SBG vs Seat Time
By Mark Heintz
Nov 14, 2021

Standards-based grading and compulsory school time are two competing factors that send mixed messages to the school community. On the one hand, standards are a set level of achievement or proficiency that students attempt to meet in a given school year. When students meet a certain level of proficiency on the standard, they earn the grade. In theory, students could display proficiency on a set of standards at any point in the school year. On the other hand in compulsory schools, students must be in attendance. I see so many people trying to make the education system better and that has created a lot of struggle. I wanted a place to summarize my thoughts and have as a reference point to help myself and others who are in this time of flux and recognize they are not alone.. 

There are very few expectations to this attendance policy. In Illinois, the student can only be for a valid cause.

In Illinois, a “Valid cause” for absence shall be illness, observance of a religious holiday, death in the immediate family, family emergency, and shall include such other situations beyond the control of the student as determined by the board of education in each district, or such other circumstances which cause reasonable concern to the parent for the mental, emotional, or physical health or safety of the student

A valid cause is not, “My student has met or exceeded course standards.”

Therefore, students, guardians, teachers, and administrators who attempt to implement a standards-based grading system are juxtaposed against seat time requirements.  

As someone who has attempted to use a standards-based curriculum, I’ve had students in my class who could have met the mark early on but still were compelled to stay.  I say attempted because I know others implemented standards-based grading systems with more conviction than me. I know that someone out there will challenge me and say my expectations or standards were too easy to begin with: Most of these cases were in AP classes. I am not saying AP is the highest standard, nor am I condoning AP, but many point to the rigor and high standards that AP sets. I’m not diminishing what I do or my merits as a teacher, but some of these students could have taken the test without my help and earned a 5. 

For most of these cases, the students were great to have in class. They helped with discussions and others in the class. But they already met the standard and were forced to remain in class. I know many will say, there is more to the class than just the standard, and I wholeheartedly agree. But when the standard is the basis for the grade and the course, the student did what the class was set out to accomplish. By that logic, the student gets an A and still has to sit for the rest of the year. And for those that think the standards that I created weren’t tough enough, Alfie Kohn has documented the problems with tougher standards. Some of those problems include outdated pedagogy, flawed evaluation, and what motivates people. While teachers cannot encapsulate an entire semester of learning into a grade, that is what is happening. The problem is exacerbated when the grade is based on the myriad of problems listed above. Furthermore, when we as teachers emphasize the standard as the basis for grades, that’s what becomes important. All of this coalesces into creating a place where a staggering 

70 percent of high school students see themselves as bored or disengaged. Many classes are terribly unengaging places, with lots of worksheets and little connection to an authentic purpose.”

On the other hand, some students cannot achieve “meet or exceed” the standard in the time we had together.  No matter the intervention, the student couldn’t achieve the standard in the time given. From my perspective, these students are amazing to have in class. They read, create, debate, and take risks; however, they still cannot achieve the standard. Some of this is because in my history class the standards were largely based on standardizing English in the way one reads or writes. It has been well documented that standardizing English and basing a grade on it leads to a whole source of racism, classism, surveillance culture, loss of privacy, and anxiety

The assessment culture created in a standard-based grading course is overlaid upon a compulsory school system. The time spent in the classroom is important, but not to the grade book. While I know grades are harmful, teachers still have to issue them. I know when people move to standards, they do it out of what they feel is best for their students. As someone who has tried it, I know the pitfalls. I know the students who push back for all of the reasons listed above. The critics of standards-based grading have said the overemphasis on testing or demonstration of knowledge or skills erodes the importance of the day-to-day learning that takes place in the classroom. Creating this ecology directly tells students that time spent in the classroom is less important; That their attention or participation in daily tasks is less important. That they can be engaged in other things as long as they meet the standard. Neil Postman has stated for years that there are other ways to assess students. A teacher can measure success

“in terms of behavioral changes in students: the frequency with which they ask questions; the increase in relevance and cogency of their questions; the frequency and conviction of their challenges to assertions made by other students or teachers or textbooks…the increase in their tolerance for diverse answers; their ability apply generalizations, attitudes, and information to novel situations.”

Recognizing the challenges of any system before implementing them is important to understand what might come up in the school year. In my pursuit to create an environment for learning in the classroom, I’ve been exploring labor-based grading. I think there is more to explore there. But my preliminary thoughts are that it would better accomplish the creation of an environment that promotes risk-taking, goal-setting, managing time, challenging themselves, writing and reading more, and allowing for agency. According to Asao B. Inoue, 

They open a space for practices that can fail or miss the mark, allowing students the freedom to take risks, and try new things in their writing without the fear of losing points or failing the course. They allow students and teacher chances to redefine failure more productively (see also Inoue, “Theorizing Failure”), since failure is just a situated judge’s assessment of a performance that assumes a single standard, without acknowledging other differently situated judges and standards.

As I get older, I have more experience, and, hopefully, more maturity. I recognize that I have always been trying to rationalize a system that is harmful. Yet, I still have to issue a grade. The grade book is an ever-evolving process. While grades and compulsory school remain a mix of the school ecology I will continue to change and augment the system and report out more on the changes I make.


Thank you to Kim Miklusak for her editing and feedback along the way. Mainly, thank you for still pushing me to be a better teacher.







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