Standards-Based Grading: The Full Lowdown

Every four years, people across the globe plop themselves down in front of the television to watch the Summer Olympics. Gymnastics is one of the more popular events in the summer games. Not every gymnast is going to garner perfect 10s like Mary Lou Retton at the 1984 Summer Olympics, however.

Gymnasts get scored on their mastery of execution, artistry, technique, and composition. Athletes must master each individual skill to garner the best possible score during competition. Naturally, the scores for each skill are combined to provide a composite. But if a gymnast has execution issues but everything else is ok, their score will reflect that, and that athlete will know what to work on going forward.

What Is Standards-Based Grading?

“So what?” you may say. What do gymnastics have to do with Standards-Based Grading (SBG)? At a 10,000-foot level, quite a bit. The approach in gymnastics scoring – evaluating mastery of specific skills – is the same thing that SBG aims to do.

Gymnastics judges don’t just tell athletes that their routine was an “A” or a “B” performance. They provide scores for specific criteria that reflect an athlete’s mastery of each at that point in time.

SBG is a grading system designed to evaluate student proficiency of an established learning goal, skill, or standard. This means that when students take a test or turn in an assignment, they don’t simply receive a single overall grade. Instead, they receive multiple grades that focus on student mastery of individual concepts.

In SBG, these grades are typically on a numerical scale that ranges from one to four. Sometimes increments of .5 are also used in the scale. These numerical grades correspond to a proficiency rating that incorporates descriptive labels such as exceeding standards, proficient, and partially proficient.

How Does Standards-Based Grading Work?

SBG is simultaneously very simple and very complex. To help flesh out how SBG works, let’s turn to a practical example of how a teacher may utilize the methodology.

Take history, for example. This is a discipline typically associated with dates and names. In other words, content. But any trained historian will tell you that this type of information more often than not acts as a mooring that helps link broader concepts together. Therefore, to truly do history, one needs to understand historical context, cause-and-effect, and a host of other dynamic relationships.

For our purposes here, let’s say that a World History class is working on a unit on nationalism and nation-building in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. While it’s useful to remember which countries were formed during this period and when, knowing that these things happened is less useful than knowing why they happened.

A teacher could come up with any number of learning goals on this topic. Let’s posit three:

    1. 1. Understand the characteristics of a nation-state.


    1. 2. Understand the relationship between nationalism and militarism.


    3. Understand how imperialism contributed to nationalism.

With these three goals in mind, teachers can design assignments and tests that focus on developing proficiency in these areas.

For example, understanding the characteristics of a nation-state may sound like a simple content-based goal. But proficiency in this area may not only require students to identify different characteristics of the nation-state – political, social, cultural, military, etc. – but also to understand how those different characteristics relate to each other in creating a unified national identity.

Similarly, we may look at the second goal and assume that it pertains only to the First World War. But nationalism and militarism continue to be closely related concepts. Therefore, studying the First World War enables teachers to ask students to compare and contrast the use of military strength for nationalistic purposes during WWI and the Cold War, or even contemporary, ongoing armed conflicts.

The take-away here is that understanding the process of nation-building becomes the focus, instead of simply knowing that Italian unification occurred in 1870 or Irish independence in 1922.

Why Are More Schools Adopting SBG?

No doubt the proliferation of common core standards has helped the spread of SBG because the two dovetail nicely. However, this is by no means a lone catalyst.

Let’s think about how a traditional approach would evaluate that same unit on nationalism and nation-building. It’s not uncommon for history tests to include some type of identification questions, i.e., “Who was Winston Churchill, and why he was important?”, alongside longer essay questions. Typically, essay questions receive a grade based on how well the teacher believes the student understands the topic at hand.

But if we take a step back and ask what is meant by “understand” in this context we see a much broader, more general concept. Now it’s entirely possible that an essay response could address one or more of the goals outlined in SBG. But if a student gets an 88% on the test they know that they earned a B+ on the test. Similarly, they wouldn’t necessarily know which of those goals they addressed and which ones they didn’t.

With SBG and the right school data management system, it is much easier for students and teachers alike to have a more specific and accurate measurement of student learning. Spotting trends not only with specific students, but also across an entire class or grade provides actionable data that tells teachers which concepts click with students and which ones don’t.

SBG, therefore, makes teachers more efficient and effective. The focus for many schools is on closing the achievement gap. Teacher efficiency and effectiveness become priorities because they help to accelerate this process.

How Does Standards-Based Grading Differ From Traditional Grading?

Let’s look at another hypothetical example illustrating the difference between traditional and standards-based grading methods.

With traditional grading, the tendency is to give a single grade for a particular assessment tool. Returning to our world history unit on nationalism, let’s pretend that students’ grade for the unit is based on their performance on three tests.
So here we see that by-and-large Fred, Velma, and Daphne are doing pretty well. If we round these numbers up, as is common practice, all three students end up in the “B” range while poor Shaggy struggles. This grade data tells us how well students performed overall, but it doesn’t tell us which specific concepts they did well on, and which ones posed a greater challenge.

Now let’s switch to a SBG mindset and see how the same students performed on the three main concepts for the unit based on all their assignments. Because these three concepts relate to the entire unit, teachers don’t have to rely solely on tests. Homework, quizzes, in-class participation, and other assignments contribute to a student’s mastery of these concepts.

For this example, we’ll use .5 increments, while a 4 corresponds to surpassed the standard, a 3 corresponds to met the standard, a 2 correlates to close to meeting the standard, and a 1 connotes not close to meeting the standard.

So at the end of the unit, the SBG marks for the same four students are as follows:
Here the rows show us that Fred, Velma, and Daphne are still doing pretty well overall. But when we look at the columns we notice something different. All four students are doing ok with Concept 2, so when it comes time to review and re-teach material to get students proficient, the teacher knows that he doesn’t need to spend too much time on Concept 2. Concept 1, however, could use a bit more attention, as half of the class was below a 3.

Not even Velma, the student with the highest level of proficiency across the entire unit, managed to achieve proficiency for Concept 3. Clearly, Concept 3 needs the most work. Thanks to SBG, their teacher knows precisely where to focus his energy when going back over the material for that unit.

What are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Standards-Based Grading?

As we’ve already discussed, there are a number of advantages to SBG. One is that SBG gives teachers more accurate data on specific learning outcomes. This means that teachers are able to identify weak areas much more easily, and work to correct them in a timely manner.

When compounded over an entire term or school year, the ability to adjust lessons to meet students’ needs means fewer students fall behind and teachers become much more effective and efficient. SBG allows teachers to identify the instructional methods that work the best and make these the norm. By providing a consistent way to measure student learning, SBG makes teachers and schools accountable.

The advantages of SBG aren’t a one-sided equation, however. Students stand to gain from SBG too. It helps students learn more by holding them to a higher standard for proficiency and gives them increased agency and transparency in the learning process. With SBG students can easily see for themselves the areas where they excel and where they need to focus their improvement efforts.

Of course, SBG isn’t all roses and rainbows. As with any type of change, resistance is almost inevitable. One contributing factor to this is the time it takes to learn, implement, test, and optimize a new grading system. Just as one doesn’t become a world-class gymnast in a single year, it takes time to discover which learning outcomes are realistic, and how to make sure students learn what they need to.

As you can probably guess, teacher buy-in is critical for SBG to be effective. Uneven or careless implementation of SBG can negatively affect students and their educational progress. The same goes for school staff and administrators. Although staff and administrators don’t do the actual grading and evaluation they do play a critical role in ensuring consistency throughout the school. They have the ability to create, implement, and execute procedures and policies that foster a positive learning environment.

Sometimes SBG standards are vague and unclear. This creates another roadblock to effective learning, because stakeholders in the education process don’t have a proper sense of what students should know or be able to do.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the source of the standards matters. Standards that come from the federal or state level don’t always account for differences in social, cultural, or economic factors which may affect the ability of a given population to achieve success with SBG. In other words, a “one-size-fits-all” approach isn’t always ideal.

What Challenges Do Schools Face When Switching To Or Implementing Standards-Based Grading?

We’ve already mentioned the importance of faculty and staff buy-in for SBG to be effective. So getting teachers and administrators the training and support they need to be successful with SBG makes it easier to clear this hurdle.

But in addition to school personnel, parents need to be on board with SBG as well. A recent story in the Chicago Tribune highlighted the struggle some Illinois school districts faced when switching to SBG. As the Tribune piece points out, many parents are skeptical of change. Traditional grades are familiar to most parents, and an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude can enter the equation when this is the case.

In order to combat the type of backlash that Chicago area school districts are facing, educators need to be proactive and involve their communities in this process from the beginning. Providing parents with a stake in the decision to adopt SBG also provides opportunities to educate them about the method. At the same time, parental involvement fosters discussion and consensus about what standards are appropriate for students in that community.

After implementing SBG, it’s guaranteed that some will still be displeased with the change. Here again, being proactive helps to get parents on board. Including educational material that explains the SBG method with report cards is one way to accomplish this. Schools and teachers can establish a contact policy so that parents can discuss grades in a transparent, straightforward way.

Change is hard, and not everything will earn a perfect “10” throughout the process. But schools that want to stick the proverbial landing with SBG should focus on being open, proactive, and transparent about any changes they want to implement.



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