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3 Peaks and 3 Pits of Standards-Based Grading

Josh Work

Middle School Administrator, Maryland
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Change involves the celebration of successes and the reflection on shortfalls. As my school has undertaken the task of transitioning from a traditional grading system to standards-based grading, we've learned a great deal along the way. We have observed a shift in the school culture from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset (Dweck, 2008).

Under standards-based grading, our teachers have created an opportunity for students to persevere in the face of challenges. Students are measured on their proficiency of content standards. Some demonstrate early mastery and are able to move on to more difficult concepts, while others may require reteaching. Teachers are able to easily identify those students who may need some support in order to demonstrate proficiency. Students are beginning to understand and value the process of learning, rather than just earning a grade.

Although I've observed many great aspects of standards-based grading, I've also had many great discussions with other educators on how we can improve our implementation. I've detailed below three peaks (successes) and three pits (areas of improvement) that I've observed with our change to standards-based grading.

The 3 Peaks

Growth Mindset

Teachers are able to use ongoing formative assessments as a way to guide classroom instruction. Students are able to practice their mastery of standards without the penalty of receiving a poor grade in the gradebook. The process of reteaching creates an opportunity for both teachers and students to learn from their mistakes.

Teachers are able to reflect on instruction and evaluate if their lessons truly met the needs of their learners. Students are able to focus their efforts on concepts they struggled to understand and the option for reassessment. Together, reteaching and reassessment allow for all stakeholders to experience that intelligence can be developed and is not set in stone (Dweck, 2008).

Quality Curriculum and Assessments

Standards-based grading requires me to closely examine the actual standards of my content and evaluate the predetermined objectives. Without a clear set of measurable standards, there cannot be quality classroom instruction.

This year has been challenging, as departments have had to redesign instruction and assessments in order to create the opportunity for students to demonstrate proficiency. I've also been able to design assessments that allow for multiple methods of demonstrating mastery of content standards. Although this process has been a lot of work, I've never felt more involved in my curriculum.

Clear Communication

Standards-based grading allows me to clearly communicate with students and parents where individuals are with their understanding of each concept. No longer are students able to hide behind weighted averages and positive academic behaviors such as attendance.

Students should be motivated toward mastery of the material and not demotivated by trying hard and still getting a bad grade on an assessment, only to have to move right along to the next concept without gaining any insight. Standards-based grading allows me to clearly communicate with students about why they did poorly on the previous assessment, and to offer them a chance to work harder toward gaining mastery of the material and demonstrating their ability to achieve.

The 3 Pits

Teaching Responsibility

"I like the overall goal. But I don't want children to always think they can re-do things so they don't try their best the first time" (anonymous parent). I've had many parents communicate a similar concern to me throughout the school year so far. Although some are grateful for reteaching and reassessment, others are worried that we are not preparing their children for the "real world." I communicate to these parents that we are trying to encourage students to value persistence and appreciate effort in order to reach higher levels of achievement, which will benefit them into adulthood.

More Time?

All educators experience the need for more time in the school day, week, month, and year! Reteaching and reassessment opportunities have created additional work for classroom teachers. They are now grading assessments and subsequent reassessments which can take up a significant amount of time.

Many teachers utilize their regular classroom time for reteaching while allowing those students who demonstrated mastery to move on to more challenging concepts independently. Scheduling reassessments has been a challenge, as some teachers have digital assessments that require the computer lab. As more teachers convert to digital assessments and reassessments, the demand for technology has increased schoolwide.

Remaking the Wheel

Although I feel more connected to my curriculum, it's because I find myself redesigning many formative and summative assessments. Some of the activities or projects that I'd previously used in my classroom had been passed on to me by veteran teachers. Upon closer examination, these resources were very well designed but did not effectively offer the opportunity for students to demonstrate proficiency of content standards. I believe that after this year, I will be able to reflect on and fine tune my new assessments without having to redesign entire curriculum units.

These are just a few examples of how standards-based grading has impacted my school culture. Please leave your ideas and comments below about how standards-based grading has been implemented at your school.


Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books trade pbk. ed. New York: Ballantine Books, 2008.

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Comments (15) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

We have changed over to a standards based report card, but I don't think kids are really getting what the standards mean. And I think the disappointment that might be felt with a grade can equally be felt with not meeting a standard. Meeting mastery should not be the standard goal because meeting mastery is not realistic to everyone. It should be progress. And progress should be praised and encouraged, not mastery.

Whether it's grades or standards, the teacher's attitude creates a positive outlook on learning and persistence.

AYetsko's picture

Change is a long, hard process. It is hard for teachers, students, and parents. I think that after parents see the progress that their kids are making when they start to own their learning, they will understand the change. If their kids are waiting to retake and retest intentionally, then there is a lot of conversation that needs to take place. If traditional grading did not allow them to do that, it does not necessarily mean that the students learned to be more responsible. They have to be given the opportunity to be irresponsible to learn the value of responsibility.

Jennifer M's picture

I have heard the pit#1 argument over and over again usually accompanied with "there are no retakes in college." When I was first presented with SBG in my former school, I took a different view of retakes. In tradition education models, we hand work back to students full of comments and remarks which they almost never read or that they don't know how to apply to future work. I looked at the retake policy as a way for students to understand how to demonstrate mastery so that on future assignments they can do it right the first time. No one wants to redo work every time. Eventually (hopefully after only one or two retakes) the students will realize what a mastery paper or assessment looks like and feels like to create. Students who have always done "D" work often don't strive to do better because they are unsure of what it would take to get a better score. If they are able to achieve mastery through retakes, they will see what it takes and be able to do it every time.
It isn't setting kids up to expect second chances all the time, it is teaching them what it takes to do it well the first time.
Does that make sense?

Julie Parker's picture

I struggle with acceptance of SBG. If implemented correctly, it has great potential to have a profound impact on communicating what students learn. However, I have experienced a somewhat sloppy implementation of SBG in my school district. A part of me also feels compassion for my low-level learners that consistently struggle to meet standard, but work hard and put in 110% effort.

Bill Worley's picture
Bill Worley
High School Math teacher from North Carolina

I find SBG very attractive mainly because it seems to hold the potential to engage students more directly in their learning. I'm also quite fond of the idea that a grade should reflect learning of content, not behavior or compliance. As I investigate what this might look like in my classroom though, I am troubled by the thought that SBG also might cause my classroom to become a chase after individual skills, at the expense of richer problem solving experiences that are often cross-content and even cross-curricular. The writer even seems to suggest as much in "Reinventing the Wheel." Is moving towards more of a project based approach to learning compatible with SBG?

Josh Work's picture
Josh Work
Middle School Administrator, Maryland

Bill, excellent discourse about SBG and project based learning. I've worked with many colleagues who teach math and SBG has worked very well for them. As you stated, SBG actively engages students in their learning as their proficiency and understanding guides instruction. Also, their grade is a true representation of their understanding of the math standards. SBG absolutely lends itself to PBL, both sole content and cross curricular. When designing these projects within the SBG it can lead to rich discussions between content area teachers about how to best instruct, assess, reteach, reassess, etc. on curriculum. Reflecting on these projects as a grade level team or cohort can lead to excellent best practice examples to be shared with colleagues.

Shelly's picture

Hi Julie,

I have been thinking a lot about grading over the past couple of years. I read so many books and articles on the topic that my mind whirls with confusion! You've really hit on a point that I think about a lot. SBG can seem so rigid. Standards are a set of important learning targets, to be sure. But, students are not standard, learning is not standard, the time frame in which a student is ready learn something is not standard. Learning happens in weird and wonderful ways! In high school and college, I managed decent grades in math, but I never felt like it clicked for me. I just did enough homework and extra credit to make up for C's on assessments. But, fast forward nearly 20 years, and I found myself, an English teacher, having to help students with their math assignments during study hall. I had not done much math work since college, yet it suddenly all became clear. It was like the concepts bubbled up from somewhere deep, and, for once, I remembered and understood it all. It was almost as if it all had to stew in there for a while, and when my brain was ready, it made sense. I'm so grateful that I was not being graded in high school with SBG. I was making a tremendous effort, and I appreciate that my grade reflected that effort.

I'd like to consider the extreme opposite of SBG. What about grading based solely on effort? Did the student use information from diagnostic work to set learning goals for him/herself with support from the teacher. Did the student complete work designed to help him/her meet the goal. Was s/he willing to take feedback and make corrections? Was the final product a reflection of his/her best effort at this time?

I am picturing a young man in one of my classes whose reading tests place him as a first grade reader (in 7th grade). He struggles mightily to write fluently. The truth is, he won't reach 7th grade standards this year. That said, he is one of the hardest working students in my class. He will ask questions, try again, and give his absolute best. I would like to do more to honor that.

Thank you for your comment; it has really inspired me to consider this idea more. If you know of any good resources related to this concept of effort-based grading, I would love to hear about them.

Karen's picture
science teacher (middle + high school), bilingual school in Paris, France

Going into my fourth year of independently using SBG in my classes, where I've had the opportunity to experiment and modify at will (because this is not a school or district-directed initiative). I recognize all that the previous contributors have brought up as both advantages and challenges.
Shelly - I think I see what you mean about the apparent rigidity of SBG... perhaps it is related to what I feel when I look at the heavily content-based standards I see as examples in most of the SBG examples I find on the web and in books I've read.
I use a set of 12 'skills' as the basis of my particular assessment strategy, and only one is strictly 'content knowledge' for example knowing that "the standard model of an atom includes protons, neutrons & electrons". The other 11 'skills' are focused either on science skills (very discrete, e.g. details about how to represent results in a graph) or what I call 'student skills'.
It's the 'student skills' where I try to capture what your examples raise:
"Did the student use information from diagnostic work to set learning goals for him/herself with support from the teacher. Did the student complete work designed to help him/her meet the goal. Was s/he willing to take feedback and make corrections? Was the final product a reflection of his/her best effort at this time?"
Thus, my SBG scheme is treating not only traditional 'facts' that students learn, but is also heavily biased toward 'skills' (in our attitude-, behavior- and skills-focused middle school science course) as well as the human success behaviors that I think you're raising.
Nothing is perfect, but I'm able to approach assessment and communication in a way that feels appropriately balanced to me, and seems to make sense, and to help students and their parents.

L_J_milt's picture

SBG makes sense. Our school still uses A-F grades, though. I allow retakes and use paper/project revision extensively, but it is not "true" sbg. It's frustrating to embrace change when the college admissions structure still does not recognize this. My students still need the traditional gpa for college. The 4.0 (5.0) system is so inconsistent with what current research shows is best for kids. It just does not translate. I mean, to convert true learning and sbg to a 4.0 scale... so we decide how many standards a student must master in a set amount of time? That doesn't seem right.
I'm not expecting an answer; I guess I'm just venting because I want to innovate and deliver research-informed instruction, but I am caught between two academic worlds. It makes my head hurt trying to reconcile the two.
Note: I'm still trying, but I have a lot more headaches than I did 10 years ago.

Algebra Wizard's picture

Karen, I would LOVE to discuss how you use SBG with these 12 skills in your curriculum. I teach middle-school mathematics in the U.S., and I'm wanting to do something that sounds similar to what you describe for my own grading system. You can private message me through Edutopia if you would like or continue on this thread, whichever you're most comfortable with!

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