Bruno is a skeptic on standards-based grading. He seems to think that “mastery of content” is too abstract for students to work toward and rightly cites evidence that motivation and changed behavior are tightly linked to a sense of efficacy, which in turn is tightly linked to feeling as though you know precisely what to do to get to a particular outcome.

But isn’t mastery of content essentially, “Do well on your assignments and tests”? And while a massive, standards-based report card may be hard for a parent to read, is it any more confusing than seeing awful results on standardized tests and a student who clearly doesn’t read on grade-level receive good grades because of participation, attendance, and behavior? As a parent, how do you know to intercede on your child’s behalf when you see a “B” which actually represents a C- on content knowledge and skills and an A+ for effort, behavior, and completion?

Ultimately, I am against including behavior, attendance, and effort as a part of the same grade as academics. I think there needs to be a clear place to present evidence of academic ability and growth independent of behavioral growth. Both are important, and while linked, are certainly not moving in lockstep for the typical child. Accurate information in both domains is far better than falsely presenting a singular, mixed-up “truth” about a child’s success in school.

For the same reason I am not a fan of school report cards with a single letter grade rating, I am not for just a single letter grade for students. Ultimately, they both represent poor combinations of data that obscure more than they reveal.

Developing report cards or “grading” systems, both for program evaluation and for students, always conjures one of the few concepts I recall from linear algebra. It seems to me that any good grading system should provide a basis, that is, a minimal set of linearly independent vectors which, via linear combination, can describe an entire vector space. Remove the jargon and you’re left with:

Measure the least amount of unrelated things possible that, taken together, describe all there is to know about what you are measuring.

A single grade that combines all the effort, behavior, attendance, and various unrelated academic standards I might get an overall description that says “round”. But by separating out the data at some other level, the picture might describe a golf ball and its dimples, a baseball and its stitches, or a soccer ball with its hexagon-pentagon pattern.

I think we need to find a way to let people know what kind of ball they have.