Standards-Based Grading Letter to Parents


Those of you who have tried using standards-based grading in their classroom know that it can be a difficult transition for parents and students who are used to percentage or letter grades. This summer I wrote a sample letter teachers can use to introduce the ideas behind SBG to parents.

I worked HARD to keep the letter short and accessible, so that more parents would read more of it.[2]Not a knock on parents -- they are just busy with the whole having children to care for thing. I also focused on how SBG is different on a single assessment as opposed to how it works for an entire term since many school still mandate an end-of-term type grade.

I am interested in any thoughts or feedback you all have. You are welcome to use all or portions of this letter as your own. Just let me know if you decide to use it -- knowing what I write is useful encourages me to share more. Here is the letter:

An Introduction to Standards-Based Grading

There is a growing movement in education to abandon tradition percent and letter grading for a new system known as standards-based grading (SBG). The goal of this letter is to help the reader understand the motivations for this change as well as how SBG works in my classroom.

Why should we abandon traditional grading methods?

Research has shown that there are a number of issues with traditional grading practices that negatively affect students. Percent and letter grades attempt to summarize a student’s progress with a single value (ex: B+ or 86%). While simple to understand, single-value grades have been shown to be unhelpful and often harmful to students.

Imagine working hard to prepare for a math test. While taking the test you feel pretty good about most of the questions, though there are a few that you find difficult. A few days later, your teacher returns the test. “87% - Good Work,” is written at the top. You feel good about the grade but want to know how to do better on the next test. Based on the feedback, what would you work on improving for future assessments? Unfortunately, there is no way to know from the feedback you received.

“We give a student a grade to show what they did in the past, but we forget to connect that to what they can do going forward.” ActiveGrade - Standards-Based Grading Video

How do traditional grading methods affect students?

Feedback is provided as a means for helping someone improve. When feedback does not accomplish this goal, it ceases to be beneficial and becomes only judgemental. Because traditional grades do not provide useful feedback, students often see grades as fixed and representative of their intelligence instead of their learning. Moreover, presenting feedback as a single value leads students to compare themselves to their peers. The end result is that students are thinking about how to earn higher grades instead of how to better understand.

“When students are sent a label telling them where they stand compared to other students, rather than where they stand in their learning of mathematics, it offers no helpful information and is harmful to students.” Jo Boaler - What’s Math Got To Do With It?

How is SBG different?

SBG attempts to address the above concerns about traditional grading methods by giving students detailed feedback on every assessment without a letter or percent grade. Research has shown that traditional percent or letter grades, even when accompanied by comments, lead students to develop unhealthy mindsets about learning. Moreover, students who have access to SBG are more confident, learn more, and take greater ownership of their learning than those students graded traditionally.

How does SBG work?

Students are given a set of learning goals called standards, and their progress is monitored in terms of their ability to meet those standards. All standards are content-based. In other words, they do not include things like behavior, attendance, or effort. A sixth grade standard, for example, is “Place fractions, decimals, and percents on a number line according to their value.” This is something we want all of our sixth graders to learn how to do.

Every assessment, whether test, quiz, project, or interview, will cover one or more standards. The feedback each student receives specifically addresses how well they are meeting each of the standards. This presents a clear picture of what learning goals each student has met. When students want to do better in class, they simply try to meet more of their standards. Doing well no longer means getting a high grade, it means learning more of the mathematics that is covered in the course.

“An effective standards-based grading and reporting system should eliminate the overall or “omnibus” grade. In its place, teachers should score specific measurement topics.” Marzano and Heflebower - Grades That Show What Students Know