Standards-Based Grading, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Defuse the Bomb

When considering my contribution to this month’s SBG Gala, I remembered the power of stories, as they give us examples on how to act when we aren’t sure what to do next.  I decided to tell the story of how standards-based grading and I found each other, anchored by a group of quotes that served as springboards in putting the story together.  Hope you enjoy.


“Welcome to Who’s Line Is It, Anyway?  The show where everything’s made up, and the points don’t matter.”  

– Drew Carey

You may remember this line from the improv show adapted from the BBC: for years, you could have replaced the show’s title in the quote with my classroom number, and it would still have fit.

Starting out as a first-year physics teacher, I struggled conceptually with the larger meaning of points-based grading.  To me, the practice makes class seem like a game show, where kids try to collect all of the points in whatever form they exist, all for the purpose of “winning” a good grade and a pat on the back.  My belief has been that any grade worth its weight should serve more as a diagnosis than a “score,” one that helps all of us get a feel for our current status, and how to respond as a result.  That being said, I knew no other way to assess student work than to put some total out of 100 on everything, so that’s just what I did.

Thinking back to that first year, I remember making a distinction between the types of work that my students completed in class. There were those products that showed me and everyone else what the kids knew, understood and could do (tests, quizzes, projects, lab write-ups, exit slips, and even some ‘Do Nows’), and there were others that served more as scaffolds to get kids ready to know, understand, and do (homework, class exercises, “preview” questions, and other studying practices).  I decided to draw the line in the sand: the first group of products would make up students’ grades, while the second would have no part in them.  Unfortunately, I found no way to formalize that line within the maelstrom of point-collecting (aside from asserting at the onset that “these things get points,” while “these others do not”).  The lack of an external motivator led to less and less participation in these important learning activities: it made these practices seem like they were separate from the game.



– Countless teachers, to countless students and parents as feedback on a report card

Aside with my issues in how all of the assignments & assessments fit together, I also grappled with the lack of specificity in feedback that I was able to offer to students and parents using a cumulative, points-based grading system.  What does “B” actually tell you?  The comment above always stuck out at me in the options for feedback aside from a grade on a report card.  The statement seems to say to kids and parents, “You’re not doing so great on the important work in this class.  Study harder, and you’ll do better.”  That advice is always true, and there is never a time where that statement would be helpful.  How am I helping students to grow if this is my response?  

To add insult to injury, another way of reading this comment would be, “You’re not doing so great, which means that what I’m planning & doing as a teacher must not be ‘prepping’ you very well.”  I’m as dedicated to the idea of kids taking ownership of their learning as the next guy, so by saying this to students, haven’t I put the onus back on me to change?  I sought methods of feedback that would help students know what they understood and what they could do next, while helping me to know how I could improve the state of my teaching practice.  I found the reporting practices I had to choose from to be less than ideal for these purposes.

Forest-path-blog“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind.  To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again.  To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”
– Henry David Thoreau  

Over the next two or three years, I continued to question my teaching practices, beliefs, and assumptions, hoping for a breakthrough.  Small, incremental changes in practice seemed to help periodically- changing how “points” were averaged together, or adjusting the weights of any given assignment- but nothing I did ever moved me into a system that really fit my beliefs.  I felt the need to unpack the the entire practice to defuse its harmful power.  But how?  Which wire of the bomb do you cut first, if you haven’t necessarily seen any other schematics?

Four years ago, I happened upon a workshop facilitated by colleague Chad Sansing at an in-house summer PD institute.  During his presentation (and the ensuing discussion), I was introduced to standards-based grading for the first time, albeit through the lens of language arts and social studies.  All it took was seeing a table for recording a student’s scores for my brain to find a pathway.  In his demonstration, he put the topics where the assignments were “supposed” to be.

It had me at hello.

Why did I make the shift to standards-based assessment?

After learning about other philosophical tenets and lessons learned, I decided that day that I must try this ‘standards-based grading’ over the next year, for several reasons:

  • The promise of diagnosis versus point-collecting: Standards-based grading offered the opportunity I had been searching for to diagnose strengths and weaknesses, just by dropping the charade that we should organize gradebook information by quiz, test & homework.  In this way, I found that the assessment became a vehicle to shed light on specific skills acquired & understanding gained (as opposed to a game that kids try to win).  I felt free to assess multiple skills & understanding in the same tool withoutworrying that those pieces of information would be lost in the combination to some “total test score.”  In the same way that people say, “I don’t teach physics, I teach kids,” I could now say, “I don’t check test papers, I check understanding.”
  • The promise of a separation between assessments and activities for learning: As an added benefit, I finally had a method to distinguish between that which showed what the kids could do versus that which prepared them to be able to do.  I had a new question: “Does this product serve as evidence of a student’s mastery of a standard?”  If yes: make it part of the grade under a corresponding topic/concept header.  If no: let’s keep records, and then look back to see how these assignments may have benefited (or not) in the assessment-related products.  (Ties to mastery learning also ensured the relevance of these assignments, but that is a different post for a different Gala.)
  • The promise of specific feedback versus broad validation: Instead of a project score being the primary feedback mechanism (e.g. “You got a 92 – good job!” vs. “You got a 78 – do better next time!”), each score could give kids specific feedback on where they succeeded and where they struggled.  In place of the 78, a student would receive information about their demonstrated knowledge and skills around their logic (how they arrived at an answer,) their content knowledge (how well they use information in order to construct an answer), and their communication (how well they shared their answer with others).  In terms of knowing how to respond to this assessment, students would definitely have more opportunity to uncover next steps.
  • The promise of a unified curriculum versus distinct topics of study: Like many teachers, I noticed that many of my students “learned” material for the unit test, and then promptly forgot it.  That each unit seemed so distinct didn’t help matters at all.  While unintended, I noticed that this system would allow me to track students on some of those concepts and skills that run throughout the school year.  In the system I used, 3 strands – Communication Skills, Systems-Thinking, and Mathematical Skills – followed the student in every unit throughout the year, while each unit has its own content-specific topic.  In the ubiquity of these strands, I felt like I had an anchor in the curriculum to be able to keep the kids seeing the conceptual connection between seeminglydisparate units. (In retrospect, I really wish that I had thought to include an Investigation component as well, but alas.)
Leaving Chad’s workshop, I felt renewed.  I had been walking this route long enough to have finally worn it down into a path – now, instead of looking down at each step, I was seeing my surroundings for the first time in a new light.  I knew that I needed to change my practice for the sake of my students, and seeing this presentation gave me an option to try something new.  After adjusting and tweaking practices to allow for collaboration with my teammates, I ended up with a standards-based system that gave me what I was looking for.

“Tell me and I forget.  Show me and I remember.  Involve me and I understand.”

– Chinese proverb

What struck me at first over the ups and downs of my two years of implementation in the classroom was the student and parent response to the practice of standards-based assessment and reporting.  They were interested, no doubt – but I can’t say that I did a fabulous job of communicating it (given that I was in all honesty still trying to figure it out myself, especially the first year).  That all changed, however, on two specific dates.

For the students, that day was one in which we all put our SBG glasses on and scored a “multi-standard” assessment together.  From the beginning of the year, I had been having the class score smaller, single-standard assessments together as a class against a rubric, while also having each student keep an individual record of all of their assessment scores associated with any related standards (and their corresponding topics).  I felt like I was including the students in the process, keeping everyone informed and on top of their learning.  

I noticed a lot of push-back, however, on those cumulative assessments that measured standards across multiple topics.  Instead of the “92” they were used to seeing, they would receive upwards of 5 separate scores (depending on the number of topics represented by the assessed standards).  While they appreciated the targeted feedback, they kept asking me: “So, what’d I get?”  Finally, it hit me: just because the kids were keeping up with their own scores does not mean that they are involved in the process.  What if we were to score one of these larger assessments as a class, forcing them to adjust their minds to think about different standards related to the same piece of evidence?  

I remember that day like it was yesterday.  Each student sat with pen in hand, ready to address a group of their solutions to a group of problems.  I asked them first to focus on their communication: “Use this rubric to determine what you can learn about your Communication Skills.”  It was like closing one eye and watching a 3D movie through the red lens – some of the information gets blocked out, and the students can focus on the specific info they were receiving through that mental filter.  Following this examination of Communication Skills, I asked them to switch to a different-colored pen and look at the same solution, but now focus solely on the evidence of their Systems-Thinking – without regard to their Communication Skills.  I highlighted sections on an sample solution that jumped out at me as specifically related to “systems-think” (as opposed to communication, content knowledge or mathematical prowess).

As they changed their focus between topics, it was those watching the 3D movie were now closing the eye behind the red lens and opening the one behind the blue – the information that had previously been blocked out instantly sprang to the surface.  In an instant, a roomful of teenagers’ minds opened at once: I watched their puzzled faces switch from scrunched to smiling as they opened their eyes to see the multi-dimensional image.  That, my friends, is rare.

We repeated this process for all of the topics related to the standards measured on this assessment, and recorded scores for each topic separately.  While the time for doing this with the whole class added up to more than I expected, this one strategy seemed to do wonders in students grasping the concept of this grading process.  Instead of asking what extra credit they could do to get better grades, they asked how they could learn more about those topics with which they had struggled – following up with questions on how they could show that they had now learned it.  They also seemed to have a much better grasp on the relationship between each smaller “one-standard” assessment and the larger “multi-standard” assessments.  It wasn’t until I had truly involved them in the process that they finally understood the process.

For parents, it was usually at our first parent-teacher conference that this practice actually sunk in.  Instead of breaking down their kid’s test scores (and telling them to make the kid study), I was able to share with them real information about their child’s communication skills, conceptual understanding, content knowledge, and mathematical prowess (along with trends that showed if any one of these skills were changing in one way or the other).  Since I kept examples of their assessments on hand, we could also look together at the student’s growth over time.  The ten-minute, one-on-one conversation did more for me than any larger parent meeting I tried to organize, and suddenly I had advocates who understood.


“But what does it all mean, Basil?” – Austin Powers

This quote is a shout-out to physics teacher Shawn Cornally – the first time I saw this quote in his blog, I literally lol’d, as I used to use it with my students as a prompt to wrap things up and find meaning in whatever we had just done.  (It obviously came with the requisitely bad impression – what fun would any Austin Powers quote be without a horrible British accent?)

To me, the practice of standards-based assessment and reporting brought meaning to grades.  It made my students better learners, in that they realized that the only way to improve their standing in the class was to learn the material.  It also helped them to know more specifically what it was they knew, and what would be helpful to learn.  

It made me a better teacher each day, as it made me a better learner.  I learned more about my students’ understanding, which gave me better insights as to how to plan quality learning opportunities for them.  Our division’s mission is to establish a community of learners: for me, standards-based grading played a large part in inspiring a community of learners in my classroom.


4 thoughts on “Standards-Based Grading, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Defuse the Bomb

  1. Thanks- it was a time for reflection that I’ve been meaning to put "on paper" for a long time now. If anything, I have to thank the gala for getting me to write it!

  2. The strands that you broke your standards into…very interesting to thing about what these types of strands look like in different content areas. Thanks for sharing this …

  3. Strands for World Language: definitely Communication, possibly Culture, definitely something related to Vocabulary/Grammar (it could be called Language, but I’m not sure yet. I can definitely relate to having muddled through a year.

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