Standards Based Education

Today I had a meeting with my fellow middle school teachers to discuss our transition to a standards based report card. We will be part of the last group of teachers in our district to switch to a standards based system of assessment and teaching.

Many schools in our district have met with fierce opposition to our new standards based report cards, chiefly from parents. Why? Well, for one thing our report cards will no longer have A's or B's but rather simply a check, if the child is meeting the standard, an "N" if they are not, and a rare "+" if they exceed the standards. Parental opposition to this new system is understandable. Parents want to know what the hell they are looking at when they review their child's report card. Everyone is familiar with the old A,B,C,D,F system, and a standards based system is foreign to them.

What is a standards based system? Well, despite the fears of our parents that we are dumbing down our grading or moving away from a traditional system of performance assessment, standards based education is spreading nationwide, largely as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act. Standards Based Education is a response to the large number of students nationwide who seem to be getting high school diplomas and yet can't actually demonstrate that they have learned anything. Traditional grades have the potential to be very subjective from one school or one teacher to the next. Standards based education is an effort to normalize what a student should know and be able to do at a specific grade level, by state.

Our school district was among the first in Ohio to switch to a standards based report card, and the uproar has been significant. What most parents don't realize is that in the next ten years, most schools nation wide with K-8 classes, and even many high schools, will switch to this system. In fact, it has been a much bigger challenge selling this concept to parents than it has been to teachers or students. Of course, a teacher who is doing their job right really won't be affected all that much, since they are hopefully already checking to make sure their students can meet grade level benchmarks. The real bitch of it for teachers is changing the way we assess, or grade, students, and that is really more of a practical challenge than an intellectual one. For the most part, teachers who are keeping up with appropriate professional development are ready for the change and can handle it. The real problem comes from the old fossils that have been teaching for 25 generations and can't handle change.

One very valid critism has been how to motivate talented and higher ability students. In essence an 8th grader could figure out just how much he has to do to earn that check mark on his report card, indicating that he is consistently meeting the standard (like understanding and explaining cause and effect relationships, for example), and not do much else. What is left to motivate him to exceed the standard? To earn a "+", a student must consistently exceed the standard, or go above and beyond what he would normally need to do. This proves rather difficult for most students, so why bother when there is no obvious benefit? Traditional grading systems invite students to work hard and push themselves to earn an A. Get that 4.0, or higher if they take AP classes. Where it would be a challenge to consistently earn A's, it would be relatively easy for a high ability student to get a "check." Where a standards based system proves really useful for primary grade students, as the student develops intellectually, a more traditional system may be called for, if for no other reason than to help motivate them.

Of course, a great deal of the public outcry our district has experienced is no doubt a result of the change itself. Changing the system of grades that we knew, our parents knew, and so on, is big deal. People often fear change, even if the system being changed has flaws. As the change to a standards beased system ages a bit, many of the students and parents who have young children now will grow accustomed to it, and perhaps understand it better. Students now in kindergarten or first grade will never know a grade card without a check or an "N", and so as they move up the grade levels, perhaps the fear and discomfort this change has caused will subside.

As for me, I am reserving judgement until I have had more experience assessing my students according to a standards based system using a standards based report card. While making sure my students are meeting the standards and benchmarks is nothing new to me, the philosphical shift in the way I assess that learning will take some adjustment. We shall see. At the end of the day, if students graduating from high school can show they have had a meaningful education, I am willing to try almost any reasonable idea.

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