Standards-based Grading Implementation: shifting from grades to growth

Apr 15, 2020

Standards-based grading implementation has never been as important as it is when teaching digitally. The research and suggestions in this post will help you set a course of action to making your students' grades mean something real.

As you likely know from experience, teaching right now is more about establishing normalcy, continuity and community more than anything else.  So the question naturally arises: 'how do you grade this?'

We're trying to figure out, what to grade, if anything, in fact.

Meanwhile, with standardized exams being canceled for the year, we have even less to go on when it comes to measuring student growth over time. 

But it may just be the mindset we need because it’s forcing us to put our grade books into perspective. It's about the time we should start asking ourselves these questions, head-on:

  • what do the grades we typically give actually mean?
  • are our current methods for reporting progress the best way to communicate growth/progress? 
  • could we do better?
  • how do we grade the things that aren't always as concrete (i.e. the various aspects of the learning process as opposed to just the final product)?


If there's anything we can get from our experiences in reactive teaching during the COVID-19 crisis, it's this:

As 'longstanding' as grades have always been, they're due for an audit in the here and now.

The Issue with Grades

In light of our current circumstances, giving grades can be especially harmful to students who lack equitable access to technology, or parental support, who come from low-income homes, or who need to be present in a different capacity during normal school hours--such as those taking on jobs to offset family finances or those caring for other family members such as siblings.

Giving grades right now means we’re assigning them to a student's home life, not their performance.

Meanwhile, even after the crisis is here and gone, the longer-term contention with grades is this:

If your student gets a B- in a Language Arts class, what exactly does that mean?

To the average educator, it could mean this student likely does well on turning in assignments, scores fairly well on quizzes, and probably behaves pretty well for the most part.  Then again, it could *also* mean this student does well in the classroom, but the behavior brought an otherwise A student down...

Or, to look at it another way: if your administrator were to view that grade, would he/she immediately know what brought it down from an A?  Was it the reading? Or the writing? The speaking? Or the listening? (Hint: it could have been any of the above!)

It's pretty hard to tease out what exactly an 'A' versus a 'C' really is.

So don't take this next point as judgment--I'm judging you no more than I'm judging myself here. But as teachers, we all have our own 'unique' system of grading.  We fill our grade books with all kinds of interesting stuff. Not because we don't respect the science of's just that:

Mariah is trying so hard this quarter.  

Or Tamr stepped it up big-time this past week.  

Second Hour made Herculean progress on that last essay. 

Or Fifth Period  behaved so well for the sub (for once!).

We sprinkle in things like completion grades and preparedness points; binder checks and bonus marks.  It's our way of giving them a bump. Problem is, these perks make it even harder to delineate progress on the learning goals we've actually set! 

And the status quo, 100-percentage-point scale is precisely what gets us into a pickle when we're asked to justify Amelia's 89 versus Mya's 91 on that last assignment.  Unless we have descriptors attached to every number from 0-100, we're never really going to find an acceptable enough answer for that!

It's also why:

  • teachers of seniors run for the hills when final quarter grades are posted
  • your inbox is on tilt-mode the evening progress reports are distributed
  • you spent your entire planning period in a parent meeting justifying marks you gave Johnny
  • you're in ongoing 'conversation' with the principal about that 'No Zero Policy'


So while we're long overdue for a grading overhaul, now is probably the best time to start steering this ship in a new direction...toward Standards-based grading implementation.

Traditional Grading System  vs. Standards-based Grading Implementation
Image source: 'Standards-Based Grading: what to know in 2020,' by Lauren Davis (Schoology)

Shifting Course Toward Standards-based Grading Implementation

In light of COVID-19, plenty of schools are looking to report on learning cycles via pass/fail indicators, or better yet 'proficiency' versus 'not yet'.

A shift like this can change the entire course for how we communicate progress and how we talk about learning with our students.  It has the potential to shift student mindsets from 'what did I get?' to ‘what did I learn?’.

A standards-based grading implementation approach is definitely one way to remedy the current system's shortcomings, but it's certainly nothing new.  Modern experts like Guskey, O'Connor, and Marzano have been pushing this paradigm shift as far back as 2001. Plenty of schools currently use a standards-based grading (SBG) model right now and with tremendous success. 

(I talk about how my daughter’s elementary school uses it in this post...see ‘Mindset Shift #4’)

Instead of assigning letter grades, students work through phases of learning in which their mastery increases over time. 

If you think about it, in anything we do, we begin at the novice level (unless you believe in Beginner's Luck, of course).  Then, with patience and practice, we slowly dial in our expertise over time.

Consider your golf swing.  Or how you learned to drive a car.  How much you know or hope to learn about composting...

Or cooking:

If you can boil water, you've got some basic skills (good for you!). 

If you can boil up a mean ratatouille, you're surely more advanced, but you didn’t turn pro the first two weeks of culinary school.  

When we learn in life, we put trust in the process.  So why doesn't the learning process look like this in the classroom?

If you live the narrative that you ‘suck at math,’ for example, it’s because, long ago, a grade book told you that.  And you believed it.  

Meanwhile, had you been brought up on standards-based grading, you’d be able to say, ‘there are parts of math that I suck at, but if I practice those things (which I can actually identify), I’ll improve over time.’

So, no more of those ‘C Student for Life’ stories some of us have been telling ourselves for years.

But that's just it. Switching around our brainwaves is just as important as shifting our best practices.

The big enigma, however, is: just how do we do that?

Above anything else, grading should be a conversation teachers have with students, not something they do when they’re not around.

Once that mindset shift is made (for both teachers and students), then there are four initial things to take into account as you turn the tides on grades + grading in your classroom.

1 | Separating the Standards

One of the big issues with traditional grade books is their tendency to attach things like behavior and character to academic growth. A standards-based grading implementation approach to grading separates these things out, so we can see more clearly where a student is in terms of progress and better target growth.

But since we’re responsible for our students’ development in more ways than academics alone, we’re going to need some standards for that.

So let's consider our options when it comes to reporting progress and targeting the growth of the whole child: academically, personally, and professionally.

Standards-based Grading Implementation: Academic Standards

If you teach in the United States, the academic standards you use might be those established or inspired by Common Core.

If you teach an Advanced Placement course, then you’re likely adhering to the standards noted in the College Board syllabus for that course.

The same goes for courses you teach through other programs such as IB, Avid, or Cambridge International.

These standards earmark the things students should know and or be able to do as a result of engaging in the content of your course.  School is for learning, right? But the expectations we set in this regard shouldn’t end in academic standards alone.  

We’ve got more measures to set into place yet.

Standards-based Grading Implementation: Mindset Standards

It's not enough that our students know information or gain knowledge. They need to know how to act on it:  

Do they persist in the face of struggle? Do they listen to others with empathy?  Do they think flexibly through problems? Do they reflect on their own thought processes? Do they work interdependently as they figure things out?

These are just a few of the critical, social and emotional mindset muscles our students need to train in order to effectively leverage the weight of academic work. Otherwise, the learning path is twice as rocky.

Part of regular classroom instruction, therefore, needs to include meaningful conversations about the actions we take while learning, and how these decisions can either generate or repel our success.  

This is the stuff reflection is made of, but all too often, reflection is the first one off the bus when time is driving. So how can we *ensure* the practice of this critical process?  How can we guarantee it doesn’t miss the bus?

Luckily, there’s a set of standards for that. We just need to get into the ‘habit’ of using them.

Research experts Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick developed something they call the 'Habits of Mind,' a set of 16 characteristics that represent the different mental dispositions students need in order to be critical thinkers and effective problem-solvers.  This combination of social, emotional, AND cognitive habits can help our learners bridge the gap between what they’re learning (academic standards) and what they can actually do with that input.  

One of the habits, for instance, involves ‘flexible thinking.’  If your students are learning about a local issue such as homelessness and they’re in the habit of practicing flexible thinking, think about how this valuable combination can lead to important solutions for the community.

So let’s get this transformation might you *consistently* incorporate the Habits of Mind (or a variation thereof) into your class curriculum?

To inspire your direction, I’ll share an example of my own.  

For years, I taught an ELA-based course called English General Paper 8021, offered through Cambridge International Assessment Education (CAIE).  One of our main aims was to think critically about global, contemporary issues.  When we wrote about these in essay form, I had several learning targets we’d revisit again and again as part of our process:

  • Understanding the context of the issue
  • Considering multiple perspectives 
  • Evaluating the issue (offering plausible solutions as it applies)


Here’s how I used the Habits of Mind to complement and reinforce each of these academic aims:

For ‘understanding context,’ my students would be creating an infographic to reflect the research they gathered.  The related Habits, therefore, involved ‘striving for accuracy’ in the information they found, and ‘thinking interdependently’, since this was a collaborative team task.

For ‘considering multiple perspectives,’ students created a mini-podcast series of interviews.  So the habits they needed to work on in order for this to be an academic success included ‘listening with understanding and empathy,’ as well as ‘thinking and communicating with clarity and precision’. ( Since these are interviews they’re conducting, ‘questioning’ also applies here.)

And for ‘evaluating the issue,’ my students would engage in a design challenge as a final piece of their project.  So if they were going to build a prototyped solution to our contemporary issue/problem, they were also going to need to be able to ‘think flexibly’ in order to innovate and iterate.

Intentionally developing these habits in our classrooms helps students develop a critical stance on their own work: inquiring, editing, thinking flexibly, and learning from another person's perspective.  These are the very habits that lead to self-direction, a key skill in a digital world, and real standards-based grading implementation in our classrooms.

Whatever the content may be, practicing Habits of Mind with your learners will undoubtedly help them build the critical skills they need to win at school, work, and life.

Standards-based Grading Implementation: 21st Century Standards

Speaking of critical thinking, this happens to be the most sought-after skill employers seek in the 21st century.  Along with that, you've got creativity, collaboration, and communication, all of which make up the well-known '4 C's' of modern learning.  

These might sound sensible enough, but all too often, skills like 'creativity' fall to the sidelines in the field of education.  Whether it's an arts program being cut, or casting off creative activities as woo-woo, there's a reason Sir Ken Robinson's, 'Do Schools Kill Creativity?' is the most-watched TED Talk of all time.  

I talk more about this in this post if you want to discuss the need for creativity in our classrooms!

We need to save space in our existing curriculum for creative and divergent thinking if today's learners are going to think differently about what tomorrow could look like.

Meanwhile, when it comes to a skill like collaboration, traditional school systems often tout independence as the key to mastery (ex. sitting for exams, completing work on your own). Yet in today's world, we are way more likely to go far when we go together.  Teaching interdependence (which doubles as a Habit of Mind) has much more real-world transfer in this sense, so working with teams toward an intrinsically meaningful, common goal is the goal we should be chasing.

And then there’s the ISTE Standards for Students, a set of guidelines worth considering for classrooms that exist in a modern era. These seven standards address skills that are essential for being successful citizens in a digitally-connected world.

The high aims of the ISTE standards are to create students who are:

  1. empowered learners
  2. creative communicators
  3. knowledge constructors
  4. innovative designers
  5. computational thinkers
  6. global collaborators
  7. digital citizens

ISTE Standards for Students (2016): These are the leaders of tomorrow.

These standards line up easily with the various curriculums we teach today while injecting a bold-yet-responsible sense of risk-taking into terms of teaching + learning.  It puts students at the helm of the process in a way that's otherwise the exception, not the rule.

Notice, by the way, that with ISTE standards, the risk-taking occurs at both the teaching AND learning levels. Before our learners can be bold, adopting these standards takes some bravery on the part of the teacher, too, to allow this kind of agency, to give up some control.

For some, this may feel out of reach, but here’s the bright spot...

Instead of sitting under the pressure of having to design from end-to-end *every* learning experience, having to grade *every* paper...the ISTE standards encourage teachers to let students collaborate on developing and shaping course curricula.  

It also requires a level of tolerance for ambiguity and the capacity to work with projects that don't necessarily have a clear outcome.  This can be tricky territory for teachers, but only so far as our mindsets allow it to be.

(Helpful rubrics featuring different 21st-century skills can be found at places like Tech Network and P21.)

2 | Prioritizing the Standards

Once you've expanded your reach on what standards are available to you and your learners, it's time to pare it down to the essentials.  The next step to a solid standards-based grading implementation strategy is determining 'power standards' in this regard will help you offer deep learning experiences for your students as opposed to running them on the hamster wheel of breadth.

Power standards are those learning targets that are essential as opposed to others that are good to know (as in, 'just in case' you land on Jeopardy one day).  Accordingly, we consider these enduring understandings: things we want students to walk away with and be able to apply to a broad array of circumstances, across the disciplines.

(For teachers who are battling through the last learning cycle during the COVID-19 crisis, boiling curriculum down to power standards is more important than ever because these will strengthen the chance that your students are ready for the next level of instruction upon returning to the classroom the following year.)

Most school districts define power standards in their curriculum scope and sequence, but if you've added standards that stretch beyond the traditional, academic, then you'll need to prioritize these as well.

The most important thing to remember is NOT to fall into the classic 'ELA' lesson planning trap.  Too many times, I've caught myself saying, 'what novels will I teach?' or 'what unit is next?' or 'what topics should I pick?'.  Don't get me wrong: covering novels and thematic units comes with the territory, but it shouldn't be our first question.

If we're going to change the narrative of grading and develop a well-thought-out standards-based grading implementation strategy, we need to change the nature of our language.  Instead of 'covering content', we need to prioritize, instead, what we want our students to know or be able to do, then surround them with experiences that build those skills and fulfill that vision. 

This is what will equip them for life (as opposed to which spread of novels or topics we covered).  The skills transcend, the content does not.  

Loved this point, originally raised by @DrPeteSullivan in a recent #sblchat on Twitter

3 | Communicating Growth

Once you've curated a strong combination of standards to lead up the learning, the next conversation you'll need to have with your learners as you develop your standards-based implementation strategy is how you'll track and communicate progress over time.  It's important they understand that in learning how to talk about the learning process, your students are gaining skills in self-assessment, too, and that packs some serious staying-power, or value, in life.

Determining (and norming) levels of growth

So now it's time to decide on the levels you’ll use to track progress. 

Invite your students to help you both name and determine the nuanced characteristics of each level.  This is much different than handing them a predetermined rubric and having them put it into student-friendly language.  In this case, they’ve helped create the system by which they’re being assessed.

Once learning is underway, you'll need to firm up these descriptors further, of course, but any starting point will help in giving you and your learners a basis for comparison.  Then, you can use a 'piles' strategy to further norm the levels:

First, the teacher reads through student work, sorting them into piles, or levels.  Then divide students into groups to do the same. Compare your results:

Which are your 'textbook cases' for the different levels?  Which ones were harder to determine? In all of these decisions made, what's the *why* behind each? 

Again, this will help you norm learning accordingly.  And your students will feel a sense of ownership in the process, too.

Widening the feedback loop

Another way to keep the conversation about growth--as opposed to grades--while developing your standards-based implementation strategy is to consider using a single-point rubric to widen the feedback loop.  Having your students collect input on how their work maps to select standards will help your learners think about their own thinking. 

Single point rubrics show promise in improving peer review, but they can also make getting feedback from other audiences easier, too.  In essence, it looks like this:

When developing a strong standards-based implementation strategy a Single-Point Mastery Rubric like this one can help focus feedback and intentions for learning.
Image Source:

You can have your students use this rubric to communicate the intentions for learning, then ask another person to provide feedback on their work by adding observations and suggestions to the form.

Assigning Proficiency Levels

For a given unit of study or project-based experience, you might have a total of 3 -4 major, 'mile-marking' assignments, or deliverables your students are responsible for completing.  So they are going to use their feedback network to make it to each mile marker. 

And once they do, they can counsel with you to settle upon their level of proficiency at that point in time.  One-to-one or small group interviews are a great way to do this, and building these into your classroom culture can be invaluable.

In the meantime, while their mile-markers are in development, you're sprinkling in mini-lessons and activities to reinforce the skills they're attempting to show mastery of in terms of that deliverable.

You can keep track of their engagement with the standards as they work through these activities, of course, just as you would with homework points.  But your students will ultimately be responsible for building their own track record of progress via portfolio and feedback.

'Quality feedback can improve and accelerate student learning. Rather than simply seeing a score of 90% or 7/10, students receive direct feedback on the skill used or task performed so that they understand where they need to focus their efforts in order to improve.'

--'Standards-Based Grading: What you Need to Know in 2020,' by Lauren Davis (Schoology)

When they turn in their mile-marker assignment (a piece of the overall project), they'll need to meet with you to 'interview' for their level of proficiency (up to this point in the learning journey). 

Just as one would prepare a portfolio of work for a job interview, your students would bring their formative (i.e. ungraded) work--those artifacts or evidence to demonstrate how they've grown in skill--to assure you that they have the skills necessary to move on to the next mile marker.

Shifts like these have the potential to change the entire narrative around grading.  It completely renegotiates the way our learners see classwork and/or homework, it changes the dynamic of feedback, and it balances the scales for us in terms of grading and workload.

It's a whole new world of opportunity.

4 | Standards-based Grading Implementation...Converting the Grades (yes, you can keep your grade book)

Finally, after we've taken our students on this glorious adventure from our ground-level starting point, A (where grades rule the school), to an elevated point, B (where standards stand tall); now we get to come back to point A, yet somehow (*) changed.

Now we get to convert the learning process into a quantifiable grade. 

Even though I apparently suck at math, this is my favorite part, because it means we can have lucky-tray day and eat it, too.  In other words, we get to use a more authentic system for communicating growth and learning, yet we can still satisfy the obligation to produce a grade (ex. for GPA purposes and college entrance, etc.) despite this shift in a more realistic direction.

And even though I've since adapted my way of thinking to believe that I only suck at some aspects of math, I'm going to leave it to the experts to break it down for you.

Guskey, O'Connor, and Marzano are among the greats when it comes to renegotiating the way we grade in the modern classroom.  Educator and author, Matt Townsley, does a nice job of sharing the different ways to convert standards to grades, based on their work.

I've outlined two of Townsley's points below, but you'll definitely want to visit his post here to get the full scoop, along with his own links to related expert research here.  

The Percent Method

To calculate grades using the percent method, you: Add up the most current version* of all levels a student received inside a project or learning cycle; then divide by the number of standards.

(*While you may have tracked learning levels for each task a student performed as they made their way toward mile-markers, you're only going to look at the most updated level they're currently performing at for each of those standards.)

This option is pretty popular because most electronic grade books can easily do this.

The Logic Rule Method

Depending on how you (and your students!) set it up, your logic rule might look like this:

A = all 4's, some 3's

B = all 3's, some 2's

C = all 2's

This option stems from SBG expert Ken O'Connor's How to Grade for Learning (4th edition)

To wrap it all up...

Standards-based grading (SBG) invites us to both look at the big picture--or road map--of learning, and reflect with our students on the process of learning as it occurs, over time.

Instead of awarding points for every move a student makes (in an ineffective attempt to 'motivate' them), we shift our eye onto the big picture, and we challenge our learners to design with us what learning looks like.  When our learning journey is complete, we then find a way to marry those milestones into a grade that is most representative of their overall growth.

A solid Standards-based grading implementation strategy has the power to shift the narrative around traditional grades and grading as we know it.  But only if we open ourselves up to let it. There's no silver-bullet system that's going to work for all, but rather, you'll find the perfect system for the unique circumstances of your instruction if you tinker your way toward one (you get in what you put out, am-I-right?).

Hopefully, this post will give you some mile-markers of your own for getting started on this most excellent adventure in modern instructional practice.

PS...Some of the book links in my posts are affiliate links, which means I can make a small commission from them.  There is *zero*, additional cost to you, of course. Consider it my ‘tip jar’ for spittin’ all this free wisdom at you ;-) In all realness, just know that I only share and affiliate myself with resources I believe in: I’ve either created them myself, tried them for myself, or they’re simply in line with my values as an educator.  So rest easy on that laurel, ma’ friends ;-)

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