If you’ve had a performance evaluation at work, the most valuable part of an evaluation is not a ranking or score. We want to hear what our supervisor says about how we’re doing our work: What we did well and what we could do to improve. It’s constructive feedback that helps us learn and grow. We know this as adults. Yet school systems have focused almost exclusively on grading systems that relied on accumulations of points and calculations of percentages. As a result many students become adept at “playing school.” They figure out for each teacher exactly how much work to do to get the grade they want. This puts all the emphasis on the points, not on the learning. Like a good job evaluation, a good grading system should give students constructive feedback about learning.

In Eastern Carver County Schools, we are improving the feedback teachers provide to students. Students should know clearly if they have mastered a learning target or if they need more practice. Elementary gradebooks now use standards as the basis for grading. Secondary classrooms are transitioning to a standards-based gradebook. We still calculate letter grades and GPA for high school students, but the focus of grading is to explain how well a student has learned the academic standards for a subject.

Standards are the basis of what we teach and assess. Some examples of standards are: Is there evidence of a persuasive argument in a student’s writing? Can the student multiply fractions? Students have to show these skills and knowledge to their teachers. This part of education is familiar to everyone. While standards-based grading may seem new, it simply is a way for teachers to provide better feedback. The focus of education is learning and developing skills, not points-gathering. Academic standards give teachers benchmarks to judge a student’s evidence of learning. When students know what’s expected of them, they can have opportunities for more independence, like trying different ways to learn or developing a personalized project that shows they know the standard. Consequently, the grading system needs to state clearly if the student is ready for the next level of learning. If the student is not, a standard-based system can help identify the specific skills or knowledge that remains to be mastered. Feedback like “meets standard” or “extends standard,” combined with the standards themselves, gives students and parents/guardians more detail about the learning process.