Standards-Based Grading: How to Move to Personalized Assessments

Being a straight-A student is an accomplishment that everyone can understand. But when student progress is no longer measured on a letter scale, success takes on a whole new meaning.

Standards-based grading is being used in place of traditional letter grading across many elementary and secondary schools in the US. This can cause challenges and confusion for teachers, students and their families. If your school is thinking about making the switch or it already has, here’s how to streamline the transition and keep concerns at bay.

What is Standards-Based Grading and Why Does it Work?

To articulate the benefits of standards-based grading, educators must understand how it differs from traditional grading systems. Instead of letter grades, standards-based grading operates on a scale of one to four. A level one rating shows an initial grasp of material, while four indicates that an excellent understanding, says Leah Kruger at software provider Skyward.

Standards-based grading is aimed at helping better evaluate a student’s knowledge of concepts and material. This is achieved by focusing on learning goals, rather than assignments. “Instead of a simple letter, students receive grades in multiple different learning targets and can see which concepts they understood well and which they need to improve on,” Naomi Shak at Edulastic writes.

These standards help establish a baseline across all students — and which concepts they should know at a given point in their education. Grading in this way allows students to understand more clearly what they are succeeding at, and where they can improve.

The system also makes grading more accurate, consistent, meaningful and supportive of learning, according to standards-based grading expert Ken O’Connor, also known as The Grade Doctor. In short, standards-based evaluations grade the learning that the student engaged in, not the activity itself.

O’Connor says this assessment model is more successful because it is grounded in detailed feedback and supports student risk-taking. In other words, it is more focused on individual achievement. In an education system where students are constantly competing against averages and standards, this is refreshing return to personalized learning.

student work -- Standards-based grading

How Teachers Can Implement Standards-Based Grading

Implementing standards-based grading requires teacher buy-in. Teachers have to understand both the individual and school-wide benefits of this new system, and realize how it can improve their overall instruction skills.

For one, standards-based grading helps teachers see exactly where students are struggling, explains Rachel Pautler at K-12 education software company Chalk. “This allows teachers to modify future lesson plans and further reinforce standards where students are underperforming.” In this sense, it gives educators greater insight into the effectiveness of their own teaching techniques and strategies. When students have the tools they need to succeed, teachers succeed, too.

Standards-based grading can also make a teacher’s job less stressful, according to teacher Tara Dusko. She says that before she started using this system, she dreaded report cards. Now, she gets them finished quickly and without stress.

The organized format of standards-based grading helps teachers, too. Since this grading system relies on data, it’s easy to show parents what their child is succeeding at, and what needs to be improved. Giving parents this clear understanding can get them involved in terms of extra learning and homework help. In turn, this can make it easier for teachers to do their jobs.

Lastly, standards-based grading alleviates some of the pressure that traditional letter and 100-scale number grades have. Teachers should think of themselves as auditors rather than graders, explains Meredith Dobbs, founder of Bespoke ELA. Since teachers typically aren’t grading every single assignment and activity, they should change their mindset to focus more on the overall picture of a student’s learning.

This same philosophy can be applied to standards-based grading because it doesn’t ask teachers to worry about assigning a grade. Instead, it asks teachers to think deeply and accurately about how a student is performing individually (without using up additional precious time).

For teachers who’d like to learn more about what this system is and how it works, a number of professional development resources are available. Consider this webinar from Marzano Research, for example. It explains the research and rationale behind standards-based grading, and why the switch is important. It also gives practical, nuanced teaching tips, such as how to use standards-based grading with special needs students and English language learners, for example.

Standards-based grading

Easing Parental Concerns on Standards-Based Grading

Making the switch to standards-based grading can be a challenge not just for teachers, but for students and parents. There are several ways educators can help prepare them for making this change.

Teacher Georgia Omer, who works on Alpine School District’s curriculum, explains how she overcame these challenges in Utah schools. With over 80,000 students across the district, switching to standards-based grading seemed daunting for many reasons. To help boost buy-in from families, however, Omer’s team hired a marketing firm to communicate the system’s benefits.

“The marketing firm made a video that we sent to every parent in the district about the move to SBG. In doing so, parents knew the changes to expect, why we were making the switch, and the benefits that would come with switching,” she writes.

Omer adds that it’s important to have realistic expectations as to how long the implementation process will take, and what kind of pushback might happen. Knowing what parents are worried about can help teachers anticipate and ease concern.

In a world where we’re so focused on traditional achievement, receiving anything less than an “A” can cause parents to think that their child isn’t doing well. This is demonstrated in a personal story from instructional coach Lisa Westman [registration required]. Westman says that her friend was concerned about her daughter becoming an average student after their school switched to standards-based grading.

The student wasn’t achieving any less than before. But, how she was being evaluated had changed. And, the parent had to change her own mindset in order to understand that the new system was in fact more accurate and effective for evaluating her daughter’s success in school.

To avoid such a situation, teachers and schools can do their part to educate parents upfront. A guidebook, such as this example from Baraboo School District in Wisconsin, can be a helpful tool. The easy question and answer format covers the most common concerns of standards-based grading. It also provides a sample report card for parents to see, so that their child’s first standard-based report card isn’t as jarring.

A similar handbook was created by Berrien Springs Middle School in Michigan. In addition to explaining what standards-based grading is, it explains why the school is making the switch:

“The goal of Berrien Springs Middle School is to improve student learning by reporting grades that are accurate, consistent, meaningful, and supportive of learning, and the shift to standards based grading is an effort to reach that goal.”

Images by: Antonio Diaz/©, Matthew Henry, Sarah Pflug

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