Complete Standards Based Grading (SBG) Systems: Why not in a language course?

You may have read that my new “one grading system to rule them all” essentially has a single standard, Proficiency. This is because I am no longer convinced that students need to practice anything in order to acquire a language. If you believe students need to practice, SBG will work for you, but I don’t buy it, and neither does VanPatten. This concept is so utterly counterintuitive to traditional language teachers, you probably need to spend some time thinking things over before developing your teaching philosophy.

Krashen’s work also distinguishes between unconscious acquisition and conscious learning. Latin teaching typically has focused on the latter. This is why most of us can conjugate verbs or identify noun-adjective agreement, yet require commentary (and sometimes a grammar, AND dictionary) just to read most Latin. The focus on conscious learning also the reason you hear people lament about taking Spanish in high school, but forget most of it by now. They probably never knew it…they just learned about how the language worked, participated in paired speaking activities or dialogue performances, studied some discrete cultural facts about various countries in South America, and memorized items for an announced test. This does not result in acquisition. Consciously learning how a language works really only applies to Linguists analyzing language, or the few weirdos (= most language teachers) who get giddy over knowing about grammar. Language rules are unnecessary for most when it comes to true proficiency and communicative ability (interpretive reading is a form of communication, too).

Standards Based Grading is largely a system of conscious learning with a huge emphasis on metacognitive skills. Students clearly see their performance visualized, identify areas of improvement, make goals, and do something to improve their mastery of a standard. This is great for the development of the adolescent mind, and encouraged by school administration, but does little, if anything, when it comes to picking up languages. There is no opportunity here to “become lost in the flow of language” like getting lost in a good book. In other content areas (perhaps all of them) SBG is the best grading system out there, but when it comes to languages, there are drawbacks. Here are a few observations of using a full SBG system in a language class:

  1. SBG presupposes that students are as excited as you are to be using the grading system (conf. how language teachers typically feel about grammar…we don’t represent most people).
  2. SBG encourages the isolation of language skills that aren’t really separate processes, even if we divide them into different rubrics.
  3. It’s really easy to fall into the trap of choosing grammatical objectives as your standards.
  4. More standards means more assessing, and more assessing typically means less acquiring.
  5. Students are encouraged to “practice” skills, which research shows is largely unnecessary.
  6. In a CI classroom, students naturally gain proficiency regardless of the grading system.

The final point is perhaps the most compelling. There is a quote floating around educational circles about “weighing a pig more often doesn’t make it fatter…you need to feed it.” This is what I see in language classrooms. The CI is our food, and students will grow plump full of it. The best grading system, then, is the least restrictive/obtrusive, not the most complex/comprehensive.

I caution that using a nicely packaged grading system, such as SBG, might be confused with producing results, when it really was the CI that did the job. In some cases, SBG encourages old ideas about practicing language, and if CI isn’t rich enough, the system will actually impede student progress. Why put all that effort into developing an SBG grading system if it doesn’t improve acquisition?

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6 thoughts on “Complete Standards Based Grading (SBG) Systems: Why not in a language course?

  1. Pingback: A New Grading System: The last one you’ll ever need (once you’re ready) | Magister P.

  2. Although I can see your points, I wholeheartedly disagree with you. Perhaps what I use is more Proficiency-based grading, but I don’t have any of the issues that you describe. I only have 15 grades per quarter in my gradebook that determines the student’s grade. So I’m not overly assessing or grading. I do assess on the four skills, but they are arranged in a hierarchy that is based on Bloom’s and goes along with SLA theory (input before output). My objectives come from the 5 Cs of ACTFL and are not grammar-based at all. And finally, my system is not complicated at all and truly gives a result that matches the student’s ability without artificially inflating or deflating their grade. Ever since I have adopted this system, I have letter grades (unfortunately grades are a necessary evil in the US) that actually are accurate depictions of a student’s overall ability and/or ability in one of the 4 skills. So perhaps standard, right-out-of-the-box SBG may not be functional for a language classroom, my adaptation of it, certainly is and has been for nearly 15 years. 🙂

    • Hey Scott, glad this made it on your radar. Your resources have been incredibly helpful over the years. I think you may have said it right there with “Perhaps what I use is more Proficiency-based grading, but I don’t have any of the issues that you describe.”

      I am glad you found a way around all of the problems with standard SBG. Still, if people are talking about SBG in department meetings (that’s a big IF), they’re most certainly talking about that standard, right-out-of-the-box kind.

      • That is very true. Many people use SBG to prove a point and that’s not what it’s intention is and if implemented poorly, it doesn’t reflect the acquisition of their students.

  3. And one final thought. SBG or Proficiency-based Grading isn’t meant to improve acquisition, only to be an unbiased measurement of it.

    • Agreed, but SBG done poorly can actually harm acquisition. The most toxic aspect is the idea of “mastery.” I’d say most of your success comes from the fact that you aren’t forcing students to produce anything too soon, and that they don’t have to “practice” any of those skills that you have standards for. If they did, it wouldn’t be about acquisition.

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