A Standards-Based Assessment Model Can Help Build More Diverse and Equitable Communities

Winter 2019

By Regan Galvan, Mike Peller

Students at Harvard-Westlake School (CA), where Regan Galvan taught math from 2008 to 2017, were consistently motivated, curious, and eager to get good grades. But after five years of teaching there within a traditional grading system, Galvan began to wonder how she might prevent the grade-focused dimension from overshadowing students’ curiosity. Despite her consistency in growth-mindset messaging, which included daily pep talks and Carol Dweck quotes in the classroom, some students were often hindered by one of two manifestations of fixed mindsets, as defined by Dweck. One group was reluctant to engage in rich, generative tasks (such as problem-based learning), preferring instead rote classroom routines marked by lecture and repetitive practice. Another set lacked confidence, marred by prior negative experiences in math class. Both struggled to rebound from making mistakes and receiving low grades.

As students go through school, their GPA increasingly influences their identity—and self-worth. Traditional grading, which focuses on how students do over random snapshots in time, is static and doesn’t utilize the power of feedback to help students grow. Traditional grading is a deficit model: As a system, it makes students see only gaps in their knowledge without bridges to understanding. Schools—and traditional grading practices in particular—teach students that having answers means being smart and asking questions indicates academic weakness. Students are weighed down by mistakes and quickly see themselves as an “A” student, a “B” student, or, since “C” is the new “F,” a “C” student.

And for students who feel like they don’t belong, receiving critical feedback “can seem like proof that they don’t belong … [increasing] stress and undermin[ing] students’ motivation and engagement over time,” according to the authors of “Addressing Achievement Gaps with Psychological Interventions.” For students to take critical feedback constructively, they have to believe that it is possible for them to improve. Both the structure of assessment and students’ perceptions of teacher mindset play a part in students’ abilities to take feedback. When students believe teachers have faith in them while also giving them strategies to improve, students feel connected, supported, and on the path toward learning independently. This requires us to change not only how we deliver feedback but the entire feedback system itself.

A school’s assessment and feedback philosophy can encourage a sense of belonging as well as promote a culture that embraces all students as capable of growing and improving as thinkers, learners, and doers. To build on the authentic social justice work being done in our schools and to make real progress in our efforts to create inclusive and equitable communities, we must adopt and employ assessment practices that support this work.

Adopting Standards-Based Assessment

As a student of pedagogy and education research, Galvan knew that teachers across the country were addressing issues around grading by shifting the focus of their classrooms from competition and ranking to learning and growth. They were doing this by moving to a standards-based assessment (SBA) approach—and were seeing promising results. Standards-based assessment allows students to know exactly where they stand on clearly defined standards, differentiating the classroom experience and honoring each student as a unique individual. SBA both communicates clear objectives for learning and relates feedback to the objectives. Students move on when they master the objectives.

To achieve this, SBA systems are built on an interleaved curriculum and include opportunities for reassessment. Rather than using points to determine that a student gets a “D” on a test, students see a rubric of learning objectives and an indication of mastery. Students will instead learn something specific, like that their work is “proficient” in communicating effectively to different audiences but is still “developing” with regard to forming a concise argument.

Teachers who use SBA turn grading into actionable feedback. SBA motivates continuous learning, fostering a growth mindset along the way, as it allows us to shift student thinking from “How did I do then?” to “What should I do next?” Students are motivated to learn from mistakes because they know they get another chance to demonstrate mastery. SBA makes growth mindset a reality. SBA moves a teacher’s belief and hope that all students can meet expectations for learning from the posters on the wall to being lived, classroom values.

Galvan wanted to try this approach, and Harvard-Westlake administrators allowed her to pilot the framework in her classroom; she created a system that gave students multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery of standards rather than issuing students summative letter grades on assignments (she still had to give grades on report cards).

On the first day of school each year, even before she tested SBA, Galvan asked students to write a math autobiography, a short summary about their prior math experience, their feelings about math, and expectations or worries about the coming year. This assignment provided clues about who might need more encouragement and support to see their mistakes as information rather than as judgments on their ability. After she started using SBA, there was a marked shift in all of the students. She saw an increased sense of comfort and security to sustain effort and learn from mistakes. While assessment strategy is just one piece of the puzzle of teaching and learning, in this case, switching the system had a remarkable impact on both classroom culture and student self-efficacy. No longer did students seem to anguish when they received their graded tests. Instead, students were eager to use the feedback to calibrate their understanding and dig in to next steps.

The shift was especially noticeable in the students who spoke of math anxiety and apprehension in their math autobiographies. Changing the grading system removed the pressure to demonstrate understanding on timed tests. By removing the grade and the idea that you have to get it right the first time, she reassured her students that she believed in their ability to learn—and subsequently, they did, too.

The Intersection of SBA and Cultural Responsiveness

In Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, author Zaretta Hammond writes that teachers need to “highlight the natural intersection between brain-based learning and culturally responsive teaching” in order to “accelerate student learning.” She offers essential ideas for shifting teacher mindsets and practices to better support students of color. She advises that teachers seeking to become culturally responsive practitioners should be intentional about building relationships with students that are anchored by hope, trust, and growth mindset. For schools to be inclusive, teachers must be “warm demanders,” those who combine high expectations for student success with warmth, care, and help. Warm demanders empower learners largely because of their relationships.

Teachers must build relationships with students that are anchored by hope and trust, that aren’t contradicted by systems of evaluation. Here are some strategies to consider:

Provide actionable feedback. Standards-based assessment supports authentic, caring feedback conversations that are instructive over evaluative. Hammond urges teachers to combine feedback with a genuine sense of hope for the student. Students feel included and motivated when they “recognize the teacher’s willingness to help them get better.” SBA removes the evaluation and bolsters the power of the feedback. SBA communicates faith and hope because the system is iterative. SBA aids inclusion by building self-efficacy, because it normalizes the idea that mistakes are part of the learning process.

Think of students as data-driven participants in the learning process.
Hammond argues that teachers are culturally responsive when we help students to be “active participants in tracking their own growth.” SBA provides evaluation-free information that drives the learner to be “data-driven in one’s decision-making about learning tactics and strategies.” The cycle is defined by a learning experience, actionable feedback on learning experience, time to apply feedback, and subsequent learning experience to demonstrate skill. SBA enables students to take ownership of the learning process, to use the feedback as a part of the learning process.

Remember that hope is a critical relationship component. Traditional grading feels like judgment to students. It feels definitive, disincentivizes motivation, and negatively influences the student-teacher relationship. Students facing chronic low expectations can lose hope, experiencing feelings characterized by a lack of control over progress. Hope is a critical ingredient for positive relationships needed for culturally responsive teaching. SBA, with clearly communicated goals, actionable feedback, and opportunities for reassessment, helps teachers to be “merchants of hope in their role as allies in the learning partnership.”

Taking the Next Step

SBA serves as a stepping stone to embed equity and inclusion into the fabric of how schools report on student learning. The Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC), through its focus on reimagining the high school transcript, is giving schools courage to envision what schools might look like if we first assessed what matters and then assessed without bias.

The research on the importance of noncognitive skills is becoming ubiquitous. A mastery transcript would allow schools to truly embrace assessment practices that “accommodate the full range of value outcomes (and not just cognitive/academic achievement narrowly defined and narrowly measured)” as the authors write in “Evolving Assessments for a 21st Century Education.” One might falsely think valuing noncognitive skills is just a trend. However, nearly 500 years ago, philosopher Michel de Montaigne wrote in On Educating Children, “Place character and intelligence before knowledge.” How is it then that our current model of education focuses so heavily on rote content? We have chosen efficiency over efficacy; the education system decided to assess what is easy, not what matters. If we want our learners to have the intra- and interpersonal skills to navigate, negotiate, and solve relevant and pressing problems, we must teach, assess, and report on these skills.

We know that students’ grades are influenced by teacher bias—explicit and implicit—and that impacts how students see themselves. The MTC has provided a solution to this by removing the teacher from giving grades. In the MTC model, a fixed committee reviews and credentials students with mastery credits. Because it is a constant and experienced committee looking at all student work, the system removes the bias associated with creating validity across teachers. Therefore, the MTC will allow schools to teach, assess, and report on what matters, while minimizing the bias associated with evaluative practices.

The teacher’s role is to do precisely what educational theorist David Ausubel wrote in 1968: Determine what each individual student needs and appropriately differentiate instruction; sit beside each child, encouragingly and caringly, and provide the precise experience that will catalyze the learning for that child. The model that MTC proposes for reporting on student learning, thinking in terms of systems, promotes equity in learning—the teacher will not evaluate the student work, so the student and teacher will be able to develop a relationship rooted in learning (not judgment); thus, the feedback simply provides a roadmap for what the student could be working on next so as to improve. Imagine if students were able to truly believe their teacher had their best interest in mind? This will likely be the outcome of the MTC system. While this paradigm shift will benefit all students, it will likely more broadly benefit the students who, in the past, have been impacted by a loss of hope through chronic low expectations.

Educators have the power to immediately change the way they assess to support a culturally responsive model. Many education reformists have reframed the achievement gap as an expectation gap—that as teachers mind their implicit biases, adjust practices to offer rich learning opportunities for all students, and set high expectations coupled with hope and help, gaps in achievement will close. By embracing SBA and MTC, schools are assessing for growth, taking specific actions to close that expectation gap. SBA is the critical step for schools to fully practice equity and inclusion because it couples high expectations with real hope. Through ongoing feedback rooted in the standards, we allow students to make data-driven decisions, putting them in the driver’s seat of their learning.
Read More
For additional insights and perspective on the Mastery Transcript Consortium and other methods of assessment, check out these articles.
Another Take on Assessments as One School Creates a Portfolio-Based System,” Independent School magazine, Spring 2018, by Emily Jones

Reimagining the High School Transcript,” Independent School magazine, Spring 2018, by Ari Pinkus
Independent Schools Come Together to Build a New High School Transcript,” Independent Ideas blog, September 2017, by Scott D. Looney
Regan Galvan

Regan Galvan is director of student life at Wildwood School in Los Angeles, California.

Mike Peller

Mike Peller is assistant head of school for teaching and learning at The White Mountain School in Bethlehem, New Hampshire.