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Ditch the Gradebook for Standards- Based Grading


It's the end of the first semester, and your principal informs you that grades are due in a week. You quickly rush to your Gradebook, hoping you have enough assignments, quizzes, homework and tests entered in for the semester to award a grade for each student. Your quizzes count for 10% of their grade, tests 30%, homework 20%, and each assignment around 5%. You pat yourself on the back, sit back in your chair and revel in your accomplishment. Your grades are complete.

You send grades home to parents, with some absolutely elated at their child's performance, and others ready to ground their child for weeks.

Imagine one of those disgruntled parents calling you one afternoon demanding to know why their child has a low grade and what they can do to improve?

You have a ready response. "Mrs. Macky, your child, while doing well on tests, is always late in submitting homework. I have discussed timeliness with Johnny, but he always seems to procrastinate."

The parent is not satisfied. She challenges you, inquiring specifically how their child can improve on the standards and skills you teach in your class.

You are caught off guard. You don't have a quick answer. Instead, you repeat the answer you just gave.

You finish the phone call, upset that this parent would challenge your grading system, but also agree, she does have a point. Although you have kept detailed records in your Gradebook of student performance, you have little to no information regarding how each student has performed in the standards and skills you are required to teach.


The example above is intended to illustrate a point that is crucial to understanding educational progress in 2016. If we are to demand different skills in the second decade of the 21st Century, we have to demand a new pedagogy for how we award grades.

Grades need to serve a purpose.

Should grades measure our student's ability to complete homework or take tests, or are we measuring their competency in the standards we are required to teach?

Imagine if as a teacher, you had a clear answer for the disgruntled parent, upset about her child's low mark. Imagine being able to tell her that while Johnny is a great researcher, able to sift through primary and secondary source data, he has trouble communicating this information in a presentation. After explaining his area of need, you work with the parent to establish a clear plan to help him improve in this area.


Nearly every school district in the country is being asked to adopt Common Core Standards. The shift in standards is a focus on skills and processes over simple outcomes. The problem however, is that many teachers have not changed their grading practices. They still grade according to percentages, cumulative points, and a numeric system.

If we are to truly adopt a new approach to learning, we can no longer grade this way! Instead, we need to grade according to clearly defined outcomes.


In 2016, teachers need to grade against clearly defined standards. Standards- based grading is "measuring students' proficiency on well- defined course objectives." (Tomlinson and McTighe, 2006)

In this method of grading, instead of entering grades into our Gradebook according to categories of tests, quizzes, homework, or assignments; we enter according to the specific standard we are assessing. Similarly, at the end of a reporting period, rather than awarding an overall grade or mark in a class, we instead award a cumulative mark on each well defined standard.

Think of how informative this method of grading will be for our students and parents! Students will know exactly which areas they need to improve in, and will be given several chances to demonstrate mastery.

Here is a visual that demonstrates the difference between the standards- based Gradebook and the traditional Gradebook.

Traditional vs. Standards- Based Grading

Adapted from O'Connor K (2002). How to Grade for Learning: Linking grades to standards. (2nd ed.) . Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Notice that rather than awarding points, in a standards- based system, you award a "descriptor." This descriptor indicates the child's level of mastery in regard to the specific standard.

Five Advantages of Standards- Based Grading

Here are five clear advantages of a standards- based grading system over a traditional one:

Advantage #1: Grades Have Meaning

As mentioned in the anecdote above, with standards- based grading, grades will have clearly defined meaning. Rather than a teacher saying, "Your child is overall a 'B' student in English," they will be able to define the student's specific areas of need. Grades will no longer be a cumulative addition of points, but rather a clear reflection of progress and needs.

Advantage #2: Develops a growth mindset in students

How many of you have had a student that started out the year/ unit of study with an incredibly poor work ethic? For the slow starter, they are destined for failure from the onset. After a series of missed assignments and poor performance, they have very little room to improve. With standards- based grading, their mark in subject- specific courses is not cumulative, but rather, the "best fit." They have opportunities to improve in each standard with each successive assessment you administer.

Advantage #3: Creates uniformity in grading practice

Ever been accused of being an "easy grader?" Or perhaps you are a harsh grader, who makes an "A" nearly unobtainable. With standards- based grading, we eliminate most of the subjectivity in grading. With clearly defined standards and varying levels of mastery, students and teachers will be more uniform in the way in which they award grades. In addition, this uniform policy will allow more outside moderation of work to ensure accuracy in awarding a final mark.

Advantage #4: Provides more feedback for how to modify instruction

At the end of the day, grades as well as assessments should provide us feedback as teachers for how to improve instruction. In a standards- based classroom, rather than assessing on a thousand skills in a single unit test, we are able to assess for specific skills and have more meaningful conversations with students when they are struggling to reach them.

Advantage #5: Encourages skills- based instruction over simple content mastery

In a standards- based grading system, content serves a higher purpose. Rather than award 5 points for fact based questions on a test, and 10 points for open- ended word problems, we can assign marks for how well students demonstrate understanding of a skill. Tests no longer have to be a collection of a thousand problems from a thousand different skill- sets, but rather can be short and specific to the standard teachers are wishing to assess. This again will allow for more specific feedback for students.


Again, we are living in an age that demands an innovative, adaptive model to learning. It only makes sense therefore to have an equally innovative, adaptive model for grading. Standards- based grading will allow you to be smarter about how you grade, and how you communicate progress to both your students and parents.


Ready to try standards- based grading in your classroom or school? Reach out. I have great experience with standards- based grading in a number of settings including project- based, IB, and common core schools. I would be happy to answer any questions you have in addition to providing some rubrics and additional resources.

Shoot me an e-mail at to get started.

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Kyle Wagner
School Transformation and Project- Based Learning Coach

I coach school leaders on how to lead change and improve student learning through simple, innovative srategies and teaming structures.

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