5 questions with UNI professor Matt Townsley

5 questions with UNI professor Matt Townsley

UNI professor Matt Townsley wants to see an education revolution. In his upcoming book “Making Grades Matter,” co-written with Nathan Wear, the UNI educational leadership assistant professor lays out the path for middle and high schools to abandon traditional letter grades in favor of a standards-based grading model. In this conversation, he outlines his case for why schools should rethink the way they think about grades and learning.

What is standards-based grading? Is it the death knell of letter grades?

Standards-based grading is a different way, perhaps a more detailed way, of communicating student learning. Typically, we report student learning with just a single letter grade, like an A, or report a specific test grade, like 83 percent on the chapter 3 test. But that doesn’t tell us a whole lot about what a student has learned or has not learned. What standards-based grading does is it disaggregates information based upon the specific standards the state has set. We already do this in other areas. If you’re a volleyball player, your coach could say “you’re really good at spiking, you’re okay at setting and your serving is not good.” Now, the player knows what to improve. It’s very descriptive feedback. Our learners get that feedback in life and extracurricular activities, so why not do the exact same thing in the classroom? So, the premise of standards-based grading is to communicate students’ strengths and weaknesses in relation to the specific learning objectives the state requires, and it does so in a much more detailed way than a letter grade.

Letter grades and what they represent are so embedded in our culture that they spill over into almost every aspect of our lives. You get an “A for effort,” we know a C is average and an F means you failed. Why are you proposing to change this system?

I think when we were all in high school, there was always the easy teacher and the hard teacher. And so there was variation even when letter grades were used. We knew that in this particular teacher’s class, we could get points and credit and improve our grade by just showing up in class and getting participation points. But really, what do those points have to do at all with how well they've learned and understood math, for instance? What we hope is that grades communicate student learning, but research shows they communicate a combination of how much students have learned, what they've done, the extra credit things they've done and all these other employability skills. And so again, that's the premise for why standards-based grading is catching on in schools and why we wrote this book to try to help schools better understand how to disaggregate the things they want students to learn in class and communicate how well they have learned them.

What are the benefits of standard-based grading versus traditional grading?

I think one of the benefits is when these standards are better communicated, as a teacher, I can look at my whole class and say “I have a class of 20 students. These 10 students already understand Pythagorean Theorem, but these five students over here have absolutely no clue, and these other five students here are getting pretty close.” And so as a teacher, it helps me have a better pulse on my class. If I'm a parent who likes to help my student at home, I can log into the gradebook and see specifically where my student is doing well or not doing well. But if I log in and just see 20 out of 25 on a test, I really have no idea how my student is doing. But if I go in there and see that my student has a “not yet” level understanding of right triangle trigonometry, now that gives me an idea of specifically where I can start with my student. And so we feel like it’s a benefit for teachers to help inform their instruction, but it also benefits parents who desire to help their students at home as well. And of course, ideally, we hope that students would take more control of their own learning and do a better job thinking about their thinking and taking more ownership in their learning. 

You’re talking about upending a grading practice that stretches back generations. Is this a controversial idea in the education community? What are the barriers to implementing this practice?

There are parents who are pushing back on this idea. They have expressed a fear of the unknown. They're so used to the points and percentages game. They're so used to, instead of asking their kid “what is it that you have not learned yet?” they will ask their kid “what is it you have not done yet” or “what other opportunities do you have to increase your grade?” And really what that tends to come down to is where the point grabbing opportunities are available for students. And we as an educational system have actually trained them to do that. When we came out with electronic grade books once upon a time, it really focused on the assessment medium, the demonstration of learning rather than the learning itself. And it's a huge paradigm shift to now ask your kid questions such as “what is it that you've not learned yet. When I log in to the gradebook here it says you have not yet learned right triangle trigonometry. What is the next opportunity you have to work with the teacher or what opportunities do we have at home to work through that together?” Parents are not used to that because they all experienced K-12 school in a way that was set up to be all about what I did as opposed to what I've learned. And so that fear of the unknown is really probably the biggest barrier.

You implemented this practice during your time as a teacher and later, district administrator in Solon. How was it received by students and teachers? And how widely has this been adopted?

Initially, when we rolled this out, it was with some voluntary teachers that piloted it on their own. Yes, there were questions, but in general those early adopting teachers were very excited about it, and it was received very well. When we moved to doing it with all teachers, some teachers weren’t necessarily against it, but they were just unsure how to do it. And that uneasiness sometimes came out in their conversations with students and with parents. There were some students who were very used to playing what I call the points game. On most of their tests, they would get Bs, but they found all the other opportunities - you know, extra credit for bringing in Kleenex boxes, participation points, and the like - to get their grade up to an A. And so now, what they really had, when it was all said and done, was not an A-level understanding, but a B-level understanding, and they were frustrated because they saw themselves as “A” students. And so we had to help them and help their families, who didn't always agree with this shift, to see that it wasn't about points and percentages anymore, it was about learning. And that was not an easy conversation to have because we had parents and students who were used to a certain way that education was.

We were also tracking Iowa Assessment scores at the time. Before we implemented standards-based grading, about 85% of our students were proficient and 25% were highly proficient. By the end of it, we were much closer to 90% students who were proficient and 30% who were highly proficient. Now, we can’t attribute that all to standards-based grading, but it certainly wasn’t hurting the students.

And in a recent survey I did, 54 secondary schools in Iowa have fully implemented standards-based grading, with another 28 saying they plan to make the switch in one or two years. This is in contrast to back in 2011-12, when we did this in Solon Middle and High schools, we estimated less than six schools were doing. So it’s grown a decent amount.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.