About Adam Sutton

Adam Sutton currently teaches 11th and 12th grade social studies in Baltimore, MD. In addition to teaching for 13 years, Adam is an avid writer, father, and husband. His work has been published from TheEducatorsRoom to The Baltimore Sun, The Chicago Tribune, and beyond. Currently, he is working on his book "Teachers Don't Get Tired" while doing his best to corral his two wonderful daughters.

For those unaware, standards-based grading is a popular evaluation system designed to simplify teaching, learning, and assessment.  It strips a student’s grade down to their ability to meet the announced standards.  The idea is that students will learn more easily if teachers grade based upon very explicit and clear standards.  Moreover, by standardizing the grading process, each student, regardless of the teacher, will be graded identically, thus, eliminating bias and preferential treatment.  

To be fair, there are several worthy components to standards-based grading.  It eliminates the opportunity for affluent, well-resourced students to improve their grades by providing classroom tissue boxes for extra credit; it ends petty, frivolous concerns like frilly edges of paper influencing grades, and it helps teachers focus their instruction.  Still, standards-based grading must die.  

Still, standards-based grading must die Click To Tweet  

The devoted standards-based graders insist that done right the learning process becomes so clear and concise that students simply fall in love and eagerly consume the standards.  This might happen, but it’s not the standards the kids care about.  It’s their teacher, investing herculean amounts of time into their students, that they care about.    

Standards-based grading doubles down on the belief that education is a destination.  A student’s value is determined by their product.  It treats education as a cul de sac ignoring the connecting street.  The hope is to level the playing field, but it doesn’t. 

In reality, adhering to standards-based grading with fidelity is counterproductive and leads to a lowering of expectations.  I’m thinking specifically about Carlos.  I taught Carlos in an elective class in the fall of his 11th-grade year.  Carlos and I hit it off, and he did really well; I wanted him in my AP Economics class the following year.

Carlos was on no one’s list to be in an AP class, but I introduced the idea.  He scoffed.  I persisted, and after a series of months, I convinced him to try it.  If I had followed a strict rule of following standards and prerequisites, Carlos would have never seen any AP class.  

In light of that, he wasn’t ready for that first AP assessment the following year.  He didn’t have a true appreciation for what was coming.  Despite all our preparations, he wasn’t quite there.   

So, as I graded Carlos’ first assessment, I could have stuck to the standards.  I would have crushed him.  And, since Economics is a graduation requirement in my state, very easily, I could have pushed him to drop AP Economics.  Adherence to the standards wouldn’t have made him better off.  So, I fudged it a bit. He didn’t get an A, but he didn’t fail either.  He stuck around–earned a 2 on the exam–and kept working harder than he ever had. 

The moral of the story is that educators are in the business of developing people, not managing autonomous learning machines. Click To Tweet

The moral of the story is that educators are in the business of developing people, not managing autonomous learning machines.  For Carlos and other students, it’s not about taking AP classes, or the standards of any class.  Those are not the measure of a kid or school’s value.  Teaching and learning is a process of pushing into uncharted territory, and that doesn’t happen because the standard is foremost.  It happens because the kid is.   

For those inclined to think Carlos would have been better served in a standard Economics class because it fit his zone of proximal development better, maybe?  But, this attitude flies in the face of consistent research that indicates the single biggest factor in a student’s learning is the teacher.  Arrogantly, I was best positioned to teach Carlos Economics that year, no matter the level of rigor of the standards.  And, to quote Carlos, he “appreciated the effort [I] put into teaching.”    

The learning process is defined by the people involved in it, not the standards being studied.  

But, let’s not get muddled in Carlos and I because this is a story that extends beyond one teacher and one student.  If we want to measure student–and teacher–success by standards and ability to demonstrate knowledge, fine.  That’s what standardized testing is for.  However, relying on such exams to judge the learning process makes many bristle.  Imagine that instead of a once or twice a year occurrence, the mentality of the standardized test was cemented as an everyday occurrence.  Even though standards-based grading cloaks itself in the language of equity and fairness, that’s what standards-based grading seeks to achieve: a daily version of the standardized test.  

The problem with education is not that we lack standardization; it’s that we have too much. Click To Tweet

Learning is an endless, lifelong process.  There are no exams outside of school.  Once students leave school, the test is whether or not they can navigate the process of confronting a new problem, gathering information to understand and solve the problem, evaluating that information, and executing the best solution.  It’s a process.  Standards-based grading ignores the process, which means standards-based grading must die. 

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