George Lucas Educational Foundation
Formative Assessment

Getting Started With Standards-Based Grading

An approach to grading that deepens learning by highlighting strengths and identifying areas for improvement.

April 5, 2022
Middle school teacher hands out test to student
shironosov /iStock

A student scans their report card: A in science, Bs in math and history, C in language arts. Receiving an A in science communicates to the student that they are doing well and have reached a level of mastery; the other grades indicate areas to work on. But which parts within language arts, specifically, need work? Traditional grading can leave students and families confused and frustrated, as they give few pointers about which concepts need attention and rarely offer a clear pathway for improvement.

One way to provide transparency in grading and improve student learning is to utilize standards-based grading (SBG). SBG provides transparency to families on their student’s strengths in a subject area and gives guidance on which standards need improvement.

According to research, standards-based grading creates a more equitable learning environment, as students are given clear learning targets and rubrics that they can use to reach mastery of classroom content. SBG empowers learners not just to learn concepts but to master them, perpetuating deeper learning of content.

Research studies also show that using standards-based grading helps ensure that grading and reporting is more meaningful, accurate, and fair. Additionally, SBG ensures that homework, behavior, attendance, notebooks, and group work are not factored into a student’s grade. Standards-based grading allows students to be graded solely on mastery of course content, which can improve student motivation and help with equity.

Implementing SBG at the Classroom Level

The greatest front work in the classroom for effectively launching SBG is defining standards and creating rubrics for them. Once the standards are defined, the rubrics act as a communication tool for a student’s level of performance and provide feedback and a path to reach mastery.

Mastery is usually measured on a 1–4 or 1–5 scale, with each level of mastery clearly defined on the rubric. During the grading term, student learning on the target is recorded. Teachers track student progress, give appropriate feedback, and adapt instruction to meet student needs.

The key difference between traditional and standards-based grading is that SBG is responsive to learning. When students begin a new target, teachers present an introductory lesson and base materials for the target. As students progress, they are offered more complex material, working their way up the rubric to mastery.

SBG is similar to a staircase, with students climbing up one step at a time until they reach the top. After receiving instruction, some students progress immediately up the stairs, but others need more time. Teachers regularly provide feedback, reteach, and offer additional opportunities to reassess, so that every learner has the opportunity to reach the top.

It’s also essential to build in time for redos and reassessment of standards. By building in redo time during warm-ups, using classroom centers, or as a built-in grade-improvement day, students have the time and space to get feedback, practice concepts, and reach mastery. This built-in time also sets the foundational message that it values the time that individuals need to learn concepts, reducing anxiety and sending a clear message that the teacher values deeper learning over basic understanding.

SBG is powerful because it provides a framework to measure student progress regularly. When teachers continuously understand students’ mastery, they can better adapt instruction to meet students’ needs. SBG causes education to be more effective and engaging. The grade book provides clear communication of students’ level of understanding on standards and clarifies what concepts the student needs help to master.

Piloting Standards-Based Grading

Start with those interested in rethinking grading practices. Creating teams of teachers and leaders with this common goal provides a platform for collaboration. This collaborative effort will help with decision-making for building consistency and fidelity across classrooms, schools, and the division. It also serves as a natural way to build capacity. When making widespread changes such as moving to SBG, starting small and providing structures and platforms for collaboration is critical.

Two critical structures include SBG coaches and a universal platform for reporting student growth. A coaching structure to consider is utilizing a division lead coach, a lead school-based coach, and a grade-level coach who facilitates communication and provides implementation support. A universal platform for reporting student growth builds fluidity in communication and trust among stakeholders.

Barriers to SBG and Solutions

Before starting SBG, it’s crucial to know some of the barriers and how to avoid having to stop before you begin. Create provocative strategies to ensure stakeholder buy-in while developing a pilot program and increasing  capacity among staff.

1. Collaboration. Create a shared space for resources, ideas, and opportunities for collaboration and discussion for teachers and leaders.

2. Standards. Create common standards in reader-friendly language based on state requirements using teachers’ and instructional leaders’ teams. Substandards are helpful for clarity. Be prepared for multiple iterations and revisions over time.

3. Grade reporting. When the goal is to empower students to take ownership of their learning, it’s critical to provide transparency to guardians, increase honesty in skill-mastery reporting, and reduce teacher time.

Before getting started, create a conversion rubric for letter grades with a team that represents multiple grade levels to avoid having report cards with changes that may confuse or concern stakeholders. This provides a method to report both scores and letter grades.

The time has come to empower families and students with grading that guides the learner to deeper understanding and mastery. Standards-based grading goes beyond completing assignments and emphasizes growth and quality. It values the individual student’s needs and responds to those needs to guide every learner at their own pace. Standards-based grading gives every student a clear path and the time they need to succeed, improving the outcomes for every learner. 

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  • Formative Assessment
  • 6-8 Middle School

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