School Standards-based Grading: Applicable to Corporate Performance Reviews?

Posted May 01 2014
Performance reviews have been strongly criticized for more than 30 years; hundreds of books and thousands of articles have given traditional performance appraisals a fails to meet expectations rating.


Now, schools are experimenting with new ways of evaluating students, and the techniques may just spark ideas for work organizations that are trying to do something better.


According to Superintendent Jordan Tinney in Surrey, British Columbia, "We believe traditional report cards are highly ineffective in communicating to parents where their children are in learning. If we can communicate this learning routinely to parents, then we see the need for report cards and the stamp of letter grade going way down."


Schools are trying to show how well students understand core concepts; they don’t see that a good purpose is served by the traditional “mash-up” of tests, homework, extra credit and behavior into one grade. Instead:

  • Important competencies and learning objectives are identified in advance.
  • Letters (A-F) and numbers (0-100) have been replaced by appropriate adjectival scales such as Sometimes – Consistently for competencies and Emerging – Applying for learning objectives. See Figures 1 and 2.
  • Parents receive frequent written comments, but also receive other types of data, such as photos of work, and sometimes videos.
  • Students are partners in the evaluation process, along with their teachers and parents. They participate together in performance discussions early on and in the middle of the school year.


Figure 1: Example of Grading of Competencies



Figure 2: Example of Grading for Learning Objectives



End-of-the-year report cards are not being totally abandoned by middle and high schools. Post-secondary school admission processes still ask students to provide GPA’s, class rank, and other numerical scores. However, these numbers may be of almost secondary importance compared to the healthy dose of frequent communications to students and parents.


How might standards-based grading translate to the adult, corporate world of performance management? Many organizations have probably done a better job than schools of identifying required goals and competencies and providing them in a performance plan at the beginning of the year. However, other concepts of standards-based grading have real potential for improvement in corporate performance appraisal.


Imagine employees at the start of the year engaging in a detailed performance conversation with their supervisor and mentor to help clarify goals, identify and explain priorities, discuss appropriate quantitative and qualitative performance measures, and discuss ideas for accomplishing the goals. Then, as the employee gets down to work, both the employee and supervisor digitally track performance using a variety of multi-media approaches, from traditional documentation to videos. Later, they meet again to have one or more performance discussions. End-of-the-year performance reviews could be useful summary documents that fuel continuous improvement and identify revised competencies and goals.


Traditional performance reviews, despite being almost universally despised, have somehow persisted. Why couldn’t a corporate version of standards-based evaluation serve all the primary purposes of performance reviews (see below). Food for thought.

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