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An Educator’s Guide to Standards-Based Grading

An Educator’s Guide to Standards-Based Grading

When a student earns a grade on his or her report card, what does that grade really mean about that student’s level of mastery of the standards? For instance, let’s consider three different students who earned three different grades in algebra for the nine weeks. Jack earned an 86, Jennifer earned a 76, and Jamie earned a 74. Which student would you assume has the greatest level of mastery? Which student would you assume has the lowest level of mastery?

Here’s the breakdown of Jack’s, Jennifer’s, and Jamie’s grades:

First, we have Jack. Jack always completes his homework with the help of his parents and works hard to complete his classwork with assistance from his classmates and his teacher when needed. Because he gets a lot of help from his parents, Jack always turns in outstanding projects. When it comes to assessments, however, Jack struggles. He doesn’t perform very well when he has to demonstrate his mastery independently, even when he has the opportunity to retake the assessments.  

Next, we have Jennifer. Jennifer does her homework each night, but she doesn’t have anyone to help her. So, sometimes, it’s correct, and sometimes, it isn’t. When it comes to classwork, on some assignments, Jennifer does really well, and on others she doesn’t. But, she continues to practice until she understands. So, even though Jennifer doesn’t always grasp concepts the first time, by the time she has to take the assessment, she has usually developed proficiency, so her assessment scores are really good. Jennifer also works really hard to create great projects, but with no help at home, she sometimes makes small mistakes.

Lastly, we have Jamie. Jamie doesn’t do her homework; she thinks it’s a waste of time. When it comes to classwork, on the other hand, Jamie does well. She learns very quickly, and she already knows most of the content. Jamie always aces tests, and she does OK on projects. But, she always waits until the last minute, so her work isn’t perfect. 

Based on their grades, we’d assume Jack has the highest level of mastery and Jamie the lowest, but after analyzing each student’s situation, we know that the opposite is true. This is because traditional grading scales produce grades that aren’t necessarily aligned to whether students have actually mastered the standards.

Critics of traditional grading practices view this as problematic because students who need extra help, like Jack, may not receive it because they seem to be doing well; students who are advanced aren’t challenged so that they can grow; and students who are able to demonstrate mastery over time are penalized because it takes additional practice for them to get there. 

Standards-Based Grading

Standards-based grading is a grading system in which the grade a student earns is a direct reflection of that student’s level of mastery of the standards covered. All other factors are removed from the calculation of the grade, or they are pulled out and used to calculate a separate effort or behavior grade. 

In a standards-based grading system, specific standards are identified for the grading period, and students earn a proficiency-based score based on their performance on each standard. If a student doesn’t master a standard, the student is given several opportunities to learn the standard and then retest. Only the most recent evidence of mastery counts toward the grade, so students are not penalized for taking a longer time to master a standard, as long as they are able to eventually master it.  

Proponents of standards-based grading claim that this type of grading system doesn’t allow students to “slip through the cracks” without mastering content. It also encourages students to continue working on a concept until they master it instead of simply moving on once the assessment is over, only to fall behind on more complex content later. 

If standards-based grading had been used for Jack, Jennifer, and Jamie, then their grades would have been quite different. Jack would not have been able to earn a high grade mostly due to his excellent homework and projects. His lack of independent mastery would have caused his grade to be much lower, and his instructor would have clearly seen that he was struggling and could have provided additional resources and opportunities for him to master the content. Jennifer’s grade would be higher because she was able to demonstrate a high level of mastery on the standards, even though it took her some time to get there. Jamie would have earned a much higher grade as well, and because of her early mastery of the content, she could have been allowed to move on or work on advanced content to develop a deeper level of mastery.  

Implementing Standards-Based Grading 

To implement standards-based grading, educators need four key things:

  • A deep understanding of the standards and what true mastery looks like
  • A grading rubric for measuring proficiency and a method of conversion if a letter or number grade will still be required for grade reporting
  • A standards-based formative assessment strategy—this is key to being able to determine students’ mastery and to provide feedback to help students improve 
  • High-quality initial instruction and a plan for remediation and acceleration  

Moving from a traditional grading system to a standards-based grading system requires a shift in mindset for educators, students, and parents. Whether the change is happening at a district, school, or an individual classroom level, follow these four steps to get started: 

Step 1: Review the standards that will be covered during the grading period, and answer the following questions: What does mastery of this standard look like? How will mastery be assessed? Are there any alternative ways that this standard can be assessed? How will this concept be taught initially? How will students receive remediation if they don’t master the standard the first time? Will students who demonstrate early mastery focus on mastering this standard at a deeper level, or will they move on to another standard? 

Step 2: Communicate the standards, rubrics, and grading scales to students and parents so that they know the expectations and can take ownership of their learning.

Step 3: Develop/locate standards-based homework and classwork practice activities that allow students to receive detailed feedback so that they can improve. 

Step 4: Implement effective classroom management strategies that will allow the instructor to provide individual and small-group instruction to ensure that all students master the standards. 

If your district isn’t ready to move away from traditional grades, keep in mind that a standards-based grading system can be adopted in addition to the traditional grading system. That way, student progress on a standard-by-standard basis can be tracked and still adhere to the district’s grading requirements. 

Looking for more ways to accurately assess your students? Check out these three ways to use student assessment data!