After being a part of the standards-based revolution in education for years, specifically physical education, I felt like it was time to share my thoughts. There are similar concepts under different titles such as competency-based, mastery-based, proficiency-based, etc. But what’s in a name, right? It all boils down to the same system of achievement for students and teachers. I’ve discovered through many online conversations with some of our most well-studied professionals that the available research literature indicates that the most impactful class culture for future outcomes in active lifestyles is mastery-oriented and helps students develop both perceived and actual self-efficacy of movement competence.
With that information, it seems that a balance must be struck between actual competence and self-perceived. Students do need some evidence-based information as to where they stand with the learning, but at the same time, future participation in physical activity is also largely determined by how people feel about their abilities, regardless of the stone-cold truth. If People feel good about their skills, even if the view is somewhat inflated, they’re much more likely to continue applying them in the future by joining groups, leagues, schools, or even individual pursuits. People are motivated to do what they think they’re good at. Makes sense, right?
Standards-based grading (SGB) in powerful in that it allows for more targeted interventions for individual learners. Our learning time in schools is limited, and spending as much time as possible in a productive way matters, and so it’s much more efficient when we know exactly what a student knows and can do. SBG also allows education teams to find lapses in instruction. If most students are not achieving based on the current instruction, standards-based systems help this become known faster than non-SBG ones. But on the flip side, I know for many students the SBG ratings reinforces the perspective that “I’m just a two and always going to be a two.” At least in a traditional A-F grading system, they’d only see four or five “low scores” on the report card as opposed to pages upon pages of them. The twenty or more low marks they get on an SBG report card just feels a whole lot worse to them than a few C grades. I see this with my oldest child at home. It’s a small but relevant gripe.
My first big issue with standards-based grading is that it tends to push educators and students away from freedom, creativity and individuality and might even end with some loss of unique knowledge not attached to the specific learner targets. If it’s not in the standards, many teachers won’t cover it. SBG removes the incentive to teach anything other than those standards that are graded. Some of the most fun and wacky activities may be lost forever if we focus solely on standardized outcomes or goals. Look at the SHAPE America grade level outcomes (GLOs), where standards are broken down into such detail that specific movements are assessed. With such specificity, there’s not always a lot of room left for individuality, learning that’s meaningful to local culture, or other tangents. And let’s not forget the vast differences in facilities, schedules, equipment options, class sizes, and a host of other variables that exist. Standards and a plethora of variables don’t always co-exist peacefully.
I appreciate the SHAPE GLOs in giving us a place to work from so we have an idea of what students should know before they leave each grade. However, it does come at a price and conflicts with what we know of human development. There is, after all, a variance of two to three years in physical and mental maturity in children. What that means is that any given 10-year-old can be anywhere from 7-13 with regards to physical and mental development. We all see it daily. Does it make sense to have them feel inadequate or inferior for not being proficient when the standard may not be appropriate for them in the first place? Sure, maybe a typical 10-year-old should be able to do X, Y and Z, but how many of them are typical? Individualization is lost. They are either good enough at a standard or they are not. And let’s not forget that the standards are based on grade levels, not age, so this variance is even worse! A fourth grader could be eight to ten years old. Factor in the + or – two to three years and…well, you get the idea.
This type of mindset all begins with baby milestones. Parents get freaked out if their child isn’t talking or walking by a certain age. Sure, it makes sense to be aware in case of delays that need interventions, but most of the time each child is simply on their own timeline. They may walk at 10 months or 14. In the end they both acquire the skill when they need it, right? SBG tells children they need to be on the same timeline as everyone else or they are behind in development. What a sad message that no doubt had long-lasting consequences on the hearts and minds of future movers! With all that in mind, I wish more folks would understand that the GLOs are better used as a guidepost instead of a hardcoded learning doctrine. And if it’s not in the standards, is it worth teaching? If not, says who? And from what culture or perspective?
I’ve read a few blogs or articles on meaningful SBG in physical education (or education in general). Many of them have almost no discussion of self-perceived versus actual competence balance. The focus is on what a teacher or standard says they’re good at (which already dismisses the knowledge we have on maturity variance), regardless of how humanely that information is shared with students, and never really gives importance to the idea of letting kids feel, in their own hearts and minds, that they’re good at something from their own perspective. I’m not arguing against the importance of kids focusing on learning goals, but does such an information-heavy system of rubrics really motivate students to move for the rest of their lives (which is arguably our biggest goal)? Can it be tamed a bit and share space with more student-perceived success stemming from less standards-based criteria?
What I’m saying is that a SBG system of information can create a student experience of losing self-perceived competence, which can make or break a future of movement outcomes. I believe we need a better balance, letting students have more individualized input on their learning targets (if a child is in third grade, does that mean they can’t find more meaning or validity in second grade outcomes?), but with us as facilitators so they don’t get too far off course. Sure, there will be extremes with a few students being lazy or wanting the easy way out, but in my decades of experience, lower motivation comes from standards being too hard, not because there’s too much choice or voice. And who knows, starting with targets more valid for their personal maturity might lead to faster growth with each smaller success, snowballing into a mountain of momentum that may have been halted or slowed under strict SBG-focused systems.
My second issue with SBG has been covered in a blog I wrote about grading for Pete Charrette’s (Cap'n Pete) site last year. On top of the physical and mental maturity variances, students also come to us with wildly different experiences with skills, many of which can be attributed to how involved their parents are in pushing organized sports and athletic experiences, which often comes down to socio-economic status and other related factors. Basketball skill assessment data in an inner-city school would be vastly better than, say, lacrosse skills (which is typically more prominent in wealthier districts), without any physical education lessons at all. This socio-economic disparity is happening in our classrooms every single day, basically an achievement system based on whether parents are great at giving their kids movement experiences at home.
A daily math or writing class can change student outcomes regardless of parents, but when you see your students three times a month on average, well, parents and home life determine success far more than time spent with us. This means that we have far less impact on growth than we believe, and I suspect most of the pre and post-assessment data showing big growth is due to factors such as eight months of maturity in-between assessments plus possible sand-bagging pre-assessment scores. The available research points to anywhere from 10-20 hours to gain proficiency in a skill ,and factoring in that every student comes to us from a different starting point, how much growth comes from the physical education experience if we see students 20-40 hours a year? Which two to five skills would we need to focus on all year in pursuit of standards-based proficiency?
My third issue is not specific to SBG, but it does tend to follow teachers who focus on a specific unit or sport to work on a standard or skill instead of a broad spectrum of experiences. Let’s look at hand striking or volleying skills. It’s far easier to show growth through pre and post-assessing skills tied to a single sport or activity than it is to expose students to multiple ways to use the same skills. I believe helping students discover multiple games, sports or activities that apply a skill or standard gives them a better chance at future participation. Many teachers will run a 4-6-week volleyball unit, and that’s pretty much the only way their students will work on hand volleying or striking all year.
The issue with this is that only a small percentage of students will play volleyball, and the teacher is determining that a single sport is all their students should know or experience (often because they coach or play the sport and are comfortable with it), whereas exposing them to multiple possibilities is better at future-proofing. What will a larger number of students need in their futures? Focusing on gaining some proficiency in volleyball, or having been exposed to a little bit of everything they may come across in their lives, like spikeball, tableball, 2 or 4-square (or 9-square in the air), wall/hand ball, and other selections? Since proficiency is not really a possibility given how little I see students, I choose to give them different experiences and discoveries. I’m not sure it would change all that much even if I doubled my contact time with them. Fill that tool-belt with a few key items for specific jobs, or many different options for most jobs?
My fourth and final issue with SBG is the loss of joy as a focus. I'm not saying it's gone, but it often feels as if we try to coerce students into finding joy through what we need them to learn, instead of letting their individuality, our local culture, or other factors also have importance. Sure, like most, I'm an advocate for finding power standards that most students should experience, but we also need to figure out how to reach students at their needs or interests as well. Physical education is a wounded animal, vying for relevance and respect as part of the education umbrella after years of abuse, and as such I feel we are hyper-focusing on standards, rigor, assessment, and eking out the most data possible. We need to loosen our grip a little on the student experience and let them have a little more say in their learning. We should not try to be like other subjects beyond what we need to survive or keep our jobs. There needs to be a balance for the sake of kids and their active futures.
After all that, what does my teaching look like? I essentially have students run through self-guided or paced progressions in many lessons, collecting data with Plickers magnets (#plagnets), but with choice of challenge level (ball/equipment type, how many successes are needed each level, distance, etc.). They check their own skills in a more individualized way, which frees me up to help those falling behind the rest of the class. Athletes or those with specific skills on a topic can choose more challenging material, lesser skilled can simplify as needed, and this leads to better self-perceived confidence, which in turn leads to higher future participation rates. It’s a constant balancing act of collecting learning data while being true to the needs of children.
The message I really want to portray here is that unless we are very careful, SBG done well is still *grading* and can result in a fixed learner mindset. Let students experience self-perceived competence as often as possible. We’re trying to grow participation in lifelong movement, not just create elite athletes, and solely relying on the adults in the room to tell them whether they are finding success takes away some of their autonomy or self-purpose.
Would love to hear your thoughts here or on Twitter!