I'm cross-posting here a response I wrote to the post "Settling the Score" over at What It's Like on the Inside, which discusses standards-based grading and references a recent article in the NY Times called "Report Cards Give Up A's and B's for 4s and 3s".
Great post, SG ... I've been chomping at the bit to find some time to leave a comment, and I hope it's not the case that the discussion here has already come & gone.
From my perspective, I think the 1 - 4 grading system for standards is a bad idea, for a few reasons. First, the 1 - 4 system is, I would suggest, so similar to the GPA system that they are easily confused. If using the 1 - 4 system is a matter of using shorthand symbols for communication efficiency, we could just as easily use shapes ... a circle for not meeting expectations, a triangle for partially, a square for meeting, and a star for exceeding. We could also just use the narrative definition of what each number is intended to represent, as others have mentioned.
Of course, those narratives and/or shapes don't necessarily have the simple ordinal inference that the number symbols do, which help the consumers of the information to determine their position in the continuum of learning. This leads to my second concern: the 1 - 4 system breaks the learning continuum into too few categories, one of which (the highest) is not available to all students at all times. The example used about simple addition skills is perhaps better critiqued from a curricular organization standpoint, but it'll serve as a good example about the problem with the grading system, too: if the concept / skill ("standard") is defined with such specificity that it can't be measured other than in a binary nature, it should not be considered a standard (it also opens the question about "scripted" teaching when standards are excessively narrow and numerous). I think teachers deserve multiple tools for assessing student learning, and trying to squeeze everything into the four categories represented by the 1 - 4 system makes an inherently difficult task even more difficult; furthermore, I think it gets us away from the most important goals of standards-based reform.
Nothing, to me, reveals the complexity and difficulty of the standards-based reform hypothesis more than the commonly-used but poorly-formed phrase "meeting the standard". The word standard is being used in two different ways: first, as an articulated concept or skill that should be learned as a result of the class; second, as an articulated expectation of a learning outcome. Therein lies my third concern with the 1 - 4 system: it's a "solution" to the wrong problem. The problem is that it is difficult to describe what we want students to learn and how we expect them to demonstrate to us that they've learned.
The 1 - 4 grading system doesn't solve that problem, it makes it worse because it confuses (and potentially alienates) parents and other consumers of our outcome reports like college & university admission officers. It's important that we acknowledge that our students are moving through a continuous educational system; it is our folly and detrimental to students to ignore the importance of good communication among all constituents in the educational community. While it's possible that parents and colleges might become savvy over time, it's just as likely that parents might become disengaged from their child's educational progress earlier or that colleges might mis-translate information in the process of trying to compare student learning outcomes. The 1 - 4 system doesn't inherently improve student-teacher communication, either - the critical component here isn't a grading system, it's rubrics.
Rubrics act as the map for students to navigate what they need to learn and how they need to demonstrate that learning. Rubrics can be aligned with the 1 - 4 system, to be sure, but they can as easily be aligned with grading systems such as A - F or percentages. The point, I think, of standards-based reform is to improve our communication of the concepts and skills that we want students to learn, and to provide students with clear guidelines on how they are to demonstrate their abilities. Rubrics, not grading systems, should be the focus, since they are the key communication tools bring together learning goals, demonstrations of learning, and achievement results.