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Standards-Based Learning

Spanish teacher Karen Tritt argues the pros and reporter Hannah Holladay argues the cons of standards-based learning

Hannah Holladay, Karen Tritt, Reporter, Guest Writer

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Can you ride a bike? Yes or no? That simple question will help explain why standards-based learning (SBL) is so effective.

In previous years, student grades were influenced by behaviors that had no connection to student learning. That is no longer the case. Now, we focus on only one question: Can the student “ride the bike?” Has the student learned the concept? Turning work in late, sloppiness and returning a signed syllabus are behaviors. None of these activities give any indication of whether a student has learned. As a result, we revised our instruction so that every in-class practice and every homework assignment builds on the next to prepare students for the final unit assessment.

We also know that most students can not master a concept on the first try. They need practice and opportunities to fall off the bike without the scrapes and bruises affecting their grades. Learning happens in the mistakes. For that reason, with SBL, only final assessments count towards the student’s final grade. These assessments, affectionately known as IPAs (or integrated performance assessments), provide feedback to both teachers and students.

So how does SBL affect grading? The focus is: Has the student learned the concept? If yes, how well has he learned it? And, if no, how much help does the student need in order to accomplish the task? To answer these questions, student performance is scored as follows: 4-Exceeds, 3-Proficient, 2-Developing, 1-Not yet.

This is an adjustment for students who are accustomed to traditional grades. However, this style of learning and assessment has so many positives for students. They can redo any assessment to show a greater level of mastery, which gives students complete control of their grades. They are not penalized for behaviors but instead are rewarded for grit and evidence of learning. 

SBL requires both teachers and students to change how they think about grades. It asks all of us to think about what a grade really represents. With SBL, student scores are a true reflection of student learning or, shall we say, how well they can ride the bike.


The standards-based learning (SBL) system was implemented by the Spanish department as a way to provide an organic representation of a student’s learning. Unfortunately, it often ends up exemplifying students’ minor failures that accumulate over time. This leads to a common frustration with the system and fosters discontent with grades that would likely be higher had assignments been graded more traditionally. 

One of this system’s biggest flaws is that it favors individuals who have long excelled in the classroom, but leaves those who generally receive mid-range test scores in the dust. The one to four grading scale creates a small margin for success, where missing one or two questions on an exam places a student in the exemplary four category, but slightly lower scores cause them to drop to the three range or below. Students who easily retain information and have always received near-perfect marks on exams thrive, whereas those making a few small errors fall victim to the large margin of failure the system enables.

Furthermore, not all grades are created equal. Unlike a traditional weighted grading system, SBL places the most emphasis on the most recent grade. A student who has worked hard and received good scores on a majority of work runs the risk of having their grade drop significantly due to one assignment they may not have performed as strongly on.

This issue is amplified by how difficult the system makes it for students to gauge how well they need to be doing on exams to maintain the grade they want. It can be argued that students use this as a way to do the bare minimum in order to receive the grade they want, but it is an important method for many to help ensure continued success. Learning to budget time is a critically important skill to learn in high school, but SBL leaves students in the dark as they are unable to fully interpret what their grades mean and how much they need to study to succeed on upcoming exams.

Even though these flaws are largely inadvertent, they continue to cause negative ramifications for average students in the classroom, perpetuating a system where the strongest students succeed and the rest struggle to meet the standards.

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