Standards-Based Grading: Helping Students Through Points Addiction

You must remember why it is that you first came to the Internet, chilled and disheveled, looking for answers. The reasons are slightly different for every teacher, but they all distill down to the idea that you want students to love learning and to stop seeing school as drudgery.

One of the best parts about implementing standards-based grading is the opportunity to talk with my students about how the system changes their school experience. I introduce SBG on the first day just like I would introduce anything else: with a really solid question:

What do you do if you bomb a quiz?

Here are actual student responses:

  1. “Cry”
  2. “Don’t care, it wasn’t a test”
  3. “Study for the next one more”
  4. “I’ve never bombed a quiz”
  5. “Forget about it and move on”

How do you feel about those answers? Personally, they make me want to die. I can’t imagine worse symptoms of academic pestilence than those answers. Did you notice the complete lack of the word “feedback,” or any of its derivatives, in their answers? I did.

Want to know what teachers say about quizzes? “They’re [Quizzes] for telling students where they [students] are and what they need to study.”


All of that to say that we have some mental re-ordering to do. As the semester moves on, we begin to really muck around in the trenches, fighting for these students’ academic dignity. I begin to assess what they’re learning, and I begin to give biting feedback as to where these students have taken missteps, or perhaps where they should go with their newly mastered concepts.

This is where the real work is, the day-in, day-out struggle against points while striving for learning. As I introduce the SBG system to them, I may give them a 10 minute primer full of florid descriptions and magnetic prose, but here’s what they hear: “We get to retake stuff.”

They don’t have any context. They’ve never once been responsible for their own learning. After the first quiz, usually on the limit definition of the derivative, students invariably walk up to me and say, “can I retake that quiz now?”

They haven’t studied, they haven’t even tried another problem. This is a manifestation of their complete ignorance to the process of studying and retention. Half the time they think I’m going to hand them the same effing problem from the first quiz that they just memorized the solution to in the hallway five seconds before waltzing into my room.

They don’t see things in terms of over-arching concepts and sweeping ideas, they see things as points, and that they have to jump as many hurdles for points to get a good grade. Barf.

Now, I’m not trying to be negative, to the contrary, I’m trying to provide a narrative here that will help myself (next year’s myself) and maybe you, see why SBG is a more natural and productive way of running a classroom.

So, here’s the great problem: the standards. This has been pointed out in various non-productive ways by the talking heads on twitter and other anti-graders lurking the Internet. They all seem to be reanimating my BFF, JJ Rousseau, who so clearly points out that children need to be afforded the time to experience the consequences of their actions, they need to be given the choice as to what experiences will define their lives, and little to no guidance should be provided, as it will pervert the purity of their investigations.

Hi, my ideas will be very attractive to marijuana users during the 70's.

When you say it like that, JJ, it’s hard to resist hopping on the grade-less bandwagon bound for Rainbows-and-Unicorn City.

As satirical as I may be, I have to admit that the standards become an artificial framework that adults place on students. In the end, if you let it, SBG becomes nothing more than just another system of hoops that may or may not coalesce with the student’s true life experiences.

What this breakdown looks like in a modern classroom: Student walks in, asks what their lowest standard is, and then blindly attempts to reassess despite have done no remediation.

The philosophical errors here are staggering. The teacher, first off, is allowing the farce. Second, the student has not changed his/her understanding of education at all; they are still lusting for points. Finally, and the most acerbic, is that the standards have become lifeless hunks of parboiled tripe to be ingested but not enjoyed. I’m not sure whether to cry out or Hulk out.

Here’s how I deal with these issues:

1. Maintain Your Philosophical Footing:

You must remember why it is that you first came to the Internet, chilled and disheveled, looking for answers. The reasons are slightly different for every teacher, but they all distill down to the idea that you want students to love learning and to stop seeing school as drudgery.

2. “Standards” Was A Poor Choice:

“Standards” is a loaded term that has been hijacked by the multitude of edu-jargon trundlers. Who cares what the word is. Boil your class down to some essential ideas that you want to assess all progress against, and then you’ve got it.

The standards in SBG are NOT the same list of limestone pillars handed down to you from whatever authority tells you what to teach. The SBG name isn’t that simple. These are the standards you create for your students in your classroom.

My list isn’t even the same every year. I make it up as we go along. I have to trust myself to be a professional educator and not a hourly-wage to-do list crosser-offer. I have to have more respect for my job than to just stick someones else’s list of garbage into my grade book.

If something is so important, it will show up naturally; I have to believe that.

3. Like Magnets, Assessment is Neat but Does No Real Work.

You’re always trying to get a picture of what they know, but the lens of the assessment camera is often festooned with bias. The child may not understand your motivations. Sometimes, as the shutter quickly snaps, the student may provide a horrifically fake smile at just that moment, which, after being developed, you will have to explain to friends and family that no, this child does not need facial reconstructive surgery. Basing the rest of this child’s grade and or school experience on these few perhaps erroneous pictures is a travesty. Assessment functions as feedback, and if that’s not a loop, you’re doing it wrong.

What’s it all mean, Basil?

So, where does SBG fit into all of this? Why are we “reforming” assessment, just to have it be “reformed” again in five years? Because it’s always the same problem stinking up the joint. We all just want to do what’s best for our students, and we’re being forced to grade them while we do that.

Do I really think that Jeremy needs a “B” because his brain has yet to develop the abstract thinking skills to truly grasp physics? His algebra procedures are polished, but he just doesn’t know how to apply them, yet. The key word is “yet.” The grade here becomes ridiculous, I know that Jeremy would end up a fantastic physicists/engineer/mathematician, but he also happens to be 16 right now.

Taking students from where they are to somewhere further down the road is our job. It sucks that we have to grade, but I’m not in control of that, and I can only imagine how things would end up if the grade abolitionists mandated their way. What I do know is that SBG most closely reflects the real learning that I do in my adult life, and that’s what I’m going to model and use with my students.

In the end, it’s not about you adopting SBG, or how you write your perfect list of standards. It’s about a philosophical shift in your room. Are you going to allow growth? Are you going to nip at students’ heels when they chase points instead of learning? Are you going to do things in class that are rich and thought provoking that just so happen to demand the use of lower order thinking skills to get the job done? Are you going to free yourself from that existentially binding curriculum and realize that choice is the only way of self-actualizing? Are you going to punch me for writing that last question?

Want more? Read Joe Bower as he kicks grading in the teeth.