Standards-based grading, pt. 5: the words we use matter

As we introduce a standards-based system, we have an opportunity to change the mental language our school uses for grades. One of the most important differences between a standards-based approach and traditional letter grades is that we are naming the stages of student progress rather than using abstract signifiers (A, B,board-1106649_960_720 C, etc.) which may mean very different things to our students than they do to us. To take advantage of that, we need to think very carefully about the words we choose.

My school has been using two sets of words in different contexts—mastery/proficiency/emerging mastery vs. fully/mostly/somewhat meets expectations. I think these mean very different things, and the existence of both sets of words points at the tension that exists in most teachers’ practice about the different ways we use grades. Are grades a way to tell the student whether I, the teacher, am pleased with what she’s been doing or whether she should change course, or are they a way to tell her whether she has met some objective standard of achievement, independent of my relationship with her or the quality of her learning so far? In practice, we use grades all the time for both purposes, but very often the answer to the first question doesn’t correlate with the answer to the second. A student (for example, one coming from a poor middle school with little training in writing) may be doing great work for me, monitoring her own learning, seeking help, and steadily improving her essays. I might want to send the message that I’m thrilled with her and that she shouldn’t change a thing as she goes into the next semester:  she is more than meeting my expectations for her at this moment. At the same time, on a universal, objective scale, her essays might still be quite simplistic and have unresolved errors. They are not excellent essays, even though she is doing excellent cognitive work. She certainly has not yet achieved mastery of the skill of writing.

For me, at least, the language of “expectations” puts the emphasis back on the teacher (the expectations in question are, implicitly, mine), on subjectivity (Your expectations might be different than mine), and on judgment (not meeting my expectations is not a neutral statement:  it says clearly that I’m not satisfied with your work) rather than on a neutral statement of progress against an objective, external yardstick. Whether you have or have not written a debatable thesis is still, of course, subject to argument, but the emphasis is now on the action, rather than on the teacher as judge, and success in that action can be separated in this language from behavior as a student:  it is possible for me to say, “you have not yet written a good essay (mastery), but you are working on learning to write an essay in ways that make it likely that you will get there (expectations)”

I don’t know what the perfect language is (and it will depend where we finally fall in this eternal balancing act between communicating expectations and communicating goals), but I do think that the language deserves some careful thought as we set up a system.


About wordsarestrong

I teach history at an independent school in California.
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