Over the past two years at my school we've been engaged in a critical analysis of the standards-based academic system that began its development process over 10 years ago and has been fully in place since 2001 (our Class of 2004 received the first standards-based diplomas). Last year we worked to change the way that we communicate our grades, moving away from the 1, 2, 3, 4 "numbers that aren't numbers" that represented not meeting, partially meeting, meeting, and exceeding expectations (there were even .2, .5, and .8 modifiers added to the 2s and 3s to represent gradations of partially meeting or meeting expectations at low, middle, and high levels). Students, parents, and colleges didn't really understand what the numbers meant, so we moved to an A - F system that remains standards-based by setting expectations for what students have to achieve for individual standards as well as for the course.
The expectations that we set for individual standards are that Ds & Fs do not meet, C- to C+ partially meets, B- to A- meets, and A exceeds. We continued our direct formal relationship between content / skill standards grades and the course grade; to meet expectations for a course, students have to meet expectations for the strong majority of the standards, and can partially meet the few remaining. With this in mind, we set expectations for courses as Ds & Fs do not meet (students must repeat the course), C- as partially meets (students get one extra 9-week quarter to improve their work), C to A- as meets, and A as exceeds. We also continued the rule from the previous system that requires students to meet expectations for all standards in order to get a course grade at that same level; students must earn B- or better in all of their standards in order to earn a course grade of B- or better, and students who partially meet even one standard can only earn a C or C+ for their course grade.
This change to letter grades has really shined a light on some of the underlying issues with our standards-based system. First, we have too many standards - some courses have up to 13 content & skill standards, along with four academic initiative standards. Second, our expectation that the majority of student work will be at the B- level has lead many to express concern about the ability of students to achieve at that level and/or the concern that grades are getting inflated. Third, the way that we've set our expectations for standards and courses, along with the way that we've set up the formal relationship between standard grades and the course grade, means that students who partially meet expectations for all standards earn a course grade that does not meet expectations; this means that a student could get all C+'s for their standards, but yet receive a course grade of D. Fourth, concerns remain that students are only oriented toward achievement and not toward the process of learning, in part due to the lack of consequence for low grades in academic initiative. Finally, a fifth concern remains about whether or not it's necessary to continue reporting grades for all standards on the report cards (along with the course grade and a narrative) - it's more information, but is it being used?
To address the first concern, I've asked departments to look at the new standards for our state (called the Parameters for Essential Instruction), along with some set of national standards of their choosing, to come up with a list of 3 - 5 standards for each course. It seems reasonable to me that we should continue to grade each major knowledge / skill component of our courses, but also that having too many components dilutes the message that each of them is so critical that student work in it must meet expectations. To address the other concerns, we've set up a Grading Committee. Yesterday I presented that group's work to the faculty - we had some good questions and comments come up, and will have a final discussion on Friday at our in-service before moving forward with Standards 2.0. I'm embedding that presentation below so that readers can see some of the ideas we've come up with, and, I hope, provide some comments based on your own knowledge and experience. It's my hope that sharing about what we've experienced with standards-based academics at my school can help others who are starting along that path, and that it'll present us with an opportunity to learn from you as we move to refine our system.