The Pros and Cons of Standards-Based Grading

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GradingStudent Success
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Standards-based grading (SBG) has been ingrained in the American education system for over a century. It has been a determining factor in students’ admissions to colleges, law schools, medical schools, and even driver’s licenses. The University of Wisconsin-Superior describes SBG as “a written description of what students are expected to know or be able to do by a certain time in their educational career.”

While we can certainly discuss and debate the future viability of standards-based grading, I wrote this article to examine the pros and cons, along with the overall effects, of SBG on student success.

Pros of standards-based grading

SBG has allowed teachers and administrators alike to analyze the root causes of why students haven’t mastered specific material. In fact, SBG is sometimes seen as an innovative solution to the hotly debated differences between professor grading systems. Some studies have even shown that most students prefer standards-based grading. Although, they indicate “growing pains” when taking an SBG class for the first time.

Generally, SBG testing providers make their standards known in advance, allowing students and instructors to prepare. The University of Wisconsin-Superior found that previous test examples, test prep books, and past performance help take the ambiguity and uncertainties of the test away. Also, specific feedback from SBG exams allows teachers to review why students might not have mastered a topic, and in turn, help students through any challenges.

Ultimately, SBG evaluates students not just on their past failures or successes. Instead, it gives them a clean slate to compete equally.

Cons of standards-based grading

While anyone can attempt to learn the “standards” of a test, a one-time test isn’t a holistic indicator of a student’s long-term success. Despite SBG having some benefits, our education system must still better assess what students do and do not know. Suppose SBG continues to make the assessment results high risk for students. In that case, we as educators must be able to listen and work with students to improve their educational and professional experiences.

While SBG may give equal opportunity for students to compete for specific positions or seats, it doesn’t consider that students have the same standards of equity available to compete successfully in the exam. Socioeconomics, for example, plays a considerable role in test scores. It can skew the results of the SBG in favor of those with equity advantages. Statistically, students from two-parent households, with college-educated parents, with access to testing preparation services, and from middle to higher-class incomes are more likely to perform better in SBGs.

Conclusion: what’s needed

Training practices can vary from classroom to classroom, which can hinder equity for those attempting SBGs. Therefore, consistent application from teachers, trainers, and parents is needed for standard-based grading to work for the equitable assessment of individual students.

After all, the goal of standard-based grading is equity.


Nick Gera


Written by Nick K. Gera, JD, MBA, MPP and Doctoral Candidate




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