The Poor Man's Excuse for Standards Based Grading

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Whether I’m presenting to a school faculty or speaking at a conference, these slides and information always seem to get people out of their seats and taking pictures and frantically writing down notes.

Now, for the purposes of this piece, I'm going to assume you're already familiar with the flaws in traditional grading and you know you need to make a change. If you're not or don't see a need for change, I’d encourage you to check out my pieces “Audit Your Gradebook”, “The Trouble With Grading” or especially “What’s in a Letter Grade?” I believe toxic grading progress can prevent students from learning course content and these articles offer some of the reasons why.

Instead, I’m going to offer some solutions for Edunators who already know their gradebooks are flawed and want to correct them.

Many school districts (including my own) have made the switch to a full blown Standards Referenced Format in which student’s grades are never averaged together into one score. Instead, achievement on individual standards is reported relative to a student’s comprehension of that material, usually a 4-point scale with “3” being “proficient” and “4” being reserved for exemplary work beyond grade-level or what was taught in class or expected of students. That type of system wide change however is quite difficult and requires years of research and implementation and frankly, many teachers are not inclined nor in a position to take this on.

So what can individual teachers do to ensure their gradebooks are focused on learning? I recommend two changes.

Step 1: STOP grading individual assignments and instead only enter into your gradebook specific standards or objectives you’d like your students to learn.

Figure out exactly what it is you want your students to be able to know or do as they leave your classroom. It’s the first of Rick DuFour’s “Critical Questions” of a Professional Learning Community – and if you’re up for a bit more of a challenge consider it from a student’s perspective.


While the left hand column of your gradebook is student’s names (represented above by names of teachers in my building) the top row should be the standards you want students to know. You’ll no longer be grading individual assignments. Instead, every assignment your students complete is formative assessment, or practice, for a summative assessment.

Only the most recent assessment of a given objective should be reported in a gradebook – remember gradebooks are meant to be a communication piece, no more, no less. They should report a student’s progress on the learning you deem important.

What if a student does poorly on the summative assessment? How can they improve their grade?

They’ll complete a remediation activity of some kind using a different learning style or method than was previously used and re-do the assignment. Or better yet, they’ll complete a DIFFERENT assignment designed to assess the same content knowledge or skill – remember, remediation does not mean the same thing louder! Students should be allowed to continuously re-try objectives they’ve struggled to learn. Who are we to deny a student an opportunity to learn? Some will insist this method does nothing to teach students responsibility, but unfortunately that’s a lesson many students aren’t developmentally capable of learning in this manner – check out my “Two Things Teachers Focus on Most…Instead of Learning” article for more on this topic.

We’re not going to punish students by averaging together their old attempts with their new attempts. That sort of bizarre number crunching is one of the things Ken O’Connor discusses in his awesome book 15 Fixes for Broken Grades.

Grading in this manner allows us to differentiate at will – do we really care how a student demonstrates understanding of a topic as long as they do? So each student could complete a different assessment of the same material, and be recorded the same way. It easily incorporates formative assessment because essentially EVERY ASSIGNMENT is formative until a student “masters” the objective – then the gradebook is updated and the most recent assessment becomes “summative”.

But what is “mastery”? That brings us to the second change we’ll need to make.

Step #2: Eliminate the 100 point scale and especially the “Super F”.

Standards Based Grading systems utilize a four point scale because 100 is simply meaningless. It’s too many. What’s the difference in content comprehension between an 89 and an 80? Or a 75 and an 82? Not much…but the “grade” reported could be significant. Instead, learning comprehension can easily be divided into four categories as mentioned above. Here is how we define these four levels at in my school district, a very simple graphic we share with both students and parents.


If you’re looking for a way to make this sort of logic apply to your current grading model, consider something like this:


A few key points:

A few drawbacks to the “Poor Man’s Excuse for Standards Based Grading”


I hope your school or district is considering making the shift to Standards Referenced Grading, if they haven’t already. If not, I hope you as an individual teacher will consider using this method or a similar one. At the very least reflect on your own practices and consider if your current practices truly reflect learning.

I thank you for reading and welcome your feedback. If anybody has any other tweaks to traditional systems, please feel free to email me any suggestions to improve this method. Please Tweet, Share or forward this link to any educator you feel could benefit from reading it and contact me if there’s anything I can do to help you or your school “Become the Edunator” and focus on learning.  


You or someone you know struggling with difficult students? Check these for some potential solutions!

Previewing as a Free and Easy Student Intervention - An alternative solution to many common academic struggles.

One Way to Handle Defiant Students - It's not a punishment, but it is accountability for students who refuse to do classwork.

Lest We Forget: School Sucks - Relationships are key and teachers must "Know thy enemy".

Obstacles of Learning Solution Index - Simple solutions to a variety of simple classroom problems.