Converting Standards-based Scores to Final Course Grades and GPA

You’ll have to jump through some hoops and play the game of school to get standards-based grading implemented – and that’s okay. Photo Credit: pianowow via Compfight cc

I wish I’d had standards-based learning training when I started my FIRST teaching job –  I would have been a more effective planner and assessor. Now that I work for a school that does SBG at the secondary level  I can see how the approach leads to units more closely aligned with learning outcomes and facilitates feedback that is much more descriptive,  relevant,  and practicable than what I gave as a new teacher. But I also see where the criterion referenced philosophy standards-based grading is still working within the context of the norm referenced framework of college applications –  and I’m coming to believe that these can be reconciled if you’re willing to accept the reality of the latter.

“You’re going to play the game of school [when implementing standards-based grading],” noted Rick Wormeli in a keynote given to an Iowa school district.1 In other words, it’s not politically or practically feasible to hold on stubbornly to SBG philosophy in every aspect of your implementation.  Colleges,  for example,  perform GPA conversions on final course grades,  whether they’re standards-based or not.  Schools that don’t directly address this fact get into a world of trouble with parents and students – especially in an East Asian context like at my school – who want a clear picture of how their transcript is presented to universities. So how do can you keep reporting accurately on discrete standards while still providing a traditional course grade and/or GPA for transcripts?

The available literature on SBG from Marzano,  O’Connor,  Wormeli,  and Guskey don’t do a good enough job in articulating how final course grades should be calculated. Most of them propose some sort of conversion scale,  like P = 3.3, E = 4.0, etc.  But they don’t clearly explain how you equate,  for example,  getting six out of eight standards “proficient”  to a traditional letter grade or GPA value. The lack of documentation about how to convert achievement on individual standards to an overall course grade is probably because it’s a really complex discussion –  more complex than the discussion about how you assess proficiency for an individual standard (that,  by the way,  is something you should accomplish by looking at Marzano’s Proficiency Scales 2 and then norming your grading with your colleagues). And,  no,  having that discussion is not strictly in accordance with SBG philosophy –  but it’s one you have to have if you’re sending your students to college.

Let’s start with some assumptions:

  1. You want to have a single calculation that applies to all courses and content areas
  2. The definition and attainability of your proficiency levels (N, A, P, E) is the same across all courses – the difference between an E and  P in math, for example, is about the same as it

The most straightforward way to do it would be to give each N,  A,  P,  or E a discreet value,  and then to add them up to equate to a final percentage.  If these values are set correctly,  then getting proficient in 100% of standards might equate to a “B”,  getting 100% of standards proficient but getting two standards “exceeding”  might be an “A”,  etc. And here’s the thing: schools should not be having to come up with this on their own.  If standards are criterion-referenced,  then proficiency scales should be too and shouldn’t vary from school to school and district to district (even though they do).  Therefore,  we should be able to derive the calculation and apply it to all schools –  and those people writing standards should be the ones doing this,  to ensure standardization.

And while doing this,  we need to make clear that it’s being done for the purposes of college applications,  because the danger in it lies in undoing the focus on standards and what needs to be learned and going back to that tricky business of applying a single number to a student’s performance.  But that’s being done by colleges anyway.  Parents know it and students know it.  So they need to be given a clear,  justifiable conversion to Final Course Grades with the acknowledgement that it’s not perfect or even correct – because “there are no right grades, only justifiable ones.3

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