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Some Wisconsin Schools Use Standards-Based Grading...What Is That?

Rachel Morello
Science teacher David Venne invites students to help him with a class demonstration at Racine Case High School.

Several Wisconsin school districts are trying a new method of evaluating what students learn.

It’s called “standards-based grading,” and it’s different than the typical A-F grading system people may be used to.

Advocates believe the new approach will replace the old system. But, in order for the practice to catch on, it will take a shift in mindset from both parents and educators.

A 'Whole New Way of Thinking'

Credit Rachel Morello
Students in David Venne's physics class attempt to fly homemade "hovercrafts" at Racine Case High School.

At first, when you step into David Venne’s room at Racine Case High School, it looks like any other public school science class. 

Venne’s kids take notes, do practice problems and experiments; today, they’re making “hovercrafts” – newfangled paper airplanes – to explore the concept of friction.

What’s different about Mr. Venne’s class is that at the end of every period, students take a quiz. It counts toward their grade, yes. But more importantly, it helps the teacher identify what the students understood from his lesson – and what he may need to go back over, next class period.

“In years past, we kind of just hoped for the best, that the understood the material, and we just keep moving on,” Venne explains, with a chuckle. “So, [this change] has actually caused me to slow down a little bit in certain areas. Certain things that I normally would have done in a day, take me two or three days now, because I realize [the students] aren’t getting it.”

Credit Rachel Morello
Mr. Venne's class plan

The way Mr. Venne is gauging student growth is part of a new method called “standards-based grading.” It’s a way of measuring how students are progressing toward mastery of certain skills.

Which skills are measured depends on what academic standards the school follows – in other words, which benchmarks they’ve set for students to reach by the time they leave high school. In Venne’s case, that means the Next Generation Science Standards – the nationally-recognized guidelines Racine Unified has in place for its science teachers; in other cases, schools may follow the Common Core State Standards, or another set of principles set forth by the state, or their district.

How standards-based grading works, may look different in different schools – even classroom to classroom in the same building. Whereas Mr. Venne uses quizzes at Racine Case, some teachers might evaluate kids through projects, or writing assignments.

“This is really a whole new way of thinking about how we communicate student progress,” says Lisa Westman, an educational consultant based across Wisconsin and Illinois.

How Is Standards-Based Grading Different?

Westman says there are two key differences between this new approach, and how students have traditionally been evaluated.

Number one: pacing. 

“Rather than everybody meeting a certain criteria by a date – like, ‘spelling test on Friday!’ -- students have more flexibility in their pace,” she explains. “So they can master things more quickly and extend their learning, or it may take them longer and their teacher may account for that.”

And number two: how what students are learning is communicated.

It’s not just pass/fail; standards-based grading is all about progression. Teachers often keep a 10- to 15-page record for all students, listing each benchmark they’re taught – and words like “meets” or “exceeds” to describe whether students have grasped each concept.

"Gone are the days that that bank statement comes, and you sit down with a checkbook and you reconcile it. It's more of a running record...It's the same thing with grading."

Westman says this is the challenge in getting people to adopt standards-based grading: it confuses some parents and students who are used to seeing a single letter grade on report cards.

“A report card is analogous to a bank statement,” she explains. “We get a bank statement every month, and it’s a formal summary of our activity. But the very next day, that all changes.”

“Gone are the days, for most people, that that bank statement comes, and you sit down with a checkbook and you reconcile it. It’s more of a running record. And you’re constantly checking where you’re at. It’s the same thing with grading. The systems that are available to us allow parents to do the same thing – you can check different pieces as you want.”

Parents also may have a hard time understanding how a standards-based report card replaces a GPA, and how it will work for college acceptance.

Science teacher David Venne says he hopes more people begin to understand the shift to the new grading method. He says its benefits are countless -- he’s seeing them already in his classroom.

“I think it will actually cause good teaching to occur,” Venne says. “Activities that I may have done before, I really have to ask myself, ‘Is that aligning to a specific standard? Or is it something I’ve always just done?’”

“It’s a win, I think, for everyone. It’ll just be a little bit of a mind-shift because it’s new.”

Racine Unified is one of a handful of districts in southeastern Wisconsin shifting to standards-based grading – including Glendale-River Hills, Milwaukee and Greendale public schools. Over the last 5 to 10 years, it’s caught on around the country, too.

And experts say, if more school systems join the phenomenon, colleges will get on board -- and standards-based learning could be the movement that makes letter grades a thing of the past.

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