Is The Traditional Public School Grading System Racist? Part I: Standards-Based Grading

by James C. Sherlock

Standards-based grading (SBG) is a way to view student progress based on proficiency levels for multiple standards within a specific grade level course of instruction.

It contrasts with the traditional method of relying on a single grade representation as the sole measure of achievement for a grading period in a specific class.

It is not difficult to find favorable assessments of standards-based grading. It, like every other grading system, has advantages and disadvantages.

But now SBG is being been sold — and bought — with an “equity” tag.

If you don’t use it, your school system is being told it is presumptively racist. Teachers stand accused in the dock. Parents and children are positioned as helpless victims of the grading system without agency in outcomes. In certain zip codes, that predictably has induced panic buying.

The backlash is fierce. See Standards-Based Grading Will Ruin Education. The author, a teacher, is thoroughly negative about the new system.

This will be a two part story. Here I will describe standards-based grading in the eyes of proponents and opponents. In part 2, I will describe its transition from an alternative way to grade to a lodestone of progressive education.

The two grading systems

Courtesy Powerschool

Standards-based grading in Virginia is based on Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOLs). Virginia initiated SOLs in 1995 instead of Common Core.

As example of SBG, if you are a teacher of Economics and Personal Finance, you can download the SOL documentation for your course and create a spreadsheet that displays each standard and each competency for each standard.

Below is a sample spreadsheet for the Virginia Economics and Personal Finance SOL grade “book.”

That requires the creation of another system for reflecting attendance, personal comportment in school/class, effort, homework completion, etc.

Even its proponents admit that the process of standards-based grading combined with the recommended process of individual student re-teaching, re-testing and reassessment (grade update) based on recognition of sub-par competencies takes a lot of time.

Then the grades need to be weighted over the duration of the course to ensure that the overall course grade reflects the knowledge of the material at the end of the course. Like the “grade book” computations, the weighting can be done with formulas in a spreadsheet. Some students like the weighted averaging, some don’t. Homework, quizzes and class participation, considered learning experiences, don’t count towards the grade, only tests.

Proponents contend that subject matter mastery at the end of the course is the main goal, so the standards-based grading system is designed to reflect that.

Opponents say it is a massive waste of time. They contend that everyone, teachers and students alike, game the system to lesser or greater degree and it is not worth the major consumption of time it takes to attempt to do it right.

The time consumed in standards-based grading may be the most compelling reason to stay with traditional grading. Our teachers famously don’t have a lot of spare time.

In the right teacher hands it can work, but so can/has the older system.

But standards-based grading is now tied by some enthusiasts to equity. Opponents say that now that a racial justice link has been made, progressive educators will declare it successful no matter what.

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18 responses to “Is The Traditional Public School Grading System Racist? Part I: Standards-Based Grading”

  1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    This is the first that I have had of this system. I think there are some elements I like, such as progress, but I am not sure I understand the system as a whole. In the spreadsheet sample you provided, how are the “grades” of 4, 3, etc. for each standard derived? Also, it seems artificial to use those standards as benchmarks.

  2. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    Talk about teaching to the test! On it’s face, it works better with subjective items than objective. But on math and science maybe not so much…. So part two, the soft racism of low expectations, I suspect?

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      It is already written. I’ll post it soon.

  3. Baconator with extra cheese Avatar
    Baconator with extra cheese

    Hilarious. Instead of finding a way to help kids gain mastery or functional knowledge of a subject, educational academics spend their time creating a new scheme to cover up their own profession’s problems.
    Too bad RVA can’t create a scheme like this to smokescreen their rotting school buildings.

  4. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    The equity tag will not work. New grading scale will produce similar results to old grading scale. I do see a bit of a safe harbor in the new approach. It will further grade inflation with lower standards and lower quality of content. That might lead to the appearance of progress.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      That is not what the data show, but the data are all from schools freshly trained by one organization. I’ll provide it in part 2.

      1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead

        I looked at the gradebook spreadsheets. That is a dream come true for school teachers looking to dodge the sweat equity needed for a considered evaluation of student performance.

  5. tmtfairfax Avatar

    Way back when I was in law school, no one’s name was listed on a test. Rather, each student was given a number associated with his/her name. The number was entered on the test paper or blue book for essay questions. The instructor graded the tests without knowing the identity of the student. As I recall, the same process was used on the two bar exams I took.

    This approach should be used in K-12, probably in higher grades to avoid as much bias in grading as possible.

    1. Baconator with extra cheese Avatar
      Baconator with extra cheese

      Your solution provides equality. They want equity.
      I see the complaints being the teachers (too white) and the subject matter itself (also too white- Eurocentric) do not allow a student of color to succeed. It’s not that the teachers unjustly grade. It’s the kids can’t learn because the subject matter itself is not equitable, thus they can’t succeed.
      But I have a sneaking suspicion those pesky Asian kids would still out compete all kids no matter how “equitable” the subject matter is to the “chosen”minorities (again those pesky Asians wrecking the theory that overall minorities are held back by white supremacy).

      1. tmtfairfax Avatar

        We need a constitutional amendment to prohibit any competitive sports, most especially professional sports. Sports involve competition and winners and losers. How is that equitable?

        1. Baconator with extra cheese Avatar
          Baconator with extra cheese

          I agree that if equity is the goal in schools then sports and any other activity where you need to try out for a spot should be removed. You can’t have meritocracy in the same space as equity. I mean how can a kid be first chair violin when other kids don’t have access to a violin, the instruction, or the dexterity. Not to mention those kids would most likely have to play Eurocentric music created under the oppressive system of white supremacy.

      2. James C. Sherlock Avatar
        James C. Sherlock

        Standards-based grading is not my solution. I tried here to provide a balanced summary of what it is. I don’t have a personal position about it. You will see I do have a position about it being labeled as a mandatory equity change.

        1. Baconator with extra cheese Avatar
          Baconator with extra cheese

          I was talking about TMTs solution where students names are removed thus potentially removing any implicit bias in grading.

    2. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Scantron and a #2 pencil.

  6. […] I attempted to explain standards-based grading (SBG).  Today I will take on what I view as a sales pitch that leverages […]

  7. […] I attempted to explain standards-based grading (SBG). Today I will take on what I view as a sales pitch that leverages SBG […]

  8. Ken O'Connor Avatar
    Ken O’Connor

    Re: “If you don’t use it, your school system is being told it is presumptively racist.” That is simply not true and it also not true that sbg is a time sink. It does take more work at first but once your standards are chosen it saves time because in so many ways teachers are working smarter, not harder.

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