Standard-based grading adopted by some Hannibal public schools, pros and cons discussed at recent board meetings


Kyle Pociask, parent in the Hannibal School District, shares his research of the standard-based grading system at Wednesday's board meeting. Megan Duncan

HANNIBAL, Mo. – A topic at the last two Hannibal Public School Board meetings has been standard-based grading.

At the Hannibal School Board meeting Wednesday night it was announced that the Hannibal Middle School will host monthly parent meetings to allow discussion on various topics. The first meeting will be at 6 p.m. on Sept 27 at the Hannibal Middle School and will focus on standard-based grading (SBG).

The Hannibal Middle School adopted standard-based grading in math and then continued to implement it in other subjects. Although there wasn’t an exact date given that they started using SBG at the middle school, Hannibal School Board President Blane Mundle recalled it was first used before he retired as HMS principal in 2015.

This year, HMS made the full switch for standard-based grading for all subjects along with Stowell Elementary and Mark Twain Elementary. 

SBG breaks down large subjects into smaller learning objectives to measure student learning. Rather than assigning traditional letter grades, standard-based scales range from 1 to 4.

A level 1 reflects below basic understanding of a specific skill or standard; a level 2 reflects basic understanding; a level 3 reflects proficiency; and a level 4 reflects advanced understanding. 

The system is based on assessment rather than traditional homework assignments. With standard-based grading homework and other elements do not factor into a student’s grade. Standards-based grading allows students to be graded solely on mastery of course content.

Stephanie Utterback, principal of Hannibal Middle School, spoke about standard-based grading at the school board meeting on Aug. 16. 

Utterback said students have responded well to the grading method. She mentioned students are required to pass 75% of the standards to be eligible to play sports.

Utterback reported when standard-based grading was first applied, there was a list of up to ten students who could not participate in sports. She said that list is now at zero.

“A lot of these kids need sports. They need that connection to education and we don’t want to hinder that,” she said. 

Shawn Brown, assistant superintendent at Hannibal Public Schools, reported state averages show improvement since implementing the system. In 2006 Hannibal Middle School was one of the lowest performing middle schools in the state of Missouri and HMS is now over the state average in multiple categories.

Brown said he wouldn’t call standard-based grading the “silver bullet.” He said the increase has a lot to do with the teachers making daily decisions in the classroom.

“Standard-based grading is a tool for instruction,” he said.

Claire Patterson, 8th grade math teacher at Hannibal Middle School, spoke about her experience with SBG. In her 12 years of teaching, Patterson has taught math and science both under the traditional grading system and with SBG.

Patterson said standard-based grading has made her a much better teacher than she was with traditional grading, and gives her a deeper understanding of what she is teaching by diving into the curriculum to determine what each level is.

“I have always been handed a rubric and told this is what I was going to be doing, but I never had to dig into it,” she said. “With standard-based grading, we are having these conversations every time we are handed a new standard.”

She said it also helps her create tests that are more geared toward learning goals and to assess where they are.

“We assess each goal as we go. They take a pretest and I can tell you which question goes with which piece on this proficiency scale, so knowing that the questions on the assessment are truly matched to the standard,” she said.

In response to last month’s discussion about standard based grading, Hannibal parent Kyle Pociask brought a packet of research he conducted on standard-based grading to Wednesday’s meeting.

He said most of the online research he found for standard-based grading was based on sites focused on sales, Pociask said it was hard to find information that wasn’t biased, in his opinion. 

One area of concern for Pociask was that the system seems to imply that teachers were not establishing targets for students to meet before standard-based grading.

“Every document in support of standard-based grading makes it sound like before standard-based grading, teachers were winging it when it came to curriculum,” he said. “I know that’s not true but every single one of them takes that presumption.”

Pociask also said that the supporting documents make it seem teachers were not previously accessing students’ progress and levels of mastery in subjects or giving appropriate feedback. 

Pociask said the new grading system makes it seem as if traditional grading did not give feedback on the skill level, which he disagreed with.

“This is making it sound like grades are arbitrary and unrelated to educational performance under standard grading. One website actually said I quote, ‘by focusing on skills levels rather than arbitrary letter grades,’” he said. “I went to school and I never got an arbitrary letter grade.”

Pociask expressed concern that parents were no longer receiving feedback on progress. He said his children no longer bring home homework, quiz scores, or test scores. 

When they did, he could see their progress and what they were learning. Instead, Pociask said he only receives a few updates on their progress through the school’s app, Infinite Campus.

“We are finding is that we only get feedback when we get the grade card,” he said. “And what are you going to do then?”  

He said the system is “inherently subjective.” Since students’ grades are not based on the number of correct answers, the teachers must interpret the students’ progress. 

He said without questions graded right or wrong, or papers that don’t set standards determining what a score is based on spelling and grammatical errors, Pociask said the grading is flawed.

Sarah Almon, 8th grade ELA teacher, said at the Aug. 16 meeting said she knows feelings and perspectives of teachers can play a role in what they are grading.

One way she makes sure she grades objectively is by pairing with another teacher in the department to grade all their assessments together.

“We also make sure that during this process we are asking questions to each other and that we fully understand what we are looking for and what we are grading,” she said.

If she has concerns that her feelings are influencing her grading, she turns to her teaching partner to make sure she is grading fairly and appropriately.

On Wednesday, Susan Johnson, superintendent of Hannibal Public Schools, said she believes standard-based grading gives teachers a chance to use their skills.

“Teachers are professionals and they are utilizing their professional knowledge gained in their own schooling. They are actually required to give more feedback than before with standard-based grading,” she said.

She said there have been individuals who have expressed their concern or dislike of the new system.

“I am not trying to lessen it, but I think what I hear from a lot of individuals–right or wrong–it’s change. You know, it looks different from what I had in school.”

Johnson said the most important thing is knowing that it isn’t about if traditional grading is bad or standard-based grading is good. 

“Are we teaching the right things to our students? That’s what teachers need to be doing. Whatever tools we need make sure that happens, is what we need to do,” she said. 

Pociask handed out a copy of his extensive research on SBG to Johnson and each board member, who all plan to review it. 

They will also soon send out a survey to HPS families to find out their thoughts on SBG.

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