Hitting the Math Targets With New Standards-Based Grading

Leah Cox

“At least from my perspective, it’s really nice knowing that some of our teachers realize that grading isn’t one size fits all…that they are willing to confront that and try new things.”

For many students, math has been quite different this year - at least as far as grading goes. Many of us are accustomed to taking tests at the end of the unit and quizzes along the way, however this year a number of teachers in the math department have tried a strikingly new approach to assessing what students know and can do.

The new grading philosophy is based on a standards-based grading system. Students following this grading system still learn based on a specific curriculum tailored to their respective courses, but are taught based on individual standards within chapter units, rather than the entire unit itself. 

For (almost) every unit, students are afforded the opportunity to be tested on a standard at least twice. The grading scale operates on a one to four scale:1=60, 2=73, 3=88, 4=100. Students are tested on these standards in an assessment known as a Learning Check. Each learning check is divided into the material students will be assessed on, and therefore their grades are based on their performance on individual standards - rather than the usual practice of grades based on the accuracy of the entire unit test. 

As I said before, students see (almost) every standard twice. The second time they see it, there’s an opportunity to replace their first-time grade if they receive a grade higher than the one previously earned. If they receive the same or lesser grade, their grade for that standard will be averaged with the first attempt. 

Lastly, there are opportunities to “recheck” individual standards. Each math class may have a different policy for the number of rechecks, however most are limited to four or five. Just like the second time you see the standard, a higher grade can replace the grade and a lower grade will round out to an average.

I sat down with Mr. Amar, the Upper School Math Department Head, to discuss this change in grading philosophy. It was interesting to go not only figuratively, but literally behind the scenes of the math department for this article. Going into their big office made me feel like I was walking into some top-secret operation or the unveiling of a new art piece - the latter of which is kind of like the unveiling of the new standards-based grading system. 

Mr. Amar seemed pretty excited to talk about the new grading system. At the same time, he told me he had mixed feelings about the article, especially knowing that the math teachers would get a chance to hear feedback about the new grading system from the students themselves. 

The first question I asked Mr. Amar was about the why behind the new grading system. In other words: what sparked this idea, and why are they doing it now? He responded that there were many different inspirations. “There’s a growing body of work where people are looking at grading practices, and how they motivate students,” he said. “It’s not only what we grade that matters, but also the ways in which we grade…students often get credit for doing things versus getting marks for learning things. Learning happens over time and learning is a process…every student’s process looks different. In that regard, sometimes grades are really unfortunate.” 

When he said that, I thought to myself “Amen!” At least from my perspective, it’s really nice knowing that some of our teachers realize that grading isn’t one size fits all - and it’s even more encouraging to know that they are willing to confront that and try new things. 

He first pointed out how muddy the current system can be. For example, a student might be doing well under the current system because of the system itself rather than because they truly understand the material. And a student who is frustrated might have no idea how to proceed. ”What we were aiming for [in the decision to switch to standards-based grading],” Mr. Amar said, “is to have a manageable enough number of targets for it to mean something.” 

With the traditional system, a student might have trouble accessing the one or two specific topics inside the unit (or chapter) that they need to work on. However, with standards-based grading, it becomes easier to examine which specific topic to work on, since the unit is divided into smaller (and more bite-sized) topics hitting specific concepts. 

“It can be motivating to know that you won’t be dragged down in a test for not knowing one thing,” Mr. Amar said. ”And overall, the goal is to make this process more meaningful for students, and to make clear where they need to spend their time to get the result that they want.”

There is research and precedent behind this new system. The math department modeled this grading approach after a Texas teacher named Laura Ringwood, who implemented standards-based grading in her AP Statistics class. 

All of this has had a big impact on the format of the curriculum. Mr. Amar told me that one thing the department looked at was the number of standards students were expected to master each semester. One school he referenced had over 50 targets, which he felt was “way too many.” He told me that this process is about seeing what works and what doesn’t work for Lovett students.

I next asked Mr. Amar what strategies the math department has been using to implement the standards-based grading system. The first thing the math department “swore not to do” was “significantly change the curriculum.” The math teachers used previous curricula as a backdrop for making additions, removals, and rearrangements from the curriculum for this school year. This process essentially makes it easier for the teachers to access the types of questions they ask on learning checks, as well as how they ask them. 

Another strategy the math department used was collaboration. He didn’t say so explicitly, but from what I inferred as he spoke, collaboration was a helpful tool. For example, he said “the three Algebra II teachers… split how the learning rechecks are written,” and “the geometry teachers had to write a fair amount of stuff for their course.” 

One of the most important aspects of the new system is the emphasis on growth, learning, and relearning. 

As a standard-based grading student, I can confirm that rechecks are a lifesaver. Every time I have an Honors Chemistry test, it happens to fall on the same day as a math learning check. I always prioritize studying for the Honors Chemistry test and sometimes slack on studying for math. If I don’t study for the target that I’m seeing a second time on the learning check, I may end up getting a 1 or 2. But to me this is fine. Knowing that I have five opportunities to fix my mistakes is really soothing, just as long as I don’t do this every time I have to take a target for the second time. While the system builds in the opportunity to improve, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to do poorly.

Samar Kibe, a 10th-grade Algebra student, seemed to agree with me. The learning check system “allows you to make up for things that you don’t get right the first time and it gives you some leeway. For example, if you do bad on a target initially, then in the future you can replace that grade. Through this system, students can learn from their mistakes - and it gives them a second chance.”

It’s also a bonus for the teachers. In the past, teachers had to spend a ton of time writing multiple tests and grading those tests, “when all they really needed to do was redo the one problem they didn’t understand how to do. This makes it easier…and we [teachers] are happy with the results.” 

But what about the students? I wondered if Mr. Amar had a sense of whether the students are also happy with the results. He acknowledged that they’re in a transition period “where students are managing their grades…and figuring out how to manage their time.” 

He said some students catch on to the flow of the grading system early, like those in his AP Calculus BC class, and others take more time to catch the drift. In his words, the Calculus students “have it down to a science.” 

But he knows that not every student has adapted so easily. For example, there’s no curving of grades, even if everyone else did badly as well.  “If everyone did bad, it just means we’re going to spend more time working on it,” he said. While this may be frustrating, it does mean that  “if you learn it, your grades will follow.” 

Mr. Amar is hoping students understand that with this new grading system they have the “ability to chart…the path of their grade. That this isn't just up to the teacher.” Most teachers want to encourage their students to succeed, but they also have to give you the grade and determine whether you succeeded or not and how well you succeeded. “That can be rough,” Mr. Amar says. He hopes that standard-based grading can promote collaboration between students and teachers. 

Another thing Mr. Amar thinks students are responding well to is the major point jump they can get just by going from 1 to 4 on a target. Speaking from personal experience, the point jump is real, and a lifesaver. He does however understand that it can be different for students to have to “learn how to manage their math class differently than other classes.”

As for the teachers? Well, “they’re getting used to it.” Math teachers weren’t forced to implement standards-based grading in their classrooms, but those who were interested decided to give it a try. As with anything, it takes those who are nervous, curious, and willing to implement major changes to 5, 10, or 20-year-old existing norms. 

I did wonder if there were any unintended consequences as a result of the new grading system. 

He said it’s been tricky to deal with students moving from a class with the traditional system to one with the new system. Also, homework is not counted towards the grade in standards-based grading. Of course, this sounds wonderful, but he says there are also a lot of students who aren’t doing homework at all. So while they don’t lose points from incomplete or missing assignments, it’s reflected in their grades - and not necessarily in a good way. 

Nevertheless, Mr. Amar said the math department would like “to see students thinking more broadly about the role and power that they have in this system.”

Anticipating the mixed reactions he assumed I would get when I interviewed students, he made clear that the math department is in a transition period. They are always looking for ways to improve, and the implementation of standards-based grading is proof of that. 

He and the other math teachers are pretty open and willing to listen to student perspectives. For example, he “hears the stress about the four to three cutoff.” In standards-based classes, a three is equivalent to an 88, while a four is equivalent to a 100. 

As I talked to Gisella Brok, a ninth-grader taking Geometry, about how she feels about the new grading system, she said “the cutoff can be pretty frustrating because there’s no in-between.” I completely agree. Missing one or even two problems for a target shouldn’t drop you down to an 88. In my mind, it’s kind of stressful. Plus, that’s a 12-point difference. Keya Nijhawan, who’s also a ninth-grader in the Geometry course, said, “It would be nice to have a 92 or 94. I can’t tell you how many times my grade dropped from getting 88 for one or two problems - which to me, isn’t even that bad.” Samar agreed with the statements of the 9th graders. But he also included that “it does fix itself because we do get a chance to recheck targets. However, it still remains to be a stressor.”

Mr. Amar mentioned that even now the teachers are working on ways to improve standards-based grading, and the three to four point grade equivalents seem to be at the top of their list. The math department wants to make this new philosophy work for everyone.

Regardless, it’s nice to know that some of our teachers are looking for ways to improve the learning experience for students. The way I think of it: if we have to take certain courses to graduate, at least make them more learning-focused rather than grades-focused. So whether we love or hate the math department’s new standards-based grading system, it certainly helps to know that the department is adapting to a new generation of mathematicians!
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