The use of standards-based grading is growing

3 Apr

Mila Koumpilova writes in the Twin Cities Pioneer Press article, Minnesota schools give standards-based grading system a closer look:

Standards-based grading often uses a 1-to-4 scale, which corresponds to the four outcomes on state tests: does not meet, partially meets, meets or exceeds standards.

Across the country, as well, standards-based grading is gaining traction. Most districts remain reluctant to experiment with it in high school because of the key role GPAs play in college admissions.

“Standards-based grading is beginning to grow exponentially,” said Robert Marzano, a Colorado-based expert on the subject.

Marzano said some districts are doing it right. Those that fail to spell out what the new grades mean are taking “a step backward.”


Ramsey Middle School in Minneapolis opened this school year with a new staff and students. Educators pitched the idea of trying standards-based grading, Principal Paul Marietta said.

The numerical grades students get this year strictly reflect how well they have mastered the concepts they are expected to learn in their courses. Students can re-take tests and re-submit assignments. The most recent grade, not an average, holds sway. Grading against how the rest of the class does is out.

The change has not come without soul-searching among educators and parents. Marietta said the school is still working on creating more detailed and clear grade reports for parents.

“We’re running up against 100 years of history with traditional grades,” he said.

Marietta said he’s encouraged to see more students meeting with teachers before classes or on their lunch breaks to prep for do-overs. Because the new grading approach breaks down feedback to individual standards, it’s more informative.

“Traditionally, you take the test; the learning is done,” Marietta said. “We’re using the grades as a learning tool to communicate to students how they can do better.”

Osseo is midway through a three-year rollout of standards-based grading across all grades. Two years of research went into the shift.

But in a recent letter to the school board, teachers singled out grading changes, among other new initiatives, they say added stress, swelled workloads and hurt morale.

Jay Anderson, the local teachers union president, said educators have rallied around the idea of setting academic goals and grading students on their progress toward them. But they have grappled with how the district implemented the new system.

Parent Steve McCuskey, a vocal critic, said the district’s speedy shift to the new approach has created confusion: Should teachers stick to just whole numbers or use fractions in grading? What exactly does attaining a 4 (exceeding standards) take?

The new system has made it harder to get the equivalent of an A and easier to pass a course, McCuskey said.

“This hurts the overachievers and helps the underachievers,” McCuskey said.

Some educators like standards-based grading while many parents are skeptical.

Patricia L. Scriffiny writes in Educational Leadership article, Seven Reasons for Standards-Based Grading:

Reason 1: Grades Should Have Meaning

Each letter grade that a student earns at the high school level is connected to a graduation credit, and many classes reflect only one step in a sequence of learning. So what does each grade indicate to students, parents, and teachers of later courses in the sequence? When I first considered this question, I realized I had no answers. When I was pressed to describe the qualitative difference between an A, B, C, D, or F, my answers were vague. So, I developed a much more focused idea of what I want my grades to mean:

  • An A means the student has completed proficient work on all course objectives and advanced work on some objectives.
  • A B means the student has completed proficient work on all course objectives.
  • A C means the student has completed proficient work on the most important objectives, although not on all objectives. The student can continue to the next course.
  • A D means the student has completed proficient work on at least one-half of the course objectives but is missing some important objectives and is at significant risk of failing the next course in the sequence. The student should repeat the course if it is a prerequisite for another course.
  • An F means the student has completed proficient work on fewer than one-half of the course objectives and cannot successfully complete the next course in sequence.

Reason 2: We Need to Challenge the Status Quo

.When I assign homework, I discuss with my students where and how it applies to their assessments. My goal is to get students to constantly ask themselves, “Do I know this? Can I do this?” To my surprise, my homework completion rates have remained steady over the past three years. Some students don’t do all of the homework that I assign, but they know that they are accountable for mastering the standard connected to it. Of course, not every student who needs to practice always does so, but I am amazed and encouraged that students ask me for extra practice fairly regularly.

Reason 3: We Can Control Grading Practices

One of the biggest sources of frustration in schools today is the sense that we are at the mercy of factors we teachers cannot control. We cannot control student socioeconomic levels, school funding, our salaries, our teaching assignments, increasing class sizes, difficult parents, or a host of other important issues. However, we can control how we assess students….

Reason 4: Standards-Based Grading Reduces Meaningless Paperwork

…I don’t assess student mastery of any objective until I am confident that a reasonable number of students will score proficiently, and that makes each assessment mean much more. Students who are still struggling after a significant portion of the class has demonstrated mastery can retest individually. The bottom line is that when I review any set of papers, I walk away knowing a great deal more about what my students know than I ever did before.

Reason 5: It Helps Teachers Adjust Instruction

Imagine two different grade books for the same set of students, as shown in Figure 1. Which one of the two better illustrates what students know and what they still need to learn?

Figure 1. Comparing Traditional and Standards-Based Grade Books

Traditional Grade Book


Homework Average

Quiz 1

Chapter 1 Test





















Standards-Based Grade Book


Objective 1: Write an alternate ending for a story

Objective 2: Identify the elements of a story

Objective 3: Compare and contrast two stories


Partially proficient


Partially proficient




Partially proficient


Partially proficient

Partially proficient

Partially proficient






Partially proficient



The standards-based grade book gives a wealth of information to help the teacher adjust instruction. Note that two objectives (1 and 3) may require more class instruction. The notations for Objective 2, on the other hand, suggest that the class only needs practice and one student needs some reteaching….

Reason 6: It Teaches What Quality Looks Like

In the adult world, everything is a performance assessment. If adults on the job make poor decisions or cannot determine the quality of their own work, the results are generally undesirable. Quality matters, and the ability to measure the quality of one’s own work is a learned skill….

Reason 7: It’s a Launchpad to Other Reforms

When I began using standards-based grading, I quickly discovered that I needed to reexamine my curriculum. Each class needed a clear and concise set of standards with precise levels of mastery. This prompted a number of discussions with other teachers in my department, and each year we continue to adapt our objectives. No one can use standards-based grading without clear standards….


Educational Leadership

October 2008 | Volume 66 | Number 2
Expecting Excellence Pages 70-74

Stanford Education details the pros and cons of standards-based grading in a course syllabi.

In Advantages and Disadvantages, Stanford lists the following pros and cons:


In spite of the debate over state and national standards reform efforts, it is universally agreed by educators and experts that a key component of improving student achievement is raising standards.

In the 1996 National Education Summit, state governors, education leaders, and business leaders came to a consensus that use of standards will:

1. Help all students learn more by demanding higher student proficiency and providing effective methods to help students achieve high standards;

2. Provide parents, schools, and communities with an unprecedented opportunity to debate and reach agreement on what students should know and be able to do;

3. Focus the education system on understandable, objective, measurable, and well-defined goals to enable schools to work smarter and more productively;

4. Reinforce the best teaching and educational practices already found in classrooms and make them the norm;

5. Provide real accountability by focusing squarely on results and helping the public and local and state educators evaluate which programs work best.

Proponents of standards-based reform argue that flexibility in past reform efforts have not necessarily been shown to be successful.  State tests can highlight gaps and promote pressure for improvement, as well as demonstrate that these gaps will drive the resources to the most needy schools.  On a wider scale, a major advantage of standards-based reform is that standards and assessments can allow access of curriculum for all students, as well as more equitable outcomes.

However, it is generally agreed that in order to be successful, these higher standards must be aligned with reforms in testing, teacher education, improved teaching practices, and proper allocation of resources.


While several states are implementing some form of standards-based reform, there is very little empirical evidence to prove that standards, assessment, and high-stakes accountability programs are effective in improving public schools.  In many states, such as California, attempts to implement standards-based reform are inconsistently or carelessly aligned with quality research. The following are some of the shortcomings of standards-based reform.

1. Recent reports on the standards-based reform movement in New York suggest that in many schools the careless implementation of standards and assessment may have negative consequences for students.

2. Vague and unclear standards in several subject areas in several states complicate matters and do not serve as concrete standards defining what students should know and be able to do.

3. Top-down standards imposed by the federal or state government are also problematic.  They impose content specifications without taking into account the different needs, opportunities to learn, and skills that may be appropriate for specific districts or regions.                                             

See, Pros and Cons of Standards-based Grading

Moi wrote in What, if anything, do education tests mean?

Every population of kids is different and they arrive at school at various points on the ready to learn continuum. Schools and teachers must be accountable, but there should be various measures of judging teacher effectiveness for a particular population of children. Perhaps, more time and effort should be spent in developing a strong principal corps and giving principals the training and assistance in evaluation and mentoring techniques. There should be evaluation measures which look at where children are on the learning continuum and design a program to address that child’s needs.


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