A science teacher wandered into my room yesterday after school.  In addition to many hallway and after school conversations with her, I have also passed on several articles related to standards-based grading and formative assessment techniques.  Towards the end of our conversation, she admitted, "I am going to do this."  We walked through her current grading scheme as well as the projects, assessments and assignments she typically uses each semester.  This turned into a brainstorming session on transforming to a new system reporting standards rather than assignments.  One of the hang-ups was reporting responsibility.  She really wants to emphasize and communicate responsibility with her students both on a daily basis (coming to class prepared) and on assignments (turning in an assignment on time), so she is going to create a "responsibility" category and weight in between five and ten percent of the overall grade.  Without this responsibility caveat, standards-based grading just wasn't going to happen for her.

Our conversation has kept me thinking about why standards-based grading makes so much sense. It went something like this:

Teacher: So if I give a student a second chance on a lab report, do I average the grades?

Me: With the new system, a student may not need to redo the entire lab report.  Maybe he/she just needs help with the data analysis section.

Teacher: Okay, so if they redo the data analysis part, do I average those two scores?

Me: You could, but that wouldn't be much different than what you're doing now, right?  What if that student's second draft of the data analysis was the best data analysis you've ever seen?  Shouldn't that student receive the same score as if he/she had done an awesome job the first time? or the next time?  My philosophy is that new evidence of understanding should replace old evidence.

Teacher: That makes sense.  What about a student that turns in a lab report late?  I usually take off points.

Me: That's where your responsibility category comes in.  If that student turned in a really great lab report, then that should be communicated with parents rather than taking off points like you used to do.  This should make conversations with parents and students much easier, right?  A less-than-perfect score is no longer as mysterious.  Was it because it wasn't up to par?  Was it because it was late? A combination of the two?  Explaining that mystery is history!

Teacher: I need some more time to think about this.  Matt, I am going to do this

After the conversation, it hit me. It's more about changing the norms and values of the classrooms in my building and less about a particular grading system.  Are our grading and assessment practices clearly communicating student learning?  Is time the variable or is learning?  Evan Abbey summed up the culture piece much more eloquently than I can in a recent comment he made on my blog:
"...The traditional view is of a teacher as gatekeeper, sorting out students, not letting them to a diploma without the proper amount of effort to make it through the gate.

This does 2 things which are undesirable. First, it sets up teachers to be in an adversarial position against students, which often sets students up to feel that they have to be opposed to learning as well as the teacher. And second, it makes failure a terrible, terrible thing. I would argue that failure actually is a critical ingredient in learning (as Edison would attest).

The gardener approach flips that around, where the teacher is on the same side as the student, helping them attain measurable standards of learning, and letting students gauge their growth themselves. The student drives the data collection and assessment, looking at their learning against those standards and determining 1) how much further they have to go, and 2) how they are going to get there. The teacher encourages and facilitates learning.

The way to be a gardener instead of a gatekeeper is to ditch grading, which is teacher-centric, arbitrary, and set up for comparisons against other students for the purpose of ranking (and rejecting). In its place is to use standards-based reporting, where the standard of learning is objective and measurable, and students are not comparing themselves against anyone else but the standard...."
It's less about standards-based grading and more about creating a "gardener" mentality in our schools.  Standards-based grading is merely a framework that makes allowing new evidence of understanding to replace old evidence of understanding much more fluid.  As excited as I was to see a colleague embrace standards-based grading, I was even more elated to see her realize the need to allow new evidence to replace old evidence of learning.  Had we not talked about a standards-based grading system and its contrast with traditional grading practices, I am not sure if this new realization would have taken place.  Richard Elmore (as quoted in Revisiting PLCs at Work) talks about changes in practice as a means for a larger cultural impact:
"Only a change in practice produces a genuine change in norms and values...grab people by their practice and their hearts and minds will follow" (p. 108)

I learned a very important lesson yesterday.  It's not ALL about standards-based reporting, but more about rethinking the way we view assessment as a tool rather than a hindrance for learning.