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Why Standards-Based Grading?

Our world is changing rapidly as we enter an era fueled by exponential advances in technology, medicine, transportation, manufacturing, and energy. All the while, our society tends to resist change and innovation in one area: education. Why is that? Why is a change in how we “do school” so hard to accept? We all have it ingrained in our minds what school looked like, sounded like, and felt like when we were young. Why change a system we all know and understand? Through this letter, I hope to explain why we are making the change to Standards-Based Grading (SBG) in grades kindergarten through eight in West Fargo Public Schools.

The historical grading system was put into place over 100 years ago when the primary focus in public education was acquiring knowledge and information. Taking into account the changes over just the last 20-30 years, the focus of public education has changed significantly. Our families and communities have changed by becoming connected not only to each other, but to a broader global world through mobility, the internet, and social media. We have increased our awareness, empathy, and focus on diversity and inclusion. We now have access to information 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the internet. We can do a simple search to gain knowledge or to find a step-by-step process that we can follow to learn a new skill.

The historical grading system brings all components of a course together into one average score, ultimately giving very little information about where there is room for improvement or where a learner is excelling. In this system, learners are penalized if they come into the course without background knowledge or information. Earning a score of zero or even fifty percent early on in a course can often prevent a learner from ever attaining an A at the end of the term. This simple mathematical fact deters many learners from doing their best to perform. Teachers can see that the system is not producing accurate results, so they work to make it “more fair” to the learners. They do things like weight the assignments, drop the lowest grade, offer extra-credit, etc. No two teachers do it exactly the same, therefore, the grade attained in the end does not have the same meaning from one class to another.

Research has shown us that teachers need to be assessing learner performance on a continual basis, ultimately using the information that they gain to determine what and through what approach they should teach next as well as whether it will be taught to the whole class or to a smaller group.  The standards-based approach breaks each course into several categories so that learners are getting more accurate, meaningful, actionable feedback. Skills like collaboration and responsibility are measured separately using a rubric so that the academic grade is an accurate reflection of what a learner knows and is able to do. For example, rather than one grade in Language Arts, learners earn a score in comprehension, communication, presentation, critical thinking, vocabulary, writing content, and writing conventions. Both the teacher and the learner are guided in each grading period by the district proficiency scale.

The standards-based grading system has been adopted to help support learning and foster a growth mindset. It has been adopted to help support our teachers and allow them to focus on meaningful formative assessments that inform their instruction, while spending less time correcting and computing. The goal is to strengthen the relationship by allowing more time for both the learner and the teacher to focus on the knowledge and skills that are needed.

Is the change to standards-based grading a large learning curve for teachers? Yes. Is the change to SBG confusing and unnatural for parents? Yes. Is SBG better for learners? Yes. When pressed between what is uncomfortable for adults and what is best for students, we will always take the side of students.

West Fargo Public Schools has defined their mission as educating today's learners for tomorrow's world. We believe SBG will help us achieve this mission.

Superintendent Slette
(701) 356-2000