Standards-based grading won’t help students

Science classes primarily opt for new system


For the 2020-2021 school year, the Acalanes Union High School District, which includes Miramonte High School, decided to test a new grading policy in chemistry and physics classes. 

This new system, called standards-based grading, assigns points to students on a scale from zero to four based on a student’s  process to find an answer and their mastery over a topic. Although it is meant to deepen students’ understanding of concepts, standards-based grading will not help students learn and will instead place more pressure on students to master every topic. The standards-based grading system is not a good way to assess students’ achievement and should not be used in classes.

The district is planning to continue using the standards-based grading policy for Chemistry in the Earth System and Physics of the Universe classes in subsequent years. “We are piloting it this year specifically for our science courses, because we now have a few teachers who have had experience in standards-based grading and know the value of it, and because distance learning requires more feedback for the students,” Physics of the Universe teacher Tiffany Palmberg said.

Although not every physics and chemistry teacher must use the policy, many Miramonte teachers have opted for standards-based grading. “The decision to use standards-based grading is not a universal district decision, but an option for teachers to consider,” Miramonte Principal Julie Parks said.

Schoology, a learning management system and virtual learning platform for students, outlines the differences between a traditional grading system and standards-based grading. In a traditional grading system, credit is awarded based on a 100-point scale, which includes homework, tests, and projects, and overall grades are calculated on a percent scale using the scores from all assignments. Standards-based grading utilizes a four point scale based primarily on assessments and performance tasks.

Standards-based grading is an unfair way to assess students because it places all emphasis on assessments and performance tasks and most coursework does not count toward the final class grade. This means that students must do well on all tests, which adds unnecessary stress. Students commonly suffer from test anxiety, which Oxford Learning describes as feeling nervous before exams. When grades are based solely on test performance, test anxiety increases. “Students who struggle with test anxiety typically fall a half a letter grade below their peers,” Oxford Learning states.

Additionally, each test question is rated as a level one, two, or three problem, with one being “easy” and three being “challenging.” With standards-based grading, students must be able to correctly answer level three questions to achieve a higher score, instead of simply being awarded points based on how many problems they can complete accurately. This means that all students must go “above-and-beyond” in class in order to earn their desired grade. This is a completely unreasonable expectation because level three questions are the most difficult, so students have the highest chance to get these problems wrong, not necessarily because they don’t understand the material, but because the question is new and meant to challenge.

“It seems like the grading system is a way to try and bring down our grade point averages, and it’s like teachers are trying to see us do poorly,” junior Kate Sinha said.

By only responding to level one and two problems, a student can only earn up to a B, which does not necessarily reflect the effort a student is putting into the class. “I hate the standards-based grading system. It makes it so much harder to get an A,” junior Bridget Meagher said. “I think standards-based grading will end up being harmful to our grades rather than beneficial.”

However, some students and teachers feel that standards-based grading is a better way to gauge students’ understanding and helps them see what students need to improve on. “I think standard-based grading benefits most students, because students don’t get penalized for learning slower than the class, and there is more understanding of grades and support for the students built into this way of grading,” Palmberg said. But this is not the case for many students because, under the grading policy, failure to understand every concept at a high level actually penalizes students by resulting in lesser grades. 

Because of the emphasis on tests, standards-based grading does not take into account students’ practice assignments and homework, so they are forced to perform above average on all assessments in order to achieve a desired high grade. For example, in Palmberg’s classes, 30 percent of the grade now is based on labs and quizzes, while 70 percent is based on unit tests, performance tasks, and finals, leaving no room for course work to factor in. Practice assignments are very important for the learning process, so not being awarded for this hard work is discouraging for many. 

“I don’t like how homework isn’t graded. I think this will cause many students to do worse in this course, because they won’t do the homework and therefore may not know the material,” junior Lindsey Lucas said. 

Most homework and practice work does not count toward the overall grade for the classes using standards-based grading, even though practice assignments are a crucial step for many students to get a better grasp of the material before exams. But for a few students, standards-based grading will not affect motivation to complete assignments, even though not all coursework counts toward the final grade. “I would say I feel equally motivated now as I did before to complete my homework regardless of the grading system,” sophomore Giovanni Bottene said. Nonetheless, the new grading policy is overall a worse system than the traditional method because it punishes students for struggling with the difficult material instead of promoting an environment where students can learn from their mistakes. 

According to the Aurora Institute, “Standards are criterion or proficiency-based” in a standards-based grading system. This is hurtful to students because their “proficiency” with a standard affects their grade; students who struggle with a specific standard will see their grade disproportionately reflect that while students who excel will not see a large or helpful improvement in their scores because only one grade is assigned per standard.

“I do feel pressure to complete and understand the very challenging problems in order to get an A because you must be able to do these problems to receive that grade,” Lucas said. Standards-based grading places unnecessary pressure on students to be able to complete the above average problems perfectly instead of helping people through the learning process, which should be the main focus. 

Since standards-based grading is being tested this year for the first time in chemistry and physics classes, current students in these courses will be stuck with potentially poor grades as a result of this year’s new grading system. 

   “I think it is a bad time to try out standards-based grading because of the fact that we are so new to online learning so this just makes it more complicated for everyone,” Sinha said. With such a major shift to distance learning this school year, forcing people to work through a brand new grading system places unnecessary stress and confusion on students.

The standards-based grading system is not indicative of students’ knowledge of the subject and effort in class. It is no longer enough to work hard for an above average grade; now, students must be able to complete all high difficulty problems and tasks based on the standard or risk their grade falling.   Standards-based grading places more stress on students who are already working extremely hard with no advantage to the policy. Standards-based grading must be revoked in favor of a traditional system in which students are rewarded for their successes instead of being penalized for their shortcomings.