Standards-Based Grading: A Rose by Any Other Name…

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Written by Susan M. Brookhart

Do the grades we assign to students truly reflect their learning?  The answer to this question, after over a hundred years of research on grading and almost 200 years of practice, is “Not Always.”  (About that 200 years – grading in U.S. K-12 education seems to have arisen in the mid-1800s with the rise of the common school.  Grading in higher education is older than that.)  There is lots of evidence that report card grades, and the assignment grades on which they are based, differ between schools and from teacher to teacher within schools.

Why is that?  And what can be done about it?  The two biggest reasons, according to both research and my experience working with teachers, are differences in criteria teachers use to assign grades – what teachers look for and recognize as important in students’ work, and how they weigh those factors in their grading decisions – and differences in teachers’ abilities to accurately apply whatever criteria they use.  It follows that THESE are the issues we need to address if we are to make grading more truly reflect student learning.

One approach many districts are using to try to improve grading is Standards-Based Grading (SBG), or at least standards-referenced grading.  Strictly speaking, in SBG a student doesn’t move on to a higher standard before mastering the current standard, so many SBG programs are really standards-referenced: Report cards are keyed to standards, but students who do not meet standards typically go on to the next unit or grade anyway.  In the rest of this blog, I’ll use “SBG” to refer to any standards-based grading approach.  That’s OK for our purposes today because whether the student goes on or not is really not the main issue in answering the question of whether the grades we assign students truly reflect their learning.

SBG could be a solution to the problem.  In theory, SBG identifies student proficiency levels on reporting standards (which may be state standards or, often, a prioritized or streamlined set of standards derived from those state standards) that identify a student’s current status (at the time of reporting) on that standard.  In theory, those proficiency levels truly reflect students’ current level of achievement.

In practice, however, many districts that adopt SBG use most of their energy on the “S” and lose momentum when they get to the “G.” Prioritizing standards and redesigning report cards take up a lot of time and mental, physical, and emotional energy. Students, parents, teachers, and administrators often have strong feelings about report cards and grades and know (or think they know) a lot about conventional grading.  The forces of both inertia and fear of the unknown team up to make redesigning report cards a big deal.  Lots of educator meetings, student and parent education and communication, even software development and printing, must happen before a district moves to SBG.

You see the problem.  Once the report card looks different and the reporting scale looks different, it is easy for all parties to feel like change has happened.  Everything seems different.  No more conventional report cards, no more ABCDF or 0-100, wow.  However, the move to real SBG has just begun.  In order for the standards-based grades (for example, “Proficient” and so on) to truly reflect student learning, grading practices must change to address at least the two big issues of different criteria and differences in teachers’ accuracy in applying them.

And often, teachers are just too busy adjusting to reporting by standard instead of by overall subject to realize that those two things are the most important reforms in SBG reforms.  A rose by any other name would smell as sweet…and inaccurate grading practices by any name (whether traditional or standards-based) are still inaccurate.

Therefore, whether your school district uses conventional report cards or standards-based ones, I really encourage you to focus on moving your grades, in whatever form you must report them, closer to truly reflecting student learning.  And that means – you guessed it – attention to the criteria you use to evaluate student work and the accuracy with which you do that evaluation.

If some of your grading criteria reflect factors that are about something besides learning, even if that something is very important, your grades will be compromised and not reflect learning very well.  One common example is deducting points for late work.  Turning in work on time is really important!  But it’s on the work habits side, not the academic standards side.

The solution: Evaluate both work habits and learning. Use the evaluation of learning for the grade. For the work habits, provide feedback to the student and work with his/her behavior using the same skills you’d use to work with any student behavior issues.  (Many standards-based report cards have a learning skills or work habits scale of some sort, so you often can report them, too; however, once a report card period is not nearly often enough for a student to get feedback on his/her learning skills and work habits.)

It’s not unusual for me to find teachers who have work-habits criteria bound up with their academic grades and who do not realize this.  Turning in work late is the most obvious example, but many times I’ll see points awarded for neatness, or putting name/date/period on the paper, and all manner of things that, when you think about it, aren’t really part of the standard(s) the assignment will be indexing.  Some teachers use grading criteria as a sort of checklist of assignment requirements.  Actually, for complex assignments having a checklist is a good idea – just not for the grade!

Regarding the second issue of applying the criteria accurately, that takes practice.  Inaccuracies are far more common than you think.  I have seen lots of examples of teachers evaluating student work as more or less accomplished on specific criteria than most other reasonable teachers would agree with.  Sometimes that’s a function of speed, of teachers trying to grade fast to get through a pile of work as quickly as possible.  Often, however, it’s a matter of teachers not having a clear idea themselves of what constitutes accomplishment on a particular criterion.  That’s related to teachers’ experience and expertise with the subject, their experience with other similar student work, and their own skill levels.  Grading accurately takes practice.

So let’s be clear that SBG is NOT the answer to the question, Do the grades we assign to students truly reflect their learning? UNLESS it is accompanied by changes in grading practices that focus on using criteria that reflect student learning relative to the standards AND increasing skill levels at applying those criteria accurately.

Whether or not your district uses standards-based report cards, you can practice learning-focused grading.  I have developed two resources to help you.  How to Use Grading to Support Learning is a short book that gives more details and emphasizes the importance of grades reflecting learning.  Grading and Learning is a Quick Resource Guide (a laminated trifold) that summarizes the main points of learning-focused grading in digest fashion, with lots of graphics.


Susan M. Brookhart, Ph.D., is Professor Emerita in the School of Education at Duquesne University. She is also an independent educational consultant, professional developer, and author based in Helena, Montana. Dr. Brookhart’s interests include the role of both formative and summative classroom assessment in student motivation and achievement, the connection between classroom assessment and large-scale assessment, and grading.

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