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Five Things to Consider When Implementing Standards-based Grading

March 28, 2024

When I first started using standards-based grading, I wish I had known to ask the question, “What advice would you give to a teacher just starting their standards-based grading journey?”

Now, with experience writing standards, creating scales, teaching with standards and teaching other teachers how to implement standards-based grading, I can answer that question for other educators just starting out on the journey. These five pieces of advice are designed to help others overcome the potential hurdles faced during the first year or two of implementing standards-based grading.

1. Know your why

Figure out your “why.” Shifting to standards-based grading can be stressful for teachers and students alike. It’s new. It’s important. As the teacher, you will be on the front lines of selling this to students and the community. If you, as the teacher, can’t clearly state why you believe in standards-based grading, then don’t expect the students and other stakeholders to enthusiastically support it. Also know that there may be multiple “whys.” The school or district may have a complex and well thought out “why,” but you can develop your own “why” as well.

When a student asks, “Why are we doing this?” you must have an answer ready, and it should be convincing. My answer is always the same, “Because I believe that this is in the best interest of my students. It focuses on what students can demonstrate in regards to knowledge and skills. It allows me to more accurately assess students and help them develop and grow.” The focus of my answer was always on the student and how it was best for them. Make it about the student; they like that!

A second part to the “why” is developing a strong defense of formative work. When formative work, or practice, does not reflect a grade in the gradebook some students will simply choose not to do it. These students will just wait until the assessment to work and it will often show very little learning occurred. As the teacher, it is important to have an answer when students ask why they have to do something that doesn’t count.

I use the simple sports analogy of practice versus games. An athlete cannot perform to maximum potential without practice. While the assessment is equivalent to the game, the formative work is equivalent to the practice. If everyone in the room buys into this, the formative work becomes relevant, and summative just measures students’ growth across the formative work.

2. Adapt and grow

No matter how good things look on paper in the planning phase, it won’t go perfectly the first time. Or even the second time, for that matter. During the first year or two it is important to remember to be flexible with yourself and your students. Understand that you are doing something completely new and in many cases it will be completely new for your students. Take the time to communicate with your students, and when something isn’t working don’t be afraid to change. Open lines of communication with your students is critical to this phase. Leverage your students to determine what is and is not working and how you could improve it.

Things didn’t go according to plan my first year of the process, but by having open dialogue with my students we continually improved and moved forward. I built a classroom culture around John C. Maxwell’s concept of “failing forward.” We used every failure and setback as a learning and growth opportunity. Building a classroom culture around “failing forward” allowed students to have a significant voice on how my standards-based grading developed. So, fail forwards in this endeavor.

3. Re-evaluate punitive grading practices

Often the most difficult educational practices for some to put aside are punitive grading practices. At times teachers use grading as a form of discipline or an attempt to hold students accountable. Examples of practices that can be seen as punitive are deducting points for work submitted late, not accepting late work, not allowing reassessment, or arbitrary and non-negotiable deadlines. These punitive grading practices stifle growth and motivation and work contrary to the goals of implementing standards-based grading. Some of these practices are ingrained over long periods of time and can be a challenge to move away from. Evaluate your current grading practices and leave the punitive practices behind. This will make the transition to standards-based grading so much more successful.

This was especially hard for me in certain areas. Teaching Advanced Placement courses and as an adjunct professor at two local colleges, I was fixated on students learning it the first time. I did not accept late work or penalized it severely. I didn’t like retakes and only allowed them begrudgingly. Before I could truly embrace standards-based teaching, I had to evaluate my own grading practices. I looked for things that didn’t fit within the standards-based model. By keeping my focus on why I wanted to use standards-based grading, I was able to leave behind practices such as not accepting late work and not allowing reassessments. I wanted the focus of my grading to be the assessment of whether students learned the key content or could achieve a specified goal. Punitive practices such as not accepting late work or deducting points for late work did not fit into the new paradigm of standards-based grading and, therefore, were thrown out. Not allowing students to retake was punitive as it did not allow students to grow and evolve their knowledge and skill sets. My punitive grading didn’t hold students accountable; it weakened their desire to learn and grow.

4. Assess (and reassess) for growth and mastery

Formulate a strong reassessment policy that allows for growth and mastery. As a teacher, one of my greatest frustrations was handing out an assessment at the end of a unit and a student immediately asking when the retake would be. Some students skipped a lot of the work and never prepared for the assessment because the formative work did not actually factor into the gradebook. Then they wanted to use the assessment as a study guide for the reassessment. This attitude defeats the whole point of learning and makes it difficult to have a coherent reassessment policy. I put in place, and communicated to stakeholders, changes to my reassessment policy during the first year of standards-based grading. Reassessment would only be allowed if students showed that they were working toward mastery of the content. Students had options for this such as completing the missing formative work for the standard, attending tutoring, or a demonstration of knowledge or skill that showed they had learned the content. I even included options for the reassessment such as personal interviews or open-ended written responses using topics from the scale. Once students understood that mastery was a process and there weren’t any shortcuts, students truly began working toward it in earnest.

5. Use scales and rubrics for student reflection

Create scales and rubrics for each standard that are comprehensive and written in student-friendly language. The more clarity you have in the scale and what differentiates each level of the scale, the easier grading will become over time using the scales. If scales are not well written with clear delineation between levels, grading can be inaccurate from student to student or teacher to teacher using the same scales.

Scales written in student-friendly language allow students to interact with the standard and scale throughout the learning process. They know on the first day working with a standard what they will be expected to know or be able to do to show mastery on the assessment. They know exactly what they are working toward. Once the student has been assessed using the scale, the possibility for growth and evolution really comes to the forefront. I ask students to reflect on an assessment by reviewing the scale. They use the scale to identify what they did well and what they were missing or struggled with. They identify what they need further support on, and it leads to incredible conversations with students about learning, growth and mastery.

Once students get comfortable using the scales and reflecting on learning, I move into self-grading. Students use the scales before they submit work, explaining to me what they think they are going to get and why, using the language straight from the standard and scale. I find that almost always students give themselves the same grade I would give them and for exactly the same reasons. Of the students who give themselves a grade different from the one I would give them, the student has almost always given themselves a lower grade than I would have. Standards-based grading cannot be truly integrated without the successful integration of scales into the learning and assessing of the course.

Standards-based grading has allowed me to use grading to build relationships with my students. It is no longer about the perception of me giving them a grade. It’s about the communication of knowledge and skills between each other.

Ian McDougall

History Teacher and Edtech Coach
Yuma Union High School District, Yuma, Arizona

Ian McDougall is an edtech coach and history teacher at San Luis High School in Yuma, Arizona and part-time online community facilitator for the Leading Change Professional Learning Community (PLC), an online hub connecting more than 500 learner-centered educators from across the country . Ian has nearly 20 years of teaching experience and holds a Master of Arts in Humanities with a focus on U.S. History from Adams State University and a Master in Teaching from Whitworth University. He also serves as an adjunct professor at Arizona Western College & Northern Arizona University and was recognized as the 2022 Arizona History Teacher of the Year.

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