Minds and Matter: 21st century needs: A case for standards-based grading
by Kevin J. Hatfield, School Superintendent · Op-Ed · December 21, 2012

Enhancing the learning of our students is job one for the West Branch Community Schools. Our administrative team, the Board of Education and our great staff have been focusing on this mission!

The West Branch Community School District continues to utilize student-centered approaches that are designed to 1) enhance academic rigor, 2) personalize student learning experiences and 3) focus on assessment for understanding that improves teacher practices.

The district’s long-term strategic goals are designed to transform teaching and learning processes from the scaffolding of best practices and programming for 21st Century learners and teachers. See

The district has implemented a three-pronged professional development approach:

• 21st Century Teaching and Learning — 1:1 computing in grades five-12, tablet technology PK-2 and the distribution of additional middle and high school computers from labs and wireless carts to Hoover Elementary to support of our third- and fourth-grade students.

• Professional Learning Communities that focus on weekly, ongoing collaborative Data Team processes

• Standards-based, standards-referenced and competency-based assessment, reporting practices designed to increase student and staff accountability for learning. (PK-8)

All three initiatives support effective teaching practices! They do not supplant great teaching. All three initiatives are prerequisites for meeting 21st Century teaching and learning objectives.

Standards-Based Grading

The primary goal of standards-based grading is to better communicate what each student knows and is able to do according to state and national standards.

We want to separately promote and assess the influence of positive behaviors and consistent, collaborative work habits.

We consider standards-based grading to be one of the fundamental building blocks to be implemented on our road to academic excellence!

Implementation of standards and standards-based grading is the first step toward becoming a competency-based, project-based system where students personalize their learning as part of their preparation to demonstrate (apply) their skills and knowledge.

Why Standards-Based Grading?

The district views standards-based and standards-referenced grading as part of our three-prong approach to improving instruction and student learning.

Standards-based and standards-referenced grading practices focus on what students know and are able to do. (Application of learning for increased feedback.)

The West Branch Schools’ teachers and principals are vested in ongoing professional development around instructional improvements and curriculum that is aligned to Iowa Core and Common Core Standards.

The district does not embrace the notion that all students, regardless of their situation, should attend a four-year institute of higher education.

We do endorse the research and trend line data indicating that students need to be prepared for 21st Century college, career and workforce-readiness standards and skills.

A recent graduate report tells us that the district should work to significantly reduce the percentage of former West Branch students in need of “remediation” upon reaching post-secondary and technical institutions.

According to a Kirkwood College report, nearly one-third of the former West Branch students required remediation support for basic course work during the 2010-2011 year.

Our elementary and middle school teachers have been working to develop a common understanding of how standards are used to assess student learning for both academic content and essential skills. Our ninth-grade staff is working on standards-referenced grading and reporting processes in preparation for the 2013-2014 school year.

Standards-based assessing allows for targeting learning interventions and strategies that support students in becoming secure or proficient in specific learning or skill areas of concern.

Having clear standards increases the likelihood that teachers can intervene more readily, track daily improvement of student success on content and skill standards and report more accurately individual student’s or groups of students’ attainment of standards or goals.

Having clear standards necessitates the need to have meaningful, ongoing feedback between students, parents and teachers.

Having standards requires students to take additional responsibility for knowing their subject, content and skills more deeply. In a standards-based grading system, teachers create additional opportunities for students to redo their work to demonstrate mastery or secure skills.

More than 39 schools in the Grant Wood Area Education Agency and multiple school districts across Iowa and our nation are transitioning to standards-based, personalized learning models.

Students in standards-based schools discover that they have more control and ownership of their learning.

What if we don’t use SBG?

What are the risks of avoiding the adoption of standards-based and/or competency-based teaching, learning and assessment practices?

The number and percentage of students prepared for post-secondary, career and workforce-readiness success, without remediation, will likely remain stagnant.

The number and percentage of students prepared to meet changing global and U.S. workforce needs, skills and realities will likely remain stagnate.

The number and percentage of students getting meaningful feedback on “what they actually know” and “are able to do” will be limited.

Traditional grading limits student reflection on their learning and the need to demonstrate that knowledge.

The district’s teachers will be less likely to develop more flexible delivery of learning strategies through differentiated instruction.

The development of personalized learning networks, project-based and challenge-based learning opportunities that push the application of critical thinking are less likely to take hold.

Limited need for professional growth in 21st century teaching practices leaving our staff and students further behind in meeting the global challenges ahead.

Clearly communicated content and skill-based standards coupled with strong standards-based assessment practices will provide our students with a more meaningful, enriched learning experience.

This is not easy work, but like most challenging things in life, the payoff, especially for our students and district, is just a little ways down the road! We are grateful for your support.

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