Reflections on Standards-Based Grading (so far)

Thursday, June 22, 2017

When you were in school, did your grades correspond with what your subject knowledge? For example, if you completed a lesson on arguing Cavalieri's theory in geometry, could you find a score in the gradebook like A or B?

A. 1-2 Homework
B. Argue Cavalieri's theory

I'm teaching summer school and trying out a version of standards-based grading. The experience promped me to do a little digging to see how far back this initiative goes.

 In 2008, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development proposed seven reasons schools should switch from assignment-based grades (math homework: 100%) to standards-based grading (arguing Cavalieri's Principle: 100%). Though standards-based grading has some benefits, there are also drawbacks that are important to consider.

1. Grades should have meaning.

In her ASCD article, Patricia L. Scriffiny writes that using "A", "B", "C" as grade symbols communicates little about the student's actual mastery level. Instead, teachers should use definitions like "An "A" means the student has completed proficient work on all course objectives and advanced work on some objectives."

That sounds reasonable. I'm curious how this plan would flesh out in the gradebook. Would the teacher input "advanced work" activities available only to students who reached that level? All others would receive zeroes for those scores--reflecting their zero-level mastery?

2. We need to challenge the status quo.

Scriffiny relates how her scoring practices evolved over her years as a teacher, citing her dissolution of homework in practice.

Yes. Homework has fallen out of pop culture. I worked with a former science professor for a few years who related Education to the practice of scientific researchers. Often, Education ebbs and flows along with the whims of pop culture without stopping to study whether the methods we have are effective or not. I don't like homework either, but as we challenge the status quo, perhaps we should be responsible as researchers in asking whether what we're doing (what math program we're using, what standards we're using, how we're evaluating teachers) is working and what grounds we have for thinking that the new method will be effective. Are there people in education using A/B testing?

3. We can control grading practices.

Scriffany offers a pep talk that teachers can lead change in their schools.

4. Standards-based grading reduces meaningless paperwork.

Scriffany vaguely implies that she provides formative feedback but grades nothing but assessments.

I wonder if we would lose something by focusing completely on product versus process + product. How can we maintain a sense of accountability and personal investment in the process for those students who need external accountability? Often, parents are the first to ask "Is this for a grade?"

5. It helps teachers adjust instruction.

This is so true. Being able to look in a gradebook and quickly track which students are "nearing proficiency" versus "expert" in a certain standard would make grouping and remediation a breeze. However, if grading systems move from a relatively consistent four-point scale to a helter-skelter proficiency scale, how will college applications and GPAs work?

6. It teaches what quality looks like.

Sciffany writes that standards-based grading pushes teachers to award scores for something other than extra credit and attendance thereby making grades more relevant.


This article is almost 10 years old. If we trust (and evaluate teachers) based on their standards-based programs, doesn't it follow that whether the gradebook lists the standard or "Expository Essay: Leadership," the work demonstrates practice or mastery of the standards? Are there teachers giving grades for attendance and behavior?

7. It's a launchpad to other reforms. 


As long as the oceans flow to the seas, education will be reforming. What and how we teach our children is a reflection of the evolving face and revolving door of politics, the media, and the experienced and inexperienced leaders of the public (and PRIVATE) educational sectors. Standards-based grading is not a launchpad any more than waking up and breathing is a launchpad. Education will change.

To read Sciffinay's article, visit the ACSD.

I see a few pros and cons of standards-based grading. In my situation, I give students a standards-tracker with a list of standards and corresponding choices of assignments. They spend half a day in a classroom working through the standards at a personal pace. For most standards, students have an option of a few different assignments to use to "prove" mastery of the standards.

Because our day (half a day in one classroom) is so long, I can conference with each student every second day. This gives me time to input scores (Unlike Sciffany, I'm using a traditional grading scale and percentages) and encourage students to retake/redo some work or 

 Standards-Based Grading Pros:

  • Students seem more accountable and "in charge" of their progress. They hold the road map in their hands in the form of the standards tracker, and they can navigate the map as they like.
  • It's easier to see patterns in proficiencies and deficiencies. At a gradebook glance, both the students and I can see all writing standards met or all language standards in the 70s. 

Standards-Based Grading Cons: 

  • It's more efficient in English (and more reflective of actual life experiences) for one assignment to show mastery of multiple standards. If a student writes an expository essay and is scored using a rubric that includes each sub-standard of the writing standard (writing an introduction, using transitions, etc.), it may be that each substandard reflects a different mastery level. Though the score on the essay is an 84%, the student may have written an introduction at a 100% level."
  • One of the advantages to face-to-face learning versus virtual school is the opportunity to collaborate and share a common "story" In a classroom, reading a novel together can build a strong sense of community in a classroom. It's hard to see  how this might work with a completely self-paced standards-based grading system like I'm testing.
  • There are 50+ standards. In order to prove true mastery, a student should complete tasks over a few occasions. This means the gradebook is loaded with hundreds of scores. If better clarity is what instructional leaders are looking for with standards-based grading, they're not getting it.
    • Parents don't understand standards-based grading.
    • Students need training to avoid stress when looking at the pile of standards they're expected to master each semester.

A Compromise to Standards-Based Grading:

Missouri tried something years ago as a compromise between traditional and standards-based grading. Teachers created several key assignments that among them represented all standards for the course. Students were required to reach a certain level of mastery (75%, I think) on these assignments to pass the course and could re-do the assignments if necessary until they demonstrated mastery.

The other parts of the gradebook reflected a more traditional approach.

I like this idea because it's more manageable than inputting and tracking each standard individually. It connects students to the standards, but it also leaves room for courses that are Pre-AP and gear students for work that is even more rigorous than the standards. It is also more real-life. How often does a task represent a single skill, ability, or bit of knowledge? 

It will be interesting to see where this goes.

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