Ryan Arnold: New standard for grading students

Ryan Arnold is an educator earning his master’s degree in leadership building at Kansas State University.

As high school students head back to school, something you might be hearing more about this year is standards-based grading (SBG). Elementary schools have used a grading system based on skill development for a long time, but you’re probably only used to percentages and letter grades when talking with high school teachers. These grades are usually derived from a method that calculates a combination of homework, projects, quizzes, participation and tests that are weighted to arrive at a percentage and letter grade.


When you have a conference with a teacher, do you really know what your child needs to do to grow in his or her learning? With SBG, those conferences will become much more insightful into your child’s academic development.

This system of grading moves education toward an emphasis on measuring skill development as opposed to merely collecting points on assignments, quizzes and tests. This shift recognizes that each student learns at a unique pace and that we must re-evaluate a system that penalizes students for needing more time to master a skill. With the old grading method, you saw a letter grade that did not specifically describe what skills a student had mastered or which ones were still being practiced to work toward proficiency. SBG will provide a focused snapshot of a student’s current academic performance. The grade is not based on the practice (and oftentimes failure) that comes along with mastering a new skill.

One argument against SBG revolves around students being able to retake tests to show mastery and a grade reflecting the current level of performance. Some say this goes against what the “real world” is like. But the working world flourishes by allowing re-dos and do-overs. When you take your driver’s license test, you can take it as many times as necessary to demonstrate mastery of the driving laws. The same applies to tests taken by pilots, surgeons and lawyers, to name a few. In order to fly passengers in a jumbo jet, a pilot undergoes rigorous training in simulators to practice (and fail) takeoffs and landings. A surgeon operates countless times on cadavers to practice his or her skills. Lawyers practice debates in mock trials before they take the exam to be admitted to the bar. In our schools, teachers become more competent and effective by teaching their content multiple times, reflecting on what is working and not working, and thus improving their craft. Should we expect more from teenagers?

Another argument deals with the perception that SBG simply leads to grade inflation and that it helps schools artificially lower the bar to make sure more students are given passing grades. Instead, SBG provides a more realistic look at a student’s performance because the grade a student earns truly reflects his or her ability level. We know there are significant numbers of students who need remedial English and math classes when they start university programs, and often these same students received high marks while in school. A grading system based on point collection did not accurately measure these students’ abilities. A grading system based on standards will paint a clearer picture of students’ abilities.

Soon it will be time to have parent/teacher conferences at your child’s school. Be prepared to talk with teachers about what standards your student is working on. The move to standards-based grading allows for a golden opportunity to see specific areas your child is mastering and where they have room for growth. It’s a system that levels the playing field for all students and provides a more realistic view of your child’s performance as he or she becomes college and career ready.

Ryan Arnold is an educator earning his master’s degree in leadership building at Kansas State University.



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