California colleges and universities report some alarming statistics regarding the preparedness of incoming college freshmen. One measure shows that over half of all California State University students are not allowed to register for their first university courses in math and English until they take remedial classes to improve their skill levels. This means that high schools are graduating students with high grades, but low skills.
Traditional grading systems have two unintended, negative effects. First, once a student receives a low grade or a series of low grades, it is difficult for the student’s grade to improve. Even if a student puts in effort, learns over time, and masters a topic, the grades for the class will not necessarily reflect true mastery. Second, in traditional systems there are many opportunities for grades to be inflated. For example, a student may receive extra credit for effort, style, creativity, or behavior. While these are wonderful things, giving a grade based on these elements of a project do not reflect a student’s level of content mastery.
In a Standards-Based Grading or Mastery Grading system, students receive grades based on their current level of understanding of a given topic or standard. If a student puts in the effort to learn and grow, previous scores are not averaged with the current score. Rather, the student receives a grade that reflects his/her highest level of mastery (understanding) for each standard addressed through the coursework. Moreover, since the goal of the Standards-Based Classroom is for students to learn and master the content, multiple iterations of work are permitted, thus allowing the student to continue to improve until mastery is achieved.