Do we need to change our 134 year old grade reporting system?

The topic kind of says it all. Is it time that we start to move away from the antiquated grading system that was put in place before our grandparents were even born? This has been a topic that I cannot stop thinking about as I learn more about mastery based grading, moving away from zeros, and what it really means when a student receives a particular letter grade. It looks like some of the elite private schools in the nation are getting well ahead of this new idea. (Bay Area Private Schools Seek to Dump A-F Grading.) While I understand that their intentions might be different from many other academic institutions (picking a valedictorian when everyone is 4.0+) I think that their motives are in the right direction. Should we be looking at more of an integrated report card that includes soft skills and electronic links to student work; with real measures of proficiency and skills attainment? A report card that focuses on effort, growth, and achievement rather than a simple meaningless letter that doesn’t delineate areas of strength or improvement?

(Note that the article mentions that the grading system was designed 123 years ago; however there is evidence that the first reported letter grades were given at Harvard around 1883.)


Another fine mess that Harvard has led us into! :wink:

Very well said, Rob. I couldn’t agree more!

Good conversation starter, Rob, would you be in favor of SBG - Standards Based Grading (SBG) - or something else?

I am in favor of standards based or mastery based grading along with the caveat that that the proof of meeting the standards comes in a variety of assessments that have been tailored to the needs of each student. I love the idea that these report cards could be electronically linked to materials that the students have created.

For example, maybe the “power standard” says something like: “Apply probability concepts to real-world situations to make informed decisions.” There would be a live link to the student performing a voice-over of a hockey game where the coach has pulled the goalie and the student is explaining how probability is involved in the decision and what the outcomes might be as a result. (Probably not a great example, but I think that it conveys my point.) This would be evidence not only of the student having met the standard, it could also showcase the students other strengths (technology, art, etc) that would not be normally seen in a conventional report card.

Maybe my thinking about the whole thing is too big or too outlandish but who knows I still think it is a discussion worth having. Just because something has always been done a certain way doesn’t mean that it needs to continue. Imagine if Polaroid had dreamed of a world without film…

1 Like

Truthfully, this should not be difficult to do in District 287 because we have all non-traditional programs in the first place. Most of our programs outside of ALCs probably find it pretty challenging to grade the traditional way. I know when I taught in Setting-4 middle school I felt like my letter grades were purely arbitrary, and they were. They literally represented nothing other than my own sense of relativity, which was severely warped at that time from only worked in the self-contained environment. I think a system that would allow special ed teachers to grade students for things they have done rather than traditional grades (that are supposed to represent the full slate of standards - and we’re pretending) would be fantastic.


To start, I’m all for it.

The biggest challenges I’ve witnessed over the last 5 years of talking about this at 287:

  • Staff acceptance/training
  • Transcript reporting
  • Colleges being open to the method
  • Potential NCAA demands for information

Moodle can accommodate this by the way. When we upload all the benchmark, user reports can be run to show which ones each student has met.

1 Like

This ->

I love the idea.

Standards based grading knocks over a lot of dominos, however. Class schedules, pacing, etc., all tend to get hit.

1 Like

I think that the Getting Smart website sums up the current system really well:

"The current factory model of schooling – with its time-based, bell-curved grading system – will undermine all of our efforts to personalize education. No matter what standards we use, no matter the innovation, a conveyor belt model limits student achievement in two fundamental ways:

  1. It holds back students who could be excelling. advanced placement, dual enrollment, and early college have created opportunities for students to progress beyond the limits of the K-12 system, but this only happens in the final years of high school. Students are held back to the predefined pace of their age-based cohorts throughout their elementary and middle school years. We’ve handcuffed our children and ourselves.

  2. It moves on students who aren’t ready. Students who don’t get what they need are moved along, grade to grade, with bigger gaps in their learning each year until they no longer see a future in school for themselves or graduate with a meaningless diploma. Many who are retained still don’t get what they need. Credits driven by seat time put over-aged, under-credited students at risk of aging out of the system."

I also agree with Mike that it would change just about everything… But maybe that’s just what we need.

As for the college admissions, it would seem that many schools already use a holistic approach when looking at candidates and many are excited by the idea of receiving more information pertinent to potential students. There is an article by that works on debunking the myth of competency (or standards) based grades being an admission issue. While the article focuses on colleges in the New England states, I know through my talks with people from other school districts that most college admissions boards are receptive to these transcripts.

1 Like

I have heard that but I’ve also heard the opposite, I wonder if there are any survey’s/studies on the issue. I don’t want my kids being the trailblazers on this one.

1 Like

*emphasis mine

One thing that I think often gets overlooked when we talk about reasons to switch to standards based grading is this idea of bell curves being the norm (excuse the pun). I think that if teachers actually analyze their grading system it will actually resemble a standards based system more so than a bell curve system.

In the bell curve system students are pitted against eachother, in standards based (or mastery based) the students are pitted against their own understanding.

I don’t know any teachers that grade on a curve outside of universities. A lot of (but not all) teachers give their summative assessments the most weight and it is currently in vogue to let students attempt their summative assessments as many times as necessary (this coming from speaking to teachers within the district and across the Twin Cities in my teaching program).

I know in our standards-based teaching leader focus group last year we discussed this topic in depth, and it seemed like most teachers already did do a majority of the things required to make their classroom ‘standards-based’ (i.e. had specific learning targets, formative/summative assignments).

Overall, I really feel that the things that are happening inside of the classroom (especially in the district) already look very similar to the way they would in a standards-based (or competency/mastery based) system, the key difference being the reporting of the grades.

We already do a lot of project-based work, we already do a lot of online learning which allows students to work at their own pace.

TL;DR I think teachers are actually further ahead on this topic than given credit for, I think it is the “system” that is lagging.

Agree/disagree. I know in NECA we try to make our courses standards based and grade that way. But we have many students who work hard, have good attitudes, but don’t end up meeting standards. Those students tend to earn credit on account of the fact that their teachers are humans and it doesn’t seem right to fail a student who has given effort and legitimately improved. Then we have some students who can master learning content but they don’t show up enough, don’t present a positive attitude towards learning, don’t earn credit.

SBG would allow for the proper reporting necessary to report this split. You separate the content mastery from the “soft skills” or whatever you want to call them. Then you can report: Billy didn’t meet standards but here is where they improved. Suzie meets standards but doesn’t demonstrate the social emotional skills for college/career, etc.


I agree completely. This is exactly the point I was trying to make–a lot of teachers are walking up to the line of SBG already, we just don’t have a good system for reporting grades and additional training/support for following through.

I was trying to say that teachers would be pretty receptive to a change whereas the student information system/college entrance/NCAA/etc, is the true barrier.

1 Like

If our current transcript reporting is so important, how are home schooled students accepted to colleges? I was told my high school rank and GPA didn’t matter when I applied to colleges 20+ years ago because my graduating class was so small.

I think we need to begin contacting colleges and technical schools to find out what their thoughts and requirements are for school transcripts. I would think that colleges are being more selective these days and being critical of the “whole student” rather than just their GPA. Admissions must consider the classes individually anyways since an A in “Wood Shop” or some other elective is not even a little equivalent to an A in something like chemistry. This is not meant to look down upon or pretend that electives are not important (they are extremely important), just that by their very nature electives are not as rigorous or standards based as a core subject.

Lol, Jake. When I re-read your post I don’t actually disagree with anything. Those quick Innovation Forum skims during passing time don’t make for great comprehension!

So, let’s use the following writing sample as an example:

“Juliet to young to know if she in love. Romeo jus goin from one girl to the other hisself. He tryin to be a playa I guess. Tybalt the one really be trippin. He a hater. He not tryin to listen to what his uncle b sayin. Romeo a punk cause he shoulda had his boy Mercutio back. Thats why Mercutio put the hex on bof a dem. If I was Mercutio I wouda smoked him first time he opened his mouth. Far as Romeo killin hisself for Juliet, I don’t know wouldn’t catch me dyin fo no girl. “

What grade should this student receive on this essay? C, D, F? Here’s the issue. Does this student show evidence of understanding the story? Yes. Do they have spelling and grammar issues? Yes. So, if they received just a letter grade, how do we convey their English skills? What if this student receives an F and is placed back in this class the following year, reading Romeo and Juliet again. I am willing to bet this student would either act out or just shut down and quit. If this student received a passing grade, wouldn’t the next teacher question how they made it this far with such atrocious spelling and grammar? The fundamental question we need to ask then is why do we give grades? If it is to convey what the student has learned or mastered, then are we really doing that with our current system?

Good question, I would say that it depends on the standards you are trying to address.

If this was my course, I use marking guides (in Moodle) for essays that call out specific areas for the grading. That way, even though there is a total score assigned, there is a record of which skills are at which level.

I like what you are saying regarding grading skills for the different levels. Now if there was an easy way to report this information to other teachers that would be more of what I would want to see. (Maybe it all becomes a logistical nightmare if we tried to.) I don’t have an answer for what a new report card should look like, I just thought some discourse on this site might generate some great ideas.

We already developed a template for the district about 6 years ago for when people are ready :wink:

1 Like