There’s a more equitable way to grade; districts should invest in it


AMERICANED CAPCITY 136

Credit: Allison Shelley / EDUimage

Grading in most classrooms remains tied to rubrics devised by individual teachers and rooted in century-old practices. Recently, amidst a broader national trend, grading systems in schools have come under increased scrutiny as educators and policymakers debate the best ways to support students. This movement further gained traction during the Covid-19 pandemic as educators tried new grading approaches to help students.

Traditional grading systems assess students through tests, homework, and projects combined into a single class grade and other more subjective factors, such as behavior, attendance, and classroom participation.

Standards-based grading, however, measures academic achievement without considering these subjective metrics. Standards-based grading, or SBG, measures academic achievement against specific content standards, offering students multiple opportunities to demonstrate knowledge. It still involves assigning grades, but these grades are based on students’ mastery of the content, making the process more transparent and individualized.

For example, when a friend of mine was in a math class that used standards-based grading, he was assessed on specific learning targets, like solving quadratic equations, without considering participation or behavior. In a traditional grading system, his final grade comprises quizzes, tests, homework, participation, and behavior. As such, a poor test score early in the semester could significantly impact his final grade. On the other hand, in standards-based grading, he had multiple opportunities to retake tests and demonstrate improved understanding, so his final grade reflected his highest mastery level. Traditional grading boosted his grade with attendance and participation points, even if he didn’t fully understand the material. Standards-based grading showed his actual academic achievement.

While there isn’t any national data, individual states across the US have begun to adopt standards-based grading. A 2021 statewide survey in Wyoming revealed that over 63% of middle and 35% of high schools had either started or fully implemented standards-based grading. In Delaware and Mississippi, schools have actively worked to support using high-quality, standards-aligned instructional materials in K-12 classrooms​​.

Districts in California, including Lindsay Unified District in Tulare County, moved towards standards-based grading systems. High schools in Oakland are also transitioning to a more objective assessment system, emphasizing a gradual and inclusive approach to grading reform. 

In my district, Dublin Unified, individual teachers instituted standards-based grading on a trial basis, but nine months ago, the district discontinued its standards-based grading system, impacting almost 13,000 students.

However, despite an overwhelming 85% of the student body voting in favor of standards-based grading practices, the school board discontinued the practice district-wide, preventing teachers from using any form of standards-based grading.

The rationale behind the board of trustee’s decision was simple: they believed that standards-based grading decreased academic rigor and harmed students’ chances of success beyond high school by introducing a new grading system. Their concerns, primarily driven by parental pressure, focused on how the grades of high-performing students could fluctuate because of the introduction of a new grading system. 

I acknowledge that standards-based grading was a new concept and could pose a risk to the perception of the academic achievement of high school students (I was sympathetic, too; I am all too familiar with the competitive nature of high school).

But I think the concerns about standards-based grading hindering academic progress are misguided. For traditionally high-performing students, this grading system allows these students, like all others, to focus on mastering concepts and skills. Instead of promoting memorization to pass tests, students are assessed on their ability to understand concepts, allowing the performance of these students to remain strong even under this new system. If anything, standards-based grading boosts academic performance, evidenced by a study that found that students in schools using standards-based grading were nearly twice as likely to score proficient on state assessments compared to those in traditional grading systems.

Our district’s push to switch to a standard-based grading system ultimately collapsed through misinformation and a lack of teacher training. This perceived lack of support made teachers feel they had to choose between supporting individual student needs and maintaining academic rigor, even though that wasn’t necessary.

Had our district provided more support for parents and teachers, we could have developed effective curriculums that help students and maintain rigor. Larkspur’s multi-year transparent process with teacher training and parent seminars allowed a smooth transition from traditional to standards-based grading. Similarly, in New York City, districts successfully shifted to the new system after training teachers and having town halls with parents.

The transition to standards-based grading or similar systems requires a shift in grading practices and a cultural and perceptual shift in how we view education and student success. It demands robust teacher training, practical communication with parents and students, and a collective commitment to redefining academic achievement. We must provide teachers, students, and parents with the necessary resources to succeed in these new grading paradigms. If we truly want to make education more equitable, districts must put their money where their mouths are and fully support our educators in this significant shift.

I hope the adults responsible for decisions regarding our schools and education can set aside partisanship and genuinely reassess grading practices. Because equity has never been, nor will it ever be, the enemy of achievement.

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Aakrisht Mehra just completed his junior year in the Dublin Unified School District.

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author. EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.





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