This school year, a number of districts across the US decided to eliminate penalties for late assignments and allow multiple retakes for assessments. A recent editorial in the Los Angeles Times argues that these reforms will help teachers to evaluate “the skills and knowledge students gained and how well they think,” and replace a system that puts “students of color and those from lower-income households at a distinct disadvantage.”
For good measure, the LA Times also published an article earlier this month explaining how English teacher Joshua Moreno “got fed up with his grading system, which had become a points game.” For the sake of “equity” and minimizing complaints about grades, he simply did away with performance-based grades (“traditional grading”) altogether and assigned grades for learning a skill or concept instead. Under this framework, even incomplete work or work turned in late could plausibly receive a high grade if “learning” was somehow exhibited.
This new system is known as “standards-based grading” or “mastery-based grading,” but this is a misnomer because it actually destroys standards and discourages mastery. It’s not even grading, it is a way to avoid grading that allows for grade inflation, a dumbing-down of classroom materials, and the elimination of accountability measures. Nevertheless, the theory has become reality, and progressive educators are insisting that it works just fine.
In order to understand how standards-based grading hollows out schools from within, we must examine the faulty assumptions on which it relies.
First, standards-based grading assumes that learning a concept or skill has nothing to do with independently completing work in a timely manner. This assumption is absurd. If a student can complete an assignment in a given amount of time (say, a class period) fulfilling certain evaluative criteria, that demonstrates their mastery of the task at hand. If they cannot, or if they can only do so poorly, it proves the reverse. This is the whole point of daily worksheets, quizzes, in-class essays, tests, and exams.
When students are allowed to take assignments home, spend as much time as they want on them, and get help from anyone and anything, then the value of simply completing them is diminished. That is if students complete the work at all. Standards-based grading allows teachers to lower their number of failures by assigning alternative work that theoretically covers all the skills of a particular unit. So, if a student has slept through two projects and an essay, a short paragraph that mentions the relevant terms can be used to justify a claim that the student has “mastered the standard” even if it isn’t really true.
Second, standards-based grading assumes that a system of due dates and objective assessments unfairly favors certain students over others, as though some students simply can’t comply on account of their race or class. According to a letter from Los Angeles Unified School District’s instructional directors to principals, traditional grading is used to “justify and to provide unequal educational opportunities based on a student’s race or class.”
But how? Students in the same classroom with the same teacher all have the same opportunity to turn in their work. Some comply and some don’t. Any disparity, particularly in work meant to be done in class, is mostly the result of students’ choices. Instead of incentivizing better choices among low-performing groups, eliminating due dates and offering infinite retakes only reinforces and excuses bad habits. It is the soft bigotry of low expectations.
Third, standards-based grading assumes perfect cooperation from students. Given more time and less pressure, the idea is that they will turn in their work and learn the material eventually. And this requires trust that no students will copy another’s work or cheat in any way. This is wishful thinking. Freed from the incentive to work, it is more likely that they will simply stop working. Instead of completing assignments under a teacher’s supervision, students will play on their phone during class, wait and see what assignments are actually graded, copy someone else’s paper, and turn everything in the day grades are due. And those are the students who actually turn something in. Others will do nothing all year long and often get away with it.
Fourth, standards-based grading assumes perfect cooperation from teachers. Faced with the need to nag students for their work, assign tutorials, call home, alert counselors and administrators, and continually update the grades for every assignment, it will not be surprising if teachers decide to hold their noses and simply pass all their students. As for those brave souls who dare to confront lazy or struggling students, they are likely to be told that they’re just not doing enough to engage and accommodate their classes, making the whole effort pointless.
Finally, standards-based grading is just bad pedagogy. It assumes academic disciplines can be broken into individual standards that a teacher can isolate and assess independently. For instance, a typical standards-based English curriculum may call for students to master drawing inferences. But no matter how well the teacher designs and supervises an activity, determining how well a student demonstrates mastery of this standard is practically impossible. An ability to draw accurate inferences is directly tied to an ability to summarize details, determine a line of reasoning, discern an author’s purpose, and so on. Reading comprehension is a complex process that defies an arbitrary breakdown of skills.
Moreover, assessing students’ reading ultimately depends on what they’re actually reading. Content matters as a much as skills, yet standards-based learning downplays the importance of content—as the name suggests, it is instruction based on standards not content. This opens the door to an English teacher using much easier texts (or even non-textual media) to grade the student’s mastery of standards.
In the name of standards-based grading, many teachers now dispense with the literary canon and replace it with ideologically fashionable (and much easier) texts. Students who once labored through Shakespeare, Homer, and Dickens will now skim snippets of young adult fiction, analyze animated short films, and ponder the figurative language of a pop song. While this content often leads to more students passing the class and ostensibly more engagement, it also slows learning down or stops it altogether.
Consequently, under standards-based grading, students are doing little, learning less, and receiving high grades, and teachers have to grin and bear it as best they can. As fellow teacher Shane Trotter argues, all this has demoralized teachers already struggling to restore normalcy to their classrooms. No one around them seems to care, so they stop caring too.
The false assumptions of standards-based grading become apparent when the theory is actually applied. This year has shown that when work can be turned in at any time for no penalty and all tests can be retaken and corrected ad infinitum, the motivation to actually complete anything flies out the window. The school day becomes one long study-hall in which students only look at their work from time to time.
For those high achievers inclined to grade grub, standards-based grading will enable them to harass their teachers with even greater impunity. If a teacher dares give anything less than 100 percent on an assignment, he can expect an onslaught of students demanding an opportunity to redo the assignment. For the rest of the class who only care about passing, standards-based grading will allow them to coast. They do the bare minimum and blow off instruction on a regular basis. If they really are failing—and they usually aren’t—the teacher will give them every opportunity to turn it all around, even when it’s obvious the student hasn’t accomplished or learned anything.
Standards-based learning does lead to more equal outcomes, but only by flattening everyone down to a lower educational standard. Many formerly strong, disciplined students succumb to indolence because they understandably feel like chumps. Meanwhile, even low-performing students find ways to do even less and openly brag about it.
All of this is a lie, but it’s a lie that many of today’s public school educators are choosing to live by. Until leadership takes action or more parents raise objections, the broadening trend of standards-based grading will continue to wreak havoc across schools. Either it goes, or the schools adopting it will.
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.