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Leaders of Their Own Learning: Chapter 8: Standards-Based Grading

How can grades communicate what students really know and can do?

From classroom to classroom, subject area to subject area, grades must have a consistent meaning for students and parents. Standards-based grading distinguishes between students’ work habits (e.g., effort, participation, homework) and whether students know and can do what specific course standards describe. Academic grades are no longer an average of student performance over a grading period, but a measure of whether or not they can show mastery at its closure. Moreover, a standards-based report card is like the part of an iceberg that is visible above the water. What lies beneath are thoughtful standard-target-assessment plans, quality assessments, a common understanding of what evidence of learning looks like, and a school culture in which all students are expected to do quality, meaningful work in school.

Implementing standards-based grading across a school takes time and requires leaders and teachers to develop a common understanding of what grades mean and shared grading practices. The outcome is well worth the effort. When students understand what grades mean, they are more likely to invest in and lead their own learning.

If we are going to give grades to students . . . we had better be sure that the grading system we use actually promotes understanding and learning, communicates to students and their families exactly where they are in their progress toward concrete goals, and offers useful information about how students can improve. From Chapter 8, Leaders of Their Own Learning

Learning Targets

  1. I can explain how standards-based grading supports students to lead their own learning and succeed.
  2. I can describe steps teachers and leaders must take to implement standards-based grading effectively.

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Leaders of Their Own Learning: Transforming Schools through Student-Engaged Assessment. Copyright 2014 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.

Read: Principles of Standards-Based Grading

Chapter 8 of Leaders of Their Own Learning outlines four principles that guide the implementation of standards-based grading: 

  • Grades accurately describe a student’s progress and current level of achievement
  • Habits of scholarship are assessed and reported separately
  • Grades are for communication, not motivation or punishment
  • Student engagement is key to the grading process

The following table from Leaders of Their Own Learning highlights the ways that traditional grading and standards-based grading differ.

Table 8.1 A Tale of Two Grading Paradigms


Watch: Why Use a Standards-Based Grading System?

Keeping the previous table in mind, watch the video Why Use a Standards Based Grading System? Think of your own classroom setting and consider the following questions:

  1. Which column in the table best describes the grading system you’re already using?
  2. What do you need to learn more about in order to adopt the principles of standards-based grading?

Read: Guidelines for Calculating Grades and One Progress Report

Before you can use standards-based grading effectively in your classroom, faculty and leaders must have a common understanding of how standards are prioritized and the learning targets that represent them. They must also agree on a shared language for proficiency and a common grading scale that will be reported on report cards. This is called a grading guide. Read the excerpts below from two school grading guides and then review the progress, which appears below. Consider the following questions:

  1. What next step could you take to prioritize your standards and determine long-term learning targets?
  2. What do you think “passing a course” should require?

Sample Guidelines for Calculating Grades—Excerpted from Two Faculty Grading Guides

Example 1: Homestake Peak Middle School, Eagle-Vail, Colorado
Calculating Trimester Grades
To calculate trimester grades, the scores representing progress toward each long-term learning target are averaged together; the average represents the level of progress toward the set of targets as a whole. Note that this is different from determining students’ progress toward each individual learning target because the teacher is relying on his or her professional judgment of each target completed at the previous stage.

Example 2: Casco Bay High School, Portland, Maine

What Does It Means to Pass a Course at Casco Bay High School?
In order to pass a course, a student must meet each and every course standard [long- term target] at the “meets the standard” (3) level or above. This does not mean that a student has to pass each and every assessment. It does mean that a student has to pass at least one assessment (and sometimes more) for each and every course standard.

Figure 8.1 Sample Standards-Based Report Card with Averaged Learning Target Scores Using JumpRope Software



Watch: Understanding Grades in a Standards-Based System

Once you have your learning targets, you can design formative and summative assessments to measure students’ progress toward those targets. A standards-target-assessment document for your course prepares you to set up your gradebook so that students’ grades on those assessments accurately reflect their progress.

Watch the video Understanding Grades in a Standards-Based System to see how one teacher records and summarizes grades based on standards and consider the following questions:

  1. Chapter 8 of Leaders of Their Own Learning provides several examples of teacher-created tools for tracking standards-based grades. How could you set up your gradebook to report standards-based grades?
  2. What structures at your school could support students who do not meet standards to remediate skills or recover learning?

Understanding Grades in a Standards-Based System

Watch: Habits of Work Prepare Students for College

Habits of scholarship (or habits of work) include behaviors that teachers categorize as effort, preparation (e.g., homework), and participation. As teachers, we know these behaviors are critical for success in school, college, and in life. But habits of scholarship are separate from whether or not a student has mastered academic standards. In a standards-based grading system, habits of scholarship count just like standards do, but they are assessed and reported separately.

Watch the video Habits of Work Prepare Students for College to connect the dots between standards-based grading and college- and career-readiness and consider the following questions:

  1. How are effort, preparation, and participation currently accounted for in your grades?
  2. How might assessing habits of scholarship separately help your students understand the relationship between their effort and their academic progress?

Habits of Work Prepare Students for College

Dig Deeper

Schoolwide Structures for Standards-Based Grading:  Watch a principal, teacher, parent, and student discuss the layered structures one school implemented in order to make standards-based grading effective for all students.

Rick Wormeli: Redos, Retakes, and Do-Overs:  Listen to Rick Wormeli explain how redos, retakes, and do-overs build on and honor students’ growth mindset.

Power School and Standards-Based Grading Overview:  Watch this demonstration of how one district used the Power School online gradebook to record and report standards-based grades.


For Teachers…

  1. Read how one teacher started implementing standards-based grading with just a few simple rules: Keep It Simple: Standards-Based Grading. What steps  from Table 8.7 The Who, What, and Why of Standards-Based Grading, on p. 337 of Leaders of Their Own Learning, can you take now to implement standards-based grading in your classroom?
  2. How would you communicate your standards-based grading system to students so that they buy in to the notion that teachers don’t give grades, students earn them? Try writing a lesson plan that helps students cultivate a growth mindset about grades.
  3. What structures or tools can you find or create to support students in tracking their own progress toward targets and standards? The tools used in the video Developing Content Mastery and Self-Reliance through Menu Math provide examples.

For School Leaders…

  1. What policies and communications do you need to create in order to describe your standards-based grading practices to teachers, families, district leaders, and other stakeholders? Reflect on the Schoolwide Implementation section of Chapter 8 of Leaders of Their Own Learning, pp. 338-342, then write a letter to parents explaining your grading practices.
  2. Principal Mary Alice McLean says “you are not going to implement this system perfectly at first. We need to remember that it’s better than the old way, even if it’s not perfectly implemented.” After reviewing the Common Challenges on pp. 344-346 in Chapter 8 of Leaders of Their Own Learning, consider what steps you can take over time to reassure teachers and build their capacity to improve at standards-based grading?
  3. What remediation or support structures can your faculty adopt or revise to support students who are struggling to meet the standards? This video, Strategies for Monitoring Progress, which first appears in Chapter 4 of Leaders of Their Own Learning, may give you some ideas.