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Standards-Based Grading System Seeks to Reimagine Learning

The new grading system is designed to more accurately and equitably reflect students’ learning.


For many students, their grades in school are seen as a measurement of self-worth, and in a society that values certain types of intelligence over others, this can lead to a feeling of inadequacy. Standards-based grading is a system that’s designed to more accurately and equitably reflect a student’s learning.

This past spring, Berkeley High School (BHS) teachers were given the opportunity to attend a training focused on standards-based grading led by Joe Feldman, author of the book Grading for Equity. Many BHS teachers are now transitioning their grading, either partially or entirely, to the format of standards-based grading.

When describing standards-based grading, Sakiko Muranaka, an English teacher at BHS, said, “Standards-based grading is a reimagining of the ‘traditional grading system’ (A to F), which was developed in the early twentieth century. With standards-based grading, students are not assessed on their ability to be efficient and productive, rather, they’re graded on what they know.”

Standards-based grading is built on ideas that find their roots in Benjamin Bloom’s 1956 work Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. These ideas later gained traction in 1983 during the Reagan Era, and federal interest was sustained throughout the mid-2000s. Currently, systems based on the standards-based grading reform movement are employed by 15 states.

In its simplest form, standards-based grading can be described as an unconventional grading system that often uses a scale from 0 to 4, as opposed to letter grades from A to F, and is based on a student’s demonstration of mastery instead of successful completion of work. A unit or class will be broken down into smaller learning targets that students are then graded on at the end of the unit.

“The purpose of an education is to learn, but unfortunately, these days, many students are more motivated by getting good grades than learning. Standards-based grading is a means to get everyone —students and teachers [alike]— refocused on what matters,” said Muranaka.

For some students, this new grading system feels like it will paint a more accurate picture of students’ knowledge. Charlotte Acevedo, a sophomore in Academic Choice (AC), said, “I think standards-based grading makes sense because it reflects where you end up at the end of a unit, not where you start. I feel like sometimes people do badly when they’re first learning something and they might get a couple of F’s or D’s, and then even if they improve, those still bring their grade down and make it harder to do well in the class.”

However, other students feel as though the reliability of a standards-based grading system is contingent on the student. Mara Prowe, a sophomore in AC, said, “Not everyone is very good at testing, especially me, so I think having everything based on assessments doesn’t really make sense. For me, homework and classwork are a lot easier to get, while testing has the anxiety of it, and you also have to know everything on the spot without notes.”

Ava Murakami, a junior in AC, added, “For kids like me, who aren’t the best at testing, their grades might not turn out that great because it’s less homework-based. I think how well standards-based grading works for you depends on what your skills are. It really depends on the kid and the subject.”

Standards-based grading is a means to get everyone —students and teachers [alike]— refocused on what matters.”

Sakiko Muranaka, BIHS teacher

Despite the controversy, many teachers still feel that standards-based grading is the best possible route for the welfare of their students. Muranaka said, “Students will likely have a hard time adjusting at first, but I think they will eventually feel relieved by it. They will have more leeway to make mistakes in the process of learning. They won’t be [exasperated] keeping up with heaps of worksheets, only to be docked points for leaving a couple of answers blank. They won’t be taking shots in the dark, trying to guess at what they need to do to raise their grade. They might begin to enjoy the process of learning, if they don’t already.”

Ultimately, as much of BHS begins the transition towards a system of standards-based grading, the growth and learning of students will be the most important way to measure how effective it is. However, even if some students find the switch to be ineffective, or even counterproductive, most agree that reaffirming the importance of focusing on student needs is still a worthwhile goal. Teachers and students alike feel that education as a whole should be centered around what will work best for the students, and standards-based grading embodies that idea.