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Everything you need to know about Standards Based Grading

Updated: Jul 28, 2022

Tips for easing into Standards Based Grading from a traditional grading system.

Grading is something teachers and students can easily take for granted. We've worked within the same 100 point scale, A-F system for a very long time. However, I'm a big fan of questioning systems, especially when it becomes glaringly obvious that our current system rewards compliant behavior as much as, if not more than, learning.

So I started to ask questions. Is our current grading system an accurate measure of student learning? Is it fair?

Traditional grading systems are not always an accurate measure of student learning and they are not always fair. The 100 point scale includes 64 points for failure. More than half of the scale represents below grade level work. When students receive zeros, their averages are disproportionately low. A zero has more pull than a 100--almost like the system was set up for failure.

The scenarios in the video are simplistic for a complex topic. I shared this video on social media to spark a conversation. After five years of using standards based grading with my 7th grade students, researching equitable grading and attending trainings, I've found a system that works better. It is not perfect; as educators working within a larger system that is slow to change, we're trying to fit a square peg into a circle hole. However, we can make shifts in our grading policies, our language, and our thinking that make grading a more accurate, more equitable measure of learning.

Changing the way we grade is scary because we know how much it matters; however, our students deserve better. My hope for you is that these tips help you to ease into standards based grading in a practical way that benefits everyone.


Why Standards Based Grading?

Moving to standards based grading requires a mindset shift. It is not just a matter of changing from a 100 point to a four or five point grading scale. Standards based learning means changing the way we view and use grades. In the standards based learning model, grades are used as a tool of communication. The focus is on the language we use to identify levels of understanding over numbers. The focus is on student growth over permanent labels.

Imagine a room full of students who are excited about growth and learning. Imagine handing back assessments and students examine their mistakes, apply feedback, and relearn material they missed. Imagine students being valued as learners.

Those are the goals of standards based learning.

Two major shifts towards standards based learning

Shift #1: Moving to a five point grading scale with a focus on language.

Grades are a tool of communication. The five point grading scale includes numbers and language. Focus on the language as a way to communicate students’ levels of understanding. The highest level of understanding reflects mastery of the standard being studied. The lowest level needs improvement. When a student's understanding does not reach mastery, there is always the opportunity to relearn and revise. The language on the grading scale includes a description of learning AND shares simple actions to help students grow.

Retakes and revisions DO NOT have to mean an increased work load for teachers. Consider the role of formative and summative assessments.

Formative assessments (homework/classwork) are PRACTICE. They do not count in a student's average (unless you feel compelled to make it a small percentage). For formative work, focus on providing fast and whole class feedback. Add built in rubrics to worksheets for fast feedback. Give whole class feedback based on common errors. Students don't typically retake formative work for a new grade, but they might revise and apply feedback to help prepare for a summative. They might need to make corrections as part of their "Request to Retake."

Summative assessments are a formal measure of students' understanding and count 100%. These are given at the end of a study, after the formative work where students have had ample opportunity to practice the skill, receive and apply feedback. When students retake summatives, schedule two days and have students sign up and complete a request to retake form.

I make retakes for each assessment I give, and use them from year to year. When students sign up for retakes, I complete a mini lesson with the whole group and then they complete the retake. I might pull one or two students aside who need more individualized support, but I do it all during the planned retake session during school hours (we have an after school period and study halls).

Most educators are still working within schools that communicate averages on a 100 point scale. Even if you're lucky enough to work in a school that allows you to use other methods, colleges still rely on averages reported on a 100 point scale. At the end of the quarter, standards based grades can be “translated” to the 100 point scale. Since the five point scale has an even spread among levels of understanding, it bottoms out at 50 on the 10 point scale. 50 becomes the new zero.

Fifty is failing, but a 50 is recoverable.

What about zeros? First, most summative work is completed in class. Students take formal summative assessments in class. Major projects and writing assignments are completed in class as well. Students rarely earn zeros on work completed in class.

Students who have been absent and missed massive amounts of schooling require different communication. I use an I in the grade book to communicate when an assignment is incomplete. It was started, but there’s not enough evidence to earn a grade. I use an NE to indicate No Evidence. No evidence means the student didn’t do anything. For absences, I add an AB to indicate that the student was absent for the work.

If a student does not complete enough work to measure their understanding at end of the quarter, they would earn an incomplete and have two weeks to complete the work. The incomplete policy is school wide for me, so I work within that system. In addition to the incomplete, students’ caregivers are contacted, and counselors and administrators are involved. If a student still does not complete work, they earn a 50. My school does not allow averages lower than 50 during the first two quarters of the school year. Too many students were facing failure that was not recoverable with scores 49 and under, no matter how much they were able to turn thins around. They gave up, and statistically, failing for the year often leads to dropping out.

Shift #2: Grades as Communication

Most summative work measures multiple standards. For assessments that measure multiple standards, students receive communication (grades) for each standard. This naturally weights larger assessments. It also provides students and families with more direct communication about student understanding. Caregivers and students can see how their understanding measures for each standard instead of earning a single score that reflects the understanding of multiple standards.

Rubrics are not new tools, but they are FABULOUS for communicating learning. Shifting to standards based learning might mean adapting rubrics to ensure that they fit the grading scale and that the criteria are standards based. (ELA teachers, you can find my standards based rubrics here).

Simple rubrics on formative work can be used to communicate current levels of understanding. Give students time in class before summative assessments to examine their feedback and determine what actions they need to take to improve.

Whole class feedback is a game changer. As you grade formative work, create a separate document and list common mistakes you see students making. You can also make note of exemplar student work to share with permission as mentor texts. Address the common errors as a whole class and discuss actions students can take to improve individually. Not only does feedback help students to improve, but discussing whole class errors helps to cultivate a culture of seeing mistakes as learning opportunities.

Here, I showcased common errors and their fixes:

One of my favorite feedback hacks is to take full advantage of the Google Classroom comment bank. Number your feedback, add it to the Google Classroom comment bank, and save grading time. I have a full post on my Work Smarter, Not Harder grading system here.

At the end of each quarter (and sometimes at the mid way point), students stack and calculate their grades. Grades are calculated using mode. Students are always aware of their learning, and they know where their end of quarter grades come from.

Tips for easing in without losing your mind.

The shifts to standards based learning can seem daunting; however, there are some simple ways to ease in.

First, spend this school year adding simple rubrics to your assignments as you go. Add single row rubrics to worksheets that measure a single standard. Rearrange traditional summative assessments by standard and add single row rubrics or space for grades after each section. Add full rubrics to projects and writing assessments.

Next, choose focus for every unit and every individual lesson. Units should focus on three to five standards. Lessons might focus on one to two. Take out busy work that does not help students build understanding towards the targeted skill. Think of where students should be at the END of a unit. What will mastery of the standard look like? How will students show their mastery? Rethink and possible revise end of unit and mid unit assessments. Make sure each unit includes mid and end of unit summative assessments. With a focus, it's easier to add richness and cut the junk from your curriculum.

An easy way to add focus to each lesson is with daily, standards based bell ringers and as-needed exit tickets. Bell ringers should be standards based and provide a warm up for the work students will be doing in class. They also work as informal assessments to measure where students are starting in their understanding.

Exit tickets give students time to reflect. They can also be a quick indicator of the skills students have mastered and what skills they still need to practice. They don't need to be graded. Review bell ringers in real time as a whole class. Review exit tickets and make a list of whole class feedback to share the next day. You might even choose to have students revise their exit tickets as the next day bell ringer!

Finally, ease into standards based learning by adapting current practices. Stop taking off late points. Late points reflect behavior and not skill. Allow students to turn in late work up until the summative assessments and/or two weeks before the end of the quarter. Choose alternate consequences like staying after school, completing the work during class time (when my students miss reading, they read while their group members have a meeting about their reading; it's a natural, effective consequence), or contacting caregivers.

Replace zeros with Incompletes or No Evidence. At the end of the quarter, bottom out the grading scale at fifty.

Change class language. Start calling homework practice. Use it that way. As much as possible, provide feedback and words (mastery, proficiency, etc.) over number grades.

Focus on feedback over grades. Simplify the process with rubrics, whole class feedback, and lists that you can photocopy and highlight the feedback that applies to individual students.

Start allowing retakes of summative work. Once retakes are created, you can use them from year to year.

If you're wondering how to get started with standards based grading, check out this Standards Based Learning Toolkit that includes all the forms I use in my classroom along with rubrics, posters, and my class syllabus with grading policies. If you have questions, I'm here to help! Leave any questions in the comments below. I look forward to hearing from you as you begin your standards based learning journey.

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