6 Best Practices for Standards-Based Grading

standards-based grading

Is your school or district making the shift to standards-based or standards-aligned grading? Standards-based grading goes well beyond a new report card and a shift to a 1 – 4 scale. Standards-based grading changes how schools and school districts report about student learning and understanding. The shift allows for increased specificity and detail in grading so that teachers can precisely describe student learning. It also focuses on student progress and process (as opposed to performance and correctness) that allows both teachers and students to fully embrace a growth mindset. Below are six best practices to help as you implement or refine a standards-based grading system in your classroom, school, or district.

Lay Out the Vision

This change involves everyone and achieving buy-in will take time and effort. Make sure everyone understands how the vision for standards-based grading aligns with the mission of your schools. Some people will need convincing. Having an outside consultant can help with this process, but at the very least you will need to reference experts in education to support buy-in first among all the leaders. Create a communication plan that involves everyone–teachers, parents, community–and provide multiple opportunities to learn and ask questions.

Keep it Manageable

When a report card that used to fit neatly into an oversize envelope suddenly grows to a double-sided 11 x 17 piece of paper people feel overwhelmed. For parents, it is a lot to take in. For teachers, suddenly a massive new workload has been introduced. This alone can be a barrier in achieving the full potential of standards-aligned reporting. Clearly specificity in our reporting is desirable, but even small steps in that direction are meaningful.

Prepare Your Assessments

The assessments teachers use to grade students are essential to this process. Begin a full inventory and examination of the assessments that are in use. Find or make guides that align assessments with standards. Review these together with teachers so that all stakeholders talk with one another about standards in meaningful ways. This is ongoing work that is constantly evolving.

Provide Tools

Teachers need tools for managing assessment data. Standards-based grading is exponentially more complex than grading systems of old. Back in the day, I had one page for all my math grades. With standards-based grading I would probably need anywhere from 5 to 12 pages just for math.

For example, an average teacher has about 25 students. If for each of those students she is supposed to keep 5 grades for math, 6 for reading, 3 for social studies, 4 for science, and maybe a few other miscellaneous things, she will be reporting on at least 16 specific things. If she would have at least 1 data point on each of these things means 400 data points if they assess everything only once. Of course, she wants multiple data points on each of these things, let us say 4 to keep it easy. That means 1600 data points to sort out!

A paper gradebook is not up to the task, and just configuring a spreadsheet or electronic gradebook for this work is a huge task. If you want teachers to implement standards-based grading, and you want some minimal degree of evidence for where the grades came from, teachers need tools that are helpful and manageable. You can check out our own tool when you explore a free demo today.

It is About Learning

Provide multiple opportunities to demonstrate understanding. The goal in a standards-based system is to allow students to demonstrate achievement of the learning expectations. If a student is unable to demonstrate that understanding on the first attempt, additional attempts should be provided. Obviously, there is a question of managing this, and semesters do not last forever. At some point a line needs to be drawn, but if we are sincere in our interest in reporting relative to students’ grasp of concepts and facility with skills, then, we need to support students in learning and allow them to show what they know.

Report Out Recent Performance

Old grading paradigms used averaging techniques, and often weighted averages that gave more importance to some types of assignments and less importance to others. When it comes to demonstrating understanding and reporting that aligns with that ability to demonstrate understanding, these old weighing systems make little sense. Newer evidence of learning is more valid and should be considered most when considering what to put onto report cards. When districts attempt to make the shift to standards-based grading with software built on traditional grading systems, that mismatch is enough of a barrier to make a full shift impossible. Teachers need guidance, but they also need tools to ensure that everyone is supported in making this shift in a practical way.

Standards-based grading is not about bigger report cards. This shift is about closing equity gaps and improving the performance of students everywhere. It is about increasing student engagement and graduation rates. It is about supporting growth mindsets and student success. Making the shift to standards-based grading is a multi-year process that involves everyone in the system: teachers, principals and other leaders, parents, and most importantly, students. Standards-based grading is a means to an end, not an end.

Want to read more? Check out this related article on my own mindset shift to standards-based grading; read more from the foremost standards-based grading experts–Joe Feldman, Thomas Guskey, and Robert Marzano; or check out the School Leader’s Guide to Standards-Based Grading.

About the author, David Woodward:

I came to math education in a rather round-about way. My undergrad studies were in German and music, and my masters degree is in bilingual education and ESL. I work as both a math instructional coach and founder and president of Forefront Math. Learn more about the company I founded and my background here.