By Melissa Schill

For the past century, at the end of every semester, students across the nation anxiously await the arrival of the dreaded report card and the letters that determine their academic prowess. An A, success. An F, failure. However, thanks to standards-based grading, a new grading method that is sweeping the nation, the once-a-semester stress surrounding the release of the dreaded report cards is dissipating. No longer does one letter dictate the success or failure of the student’s semester.

Standards-based grading is a method that has been gaining popularity in the American school system over the past ten years. The system uses a 1-4 grading scale. A 1 indicates a low level of mastery and a 4 indicates an advanced level of mastery. 

At its core, the system was created to make academic standards more straightforward for teachers, students, and parents. Critics of the traditional grading system argue that students can fly under the radar. They can “mask their level of content understanding with their attendance, their effort level or other peripheral issues,” University of Northern Iowa education professor, Matt Townsley said. Standards-based grading separates out various academic goals; a student might have a 4 in participation but only a 2 in a specific subject skill. The system makes it easier for teachers and students to see and isolate areas that need growth.

Students have the opportunity to show growth in areas with lower numbers by retaking tests and redoing assignments after receiving further instruction and help. According to numerous studies conducted by education researchers, using low grades as punishment does not motivate students, but rather leads to “decreased motivation, diminished performance, addictive behaviors, and cheating.”

Lowering the standards?

However, the liberty of retaking and redoing that standards-based grading offers has led to some criticism. In higher education, trying an assignment or test again is typically not an option. A student accustomed to retrying work after receiving specialized help within the standards-based grading system would experience a significant learning curve when switching to a grading system that does not allow for that. 

Another concern related to college that critics of standards-based grading have addressed relates to grade point average (GPA). Most colleges in the United States take GPA into consideration when admitting students. Translating standards-based grades into a GPA can be tricky. Should a 4 equate to an A? Should certain standards have more weight than others? 

Raising the standards?

Despite the criticism, studies have revealed general satisfaction toward standards-based grading. A study done on middle school math students in southern Illinois “showed that students are happier in a standards-based grading as students’ enjoyment increased, anxiety decreased, and their knowledge of their own learning increased in a standards-based grading classroom.” 

Despite being around for a decade, its integration into the nation’s school system has only recently begun to speed up. If the trend growth continues, standards-based grading has the chance to reform the education system as we know it.