Standards-Based Grading: What to Know in 2020

Learn more about standards-based grading
Contributed By

Lauren Davis

EdTech Editor, Former Department Chair and Instructional Coach

Standards-Based Grading: What to Know in 2020

Posted in Pro Tips | January 13, 2020

Standards-based grading (SBG) is an intentional way for teachers to track their students' progress and achievements while focusing on helping students learn and reach their highest potential. It is based on students showing signs of mastery or understanding various lessons and skills. In fact, many districts across the country have embraced the idea for decades. Standards-based grading is a way to view student progress based on proficiency levels for identified standards rather than relying on a holistic representation as the sole measure of achievement—or what Marzano and Heflebower called an “omnibus grade.”

Standards-based grading is often contrasted with a more traditional approach to grading and assessment. Instead of the all-or-nothing, percentages-and-letter-grades approach, standards-based approaches consider evidence of learning and the data it produces in different ways.

Standards-based Grading System Vs. Traditional Grading System

standards based grading vs traditional grading

Many people ask, what’s the difference between a standards-based grading system vs. a traditional grading system?

When embarking upon standards-based grading, it’s crucial that you don’t only seek to reimagine the way “grades” and report cards work. You must be prepared for the pedagogical shifts that are necessary to completely adopt a standards-based approach. That’s where the term “mindset” comes into play. According to Tom Schimmer in Grading from the Inside Out, it might be more beneficial for educators to think in terms of a standards-based mindset instead of standards-based grading. Like any mindset work, that subtle shift in language helps keep the focus off of the grading process while highlighting the cultural and paradigm shift.

Working with a learning management system (LMS) like Schoology means that you can support that mindset in myriad ways.

Standards-Based Grading Research

Teachers are often frustrated by factors at school that are out of their control, from increasing class sizes and difficult parents, to tech bloat and many other important issues. One thing educators can control is how they assess students’ progress and learning. Standards-based grading research shows that a standards-based mindset paired with standards-based grading correlate to higher academic achievement. Therefore, it’s critical that teachers link assessments and reporting to the standards, as well.

With the birth of the Common Core, learning targets are more rigorous, consistent, and transparent. The focus has been to create fewer, more challenging standards that make students think deeper and work towards more meaningful understandings and applications.

What we now consider outdated school curricula often relied heavily on fact memorization and low-level rote learning, so it makes sense that traditional grading practices were likely an appropriate way to measure how a student was doing in school. Modern experts—such as Guskey, Marzano, O’Connor, and Reeves—agree it’s time for teachers to update their instructional and grading practices to align with current realities of how and what students are learning.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (formerly No Child Left Behind) mandates that schools can no longer fail students who are not able to demonstrate proficiency in school and move along. All students must be proficient. Schools and districts must now ensure their system is setup to develop and prepare students rather than just sorting them out. There is greater accountability and scrutiny over the way student achievement is measured. Therefore, grades must be more reflective of learning.

There are many standards-based grading research studies out there if you’re interested in going further down that path.

Proficiency Scale for Standards-Based Grading

Since standards-based reporting is based on demonstration of mastery, it can’t rely on the traditional grading methods based on the percentage of work completed. The standards-based approach obviously relies upon… you guessed it: standards! We have to tie learning materials (assignments, projects, assessments, etc.) to the standards, learning objectives, or learning targets we want to measure. Whether working individually or as part of a PLC or team of teachers, educators can take an assessable material type in Schoology and align it to the standards that already populate in the platform.

Most standards-based scales are 0-4 or 0-5 and reflect students’ increasing skill or mastery. For a 1-4 scale, a “1” indicates that students have little understanding of a concept, and therefore cannot demonstrate any mastery of it. As students learn and progress, they can demonstrate partial mastery, and score a “2.” Once they meet a target, they score a “3”. The “4’s” are reserved for students who exceed the learning target. You can see this in the chart below.

Standards-based Grading Scale 1 through 4

standards based grading scale

Regardless of the method, it’s important to communicate what the proficiency scales actually mean beyond a number. What does a proficiency score of 4 entail? What does a 1 mean?

Keep in mind that numbers can be quite deceiving when considering progress against proficiency levels. A student at the beginning of a unit may only be at a “1,” which is understandable before learning occurs. Parents and students reviewing their progress may see that in a more negative light.

To remedy this, set up your proficiency scales (at the district or course level) to display text instead of numbers, which could greatly alleviate concerns about the level indicators.

Standards-Based Grading Pros and Cons

The instructional changes that often come along with transitioning to standards-based grading bring myriad advantages to the classroom. As with most things, we must identify the aspects of this approach that are deemed positive as well as those that might prove challenging to implement.

Students are intrinsically motivated and have ownership of their learning.

In a standards-based classroom students can focus on mastery and understanding without constantly worrying about getting the most points. They become more motivated to really comprehend the material, so eventually you’ll hear less questions like, “Will this be graded?” and more questions that will help them gain deeper understanding of the skills and concepts they’re learning.

For students to have ownership, learning targets should be presented in student friendly language to support student understanding of learning goals. When rubrics are incorporated, students have a better grasp on the path to success and can easily self-assess and reflect on their own progress. This self-direction paired with the ability to focus their efforts and choose their activities leads to ownership of their learning.

Instruction is more relevant.

In traditional classrooms, you’ll often see teachers routinely presenting curriculum to students—one whole group lesson after another. Now, sometimes this is the best method, for example, in an introductory lesson when everyone needs to receive the same information. Over time, though, since students learn at different rates, there will be some who are bored because of the slow pace and some who are confused because they’re struggling to keep up.

Alternatively, in classrooms that employ standards-based grading, teachers have a better understanding of student mastery: what it looks like and where students are on the scale. At anytime, they can identify the students at a level 3, 2, or 1, so they can offer assignments that are appropriate for that level. Students at level 1 receive practice and activities to help them reach a level 2, and so on. This type of differentiated learning makes lessons more relevant for students, leading to positive learning experiences and a greater interest in school.

Teachers provide effective feedback.

Quality feedback can improve and accelerate student learning. Rather than simply seeing a score of 90% or 7/10, students receive direct feedback on the skill used or task performed so that they understand where they need to focus their efforts in order to improve. Teachers can also use this feedback opportunity to improve instruction, since they’re able to see if the majority of the class is having difficulty understanding a standard.

Grades have deeper meaning.

Students understand why they receive each score. They get a breakdown of how they performed on each standard that details their level of proficiency. Students and parents appreciate being able to track performance so thoroughly, rather than just being handed a vague letter grade with no explanation and questionable value.

Teachers and students are held accountable.

Curricular goals through clearly identified learning targets and proficiency scales are clarified at the beginning of the class, so the teacher knows exactly what they are expected to teach. Using consistent formative assessments, teachers and students are able to track how well they are understanding the learning targets and can adjust instruction as needed to ensure proficiency.

Students and Parents are accustomed to traditional grading practices.

If standards-based grading is new in your school or district, it may be all the Kindergarteners have ever known, but think about the 7th graders… or the seniors. They’ve likely been working within the constructs of a traditional A-F grading scale their entire lives. Informing a high-schooler that the way they’re graded will now be changed right before it’s time to apply for college, could be discouraging and upsetting. Without student buy-in, implementing a new standards-based approach is not likely to be successful.

Teachers may experience new stresses.

Having to learn new grading practices, implement new initiatives, and retrain your own mindset and the mindset of others can be overwhelming. Some teachers claim a switch to standards-based grading caused increased stress, hurt morale, and made their workloads heavier.

Standards-Based Grading for Parents

Parents need accurate, meaningful, and consistent measures of learning to better understand their student’s progress. Traditional grading is very subjective, so standards-based grading is one way to address that.

Since standards-based reporting is designed to only reflect true evidence of learning, parents get a clear picture of what the student has or hasn’t mastered without the influence of other factors, such as effort and attitude. Consistency can be ensured with a teacher-provided rubric that establishes clear expectations and explains exactly what the student will need to master.

Parents can expect a meaningful grade, one that clearly communicates what learning has taken place. Standards-based grading supports learning by focusing on the concepts and skills that have or have not been learned rather than accumulating or losing points, so parents are aware of what their students need help with.

Standards-Based Grading Criticism

If you’re interested in this topic, then you’ve likely seen some standards-based grading criticism. Some schools and districts, such as Janesville School District in Janesville, Wisconsin, believe that standards-based grading is not adequately preparing students for college and career.

Similarly, some students feel like standards-based grading is a “strategy that seems to undermine the humane approach to learning” they’re used to. For parents—some of whom are accustomed to seeing A’s from their students—the idea that their student is now simply “average” can be disheartening.

Also, see this article about Maine.

Final Thoughts

Adopting a standards-based mindset may be the cultural shift your school or district needs. With increased accountability and clear expectations, students and teachers can actually have more freedom to explore their interests and preferences. 

Does your school practice standards-based grading? Please share your experiences with us on Twitter @Schoology

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