards and grades as ends, we imagine those are the equal outcomes we're trying to create. And we work furiously through how we can possibly engage in equitable practices in order to achieve those equal outcomes. When we do that, we lose sight of the fact that those things we've positioned as desired outcomes (grades and standards) are not outcomes at all. They, too, are practices we employ to achieve real outcomes. The way you can determine this with folks you have conversations with is simply by asking, "Yeah - but why do we want students to reach standard?" or "Why do we want students to get good grades." They'll inevitably go on to talk to you about the economy or something, and with whatever it is they say, you can point out that the grades and standards are in service of something greater. And when we understand this, we understand that they way we employ standards and grades is a question of equity, in that our grading practices either support all students in becoming their best selves or they don't.
My secondary concern with the standards I've had to use is in how they drive what Yong Zhao calls an "employee-oriented" education. Few state standards speak to valuable human competencies like creativity, imagination, interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, ethical/moral awareness, critical citizenship, visual literacy, self awareness, problem-solving, or habits of mind. Furthermore, the standards I've used run the serious risk of orienting teachers and students in a deficit-perspective toward students, as so many of the assets our students bring into the classroom are not affirmed by the standards. These assets are often cultural in nature, as the standards used in the US primarily represent the epistemological values of Eurocentric thinking and culture.
"What if different environments actually cause different kinds of achievement rather than different levels of achievement? What if the intellect of a poor, low testing Black child in a poor Black school is different - and not inferior - to the intellect of a rich, high-testing White child in a rich White school? What if the way we measure intelligence shows not only our racism but our elitism?
"Gathering knowledge of abstract items, from words to equations, that have no relation to our everyday lives has long been the amusement of the leisured elite. Relegating the non-elite to the basement of intellect because they do not know as many abstractions has been the conceit of the elite.
"What if we measured literacy by how knowledgeable individuals are about their own environment: how much individuals knew all those complex equations and verbal and nonverbal vocabularies of their everyday life?
"What if we measure intellect by an individual's desire to know? What if we measured intellect by how open an individual's mind is to self-critique and new ideas
"What if our educational system focused on opening minds instead of filling minds and testing how full they are? What if we realized the best way to standardize a highly effective educational system is not by standardizing our tests but by standardizing our schools to encourage intellectual openness and difference?"
In the wake of NCLB, lots of coverage was given to schools that were cutting recess, art, music, and other "extracurriculars" to support students in preparing for standardized testing. In 2019, there seems to be greater awareness around the harm of these practices (although they still continue), but pure SBG continues the strong possibility of serving as constant test-prep in disguise. If grades are only to be comprised of student learning toward standard, and the standards are the same standards being assessed by the state standardized tests, then what does that mean for students who still struggle to meet standard? In some schools, it means being held back from recess or lunch to work with teachers on classwork, which could run the risk of promoting constant toxic test prep. Which students do we imagine this most likely to impact? And will that impact be in service of their learning?
The good news is that the US isn't the only country in the world, and other governments are recognizing that their young people will need opportunities to develop a wide range of competencies not currently enshrined by standards in the US. The province of Ontario has an exciting set of competencies that they're asking schools to develop.
But even within the US, there are lots of movements seeking to redefine what learning looks like. In their recent book, In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School, Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine spent over 700 hours in high schools to build an analysis of what learning looked like, and how it might be improved. They found that the best teaching and learning often happened at a school's periphery - in clubs, extracurriculars, electives, etc. Not the spaces most heavily colonized by standards, in my view. They also suggested that powerful learning happens at the confluence of three virtues: mastery, identity, and creativity. Indeed, I believe Deeper Learning as an instructional design has much to teach proponents of pure standards-based grading.
While I believe there are plenty of teachers who can bring their classrooms to life within the context of SBG, I believe that when that happens, it will happen in spite of SBG rather than because of it. Pure SBG does not value the status of young people as curious learners who have agency, nor does it value the status of teachers as professionals.
Let's work toward a more inspiring assessment model that works in service of young people's health and growth.
Thousands of years ago, along the coast of a great ocean, there lived a small community of people. One day, early in their history, they gathered to discuss a fascinating question: What’s on the other side of the ocean? For as long as they could remember, nobody had ever sailed to the other side, and they were immensely curious. So they created a plan. They would build a ship and sail. It was a dangerous experiment, and many generations of people failed at first. Eventually, a group of explorers from the community discovered ways of building ships and sailing that took them across the ocean and back.
When the first explorers arrived home from their journey, they regaled their community with stories of other lands and peoples who lived on the other side of the ocean. They brought back ideas and artifacts from the other side to show their families, and, as a result of these new discoveries, their community began to change. One of the most positive changes was the travelers’ expanded understanding of the world. With a greater perspective, they brought back new ways of being, seeing, and questioning things that enriched and evolved the cultural wealth of the community.
It was eventually decided that each member should have the opportunity to experience the journey to the other side of the ocean. As methods for making the journey improved, the community began sending the members of its younger generations to travel across the ocean in their formative years. In this way, young people’s understanding of the world could become enhanced, and each member could add their experience to the wealth of the community at large.
For centuries, the practice of sending young people across the ocean sustained and enriched the cultural identity and wealth of the community. Over time, however, as agricultural and health-care technologies improved, the size of the community began to grow, and the ways that people related to one another began to change. In the earliest years of the community, the people had a great sense of clarity around their identity and purpose. The small size of the community made it relatively easy for people to be heard and hear others. It was understood that the intelligence of the community relied on individuals’ ability to openly and freely communicate their experiences in order to develop new frames of understanding and theories of action undergirded by a common goal. In that way, the community was able to co-create a shared sense of identity, understanding, and purpose. However, as the population of the community increased, the necessary cultural technologies for adequate communication and decision-making among such a large group were not enhanced to keep up. As subcultures and small communities began to emerge within the larger community, people began to disagree about the larger community’s identity and purpose.
The change in the community led to changes in the way people understood and desired to practice the longstanding tradition of seafaring. The tradition continued, but many people began to forget the drivers that led to its original creation: wonder, exploration, and the pursuit of personal and cultural growth. At the same time, the way that some members of the community thought about the core concept of wealth began to shift. The true meaning of wealth as it relates to a potential for psycho-social and cultural evolution began to be reimagined in material terms, and became related to gaining social status in an increasingly hierarchical society. Slowly emptied of its original intent, and divorced from the larger wisdom and history of the community at large, new generations of people began to appropriate the practice of seafaring for their own aims. Individuals began constructing confidently shortsighted plans for the ocean voyage.
Around this time, a group of adults who called themselves the efficient ones began a campaign to reimagine the ocean voyage for the growing number of young people in the community. They spoke about the importance of taking young people to “the destination” and enticed other adults to join the effort with promises of fulfilling one’s social responsibility to the community. Guided by their new understanding of wealth, they also came up with more efficient ways of completing the ocean voyage, so that fewer material resources and fewer adults would have to involve themselves with the development of a larger number of young people. In that way, a growing number of adults could divest and unburden themselves from the responsibility of taking their youth on the ocean journey in order to participate in an increasing competition for economic stability and social status.
The efficient ones developed a complex bureaucracy of adults who could each focus on a very specific aspect of the seafaring endeavor so that they could save time through specialization. Some people collected materials for the boat, while others worked on design. Some would learn to test the waters for safe passage, and still others would map the journey. Over time, social status and monetary benefits became associated with the type of work an adult did within the system. A new decision-making technology was applied where a select few would be given the authority to make decisions that affected everyone even though they didn’t have time to listen to everyone’s views. Those who took on responsibility for making bigger and bigger decisions earned the most status and monetary benefits. These people were called the big decision-makers. Those people tasked with implementing their decisions earned the least status and money.
As the task of creating the ocean voyage experience for young people became more and more complex, so did the boats they traveled on. On the original boats, everyone involved in the journey was openly exposed to the ocean, the sky, and the air. As the technologies for bureaucracy and boat-building became increasingly complex in service of specialization and efficiency, the boats became larger and included many different spaces for different people according to their status and job. In the bowels of the newer, more efficient boats were the offices of the big decision-makers, who received their information about the workings of the boat from their immediate subordinates, whose offices surrounded the big decision-makers. Those subordinates, in turn, received their information from other people who worked in various locations throughout the boat. At each juncture along the way, information passed on by boat workers to their superiors lost a pieces of its integrity, so that the information finally received by the big decision-makers was nearly empty of any reality or authentic experience, and it was with this information they made their decisions. By this time, overwhelmed with the minutiae of maintaining complex bureaucratic necessities, few people had much time or reason to leave their spaces below deck. As a result, few people aside from those tasked with cleaning the boat were ever exposed to the elements of nature or a view of the ocean.
Consigned to their central office below deck and the consumed with the task of making efficient administrative decisions about the journey, the big decision-makers became most insulated and out of touch from anything going on outside of the boat. Lacking the time to go above deck, to listen to youth and other adults on board, or re-experience the value of the journey themselves, big decision-makers came to rely on abstract representations of the reality outside their offices. Those representations included the views and attitudes of those most similar to them (their immediate subordinates) and numeric representations that the efficient ones had determined to be associated with success.
Meanwhile, those adults who’d been hired to row the boats below deck did not agree on where they were going, only that they had signed up to take young people to “the destination.” While most believed that their idea of “the destination” was probably the same as every other adult’s idea, most adults had actually become overworked and generationally disconnected from any strong sense of where “the destination” was. Because of this, many of the adults, isolated in unique compartments, rowed in different directions, which ultimately caused the extremely technologically sophisticated boat designed by the efficient ones to go in circles, never traveling more than a mile from its own shore.
Bogged down in their offices, and bolstered by a confidence in plans that had been created by very small number people from among the larger community, the big decision-makers found ways to imagine that the numeric representations of reality indicated that their decisions were moving the boat across the ocean. For example, at one point along the way, someone had mistakenly deduced that decreasing ocean surface temperatures indicated movement across the ocean, and so the big decision-makers ordered thousands of expensive thermometers to test the ocean waters at all times. When it was reported to the big decision-makers that the temperatures had decreased, the big decision-makers assumed they were crossing the ocean, even when it was a change in the seasons that had caused the drop. Remaining below deck, insulated from reality, and relying on gross misinterpretations of their inadequate representations, the big decision-makers did not see that, despite months of travel, the shore from which they left was still visible from the boat.
Some of the newer and more sophisticated boats still carried community elders who remembered earlier times. These elders went above deck often, drawn to the experience of reality and saddened by the psychosis that gripped the big decision-makers. However, as generations became used to the newer and more sophisticated ships and bureaucracies, most of the adults began to forget that there was an above-deck to visit, and, like the big decision-makers, became fully concentrated on their own representations of reality, which were largely framed by the ongoing communications they received from the big decision-makers about how the water was getting colder, and how that was a sign the journey was progressing.
So attached to their confidence in their system, the big decision-makers would sometimes get angry if reports about the thermometers didn’t indicate the water was getting colder. They would yell at the other workers on the boat about the water, even when the boat was moving across the ocean. In order to ease the stress and tension related to all the yelling, some adults and young people began bringing ice on their journeys. They would throw the ice in the water around the thermometers in order to soothe the nerves of the big decision-makers, regardless of whether the boat was actually crossing the ocean or not. At other times, those charged with reporting the thermometer temperature would simply lie so as not to anger the big decision-makers.
When the new kind of ocean voyages organized by the efficient ones began, most members of the community who remained on shore would watch bewildered as some ships went in circles just a mile or so off shore and then eventually returned. When the big decision-makers would step off the boat, having returned from their circles, the community would ask them what they were doing making circles out there for months. The big decision-makers were confused at first, acknowledging that they never actually made it to new lands. But, certain that their methods were sound, they began helping the community come to a new understanding of the ocean voyage. The big decision-makers talked to the community about the importance of cold water, and how cold water means good things for young people.
Every now and then, an elder would attempt to remind a big decision-maker about traveling to new lands or developing one’s perspective, and the big decision-makers would nod and say, “Yes, yes. We agree. That’s why cold water is important.” At other times, concerned members of the community would suggest that big decision-makers go above deck from time to time in order to assess the progress of the voyage. And the big decision-makers would say, “Yes, yes. We could try that. But also - we have many tasks to do in our offices to make sure the water gets cold.”
Over time, young people began to express disagreement with getting on board these ships in the first place. When this happened, the big decision-makers would use their status in the community to drown out young people’s voices with impressive charts that showed how the water on every successive journey was actually getting colder. They demonstrated the increasing coldness with ever darker colors of blue, and this convinced many people.
Exhausted by the increasing psychosis of the big decision-makers, and unable to convince them they ought to lower their bureaucratic workload to get out of their offices in order to achieve more direct experiences with reality, large numbers of people in the community began simply to adapt their understanding of the purpose of the ocean voyage itself. The new reason to go on the ocean voyage, it was said, was that the challenge of enduring a months-long journey in the bowels of a ship that went in circles was actually a beneficial process for young people. This was true because, as the society was changing, much of the rest of the its institutions had begun to mirror the same psychotic bureaucratic tendencies employed by the ocean voyage system. “This is good preparation for the rest of society,” people would say.
In this way, a ceremony that once fed a community and fostered personal and cultural evolution became empty of its original energy and intent, and was repurposed in a way that created opposite results. Lacking the technologies to foster true listening and communication among such a large group of people, the community ultimately disconnected itself from itself and from its truth, leaving many young people confused and bewildered by a community who’d left them to fend for themselves.