FAIL: The Case for Standards Based Grading

of standards based grading

First Attempt In Learning, or FAIL, is not a bad word, or at least it shouldn’t be. Unfortunately FAIL does have a bad connotation that is due to the normative approach to grading and those teachers that seek to inflate or deflate grades as students race to the top of the grading scale.  The approach of grading everything and then adjusting the weight of an assignment, adding in extra-credit, or adjusting grades down for late work has a negative effect on the students and tends to bring into the teaching of our teachers. School shouldn't have this negative vibe to it and should be a place where the focus is on learning and less on class ranks.

Traditional Grading

Traditional grading of using letters to denote student proficiency has been around for as long as school has been around. A letter grade connotes a convoluted and mysterious mixture of learning, participation and extra credit, yet fails to answer the basic mission of schools - what did the student learn? (Vander Ark 2013) This very limited measure of student abilities does have its benefits.

The first benefit is that a simple letter in our alphabet can be used to denote a student's grade which can be compared to another student’s grade. This is great for a factory-based model of education where the sorting of students into age-based groupings (also called grades) is the primary purpose. Having the ability to rank students allows for stakeholders to quickly compare their student to another student, and to create artificial categories of competition.  This simple classification of students makes it easy for stakeholders to make broad judgments about a class, a school, or the student in general.

Traditional grading also allows for teacher-based criteria to be used to assess our students. This puts a great demand on teachers to evaluate academic talent as it relates to their subject matter. For veteran teachers and those new teachers that were trained well this may not be such a big issue, but for most teachers determining what should or should not be graded and how heavily one assignment weighs on the grade versus another grade is huge and overwhelming. The subjectivity of a grade is then tested as students quickly learn which teacher is easier to get an ‘A’ in versus another teacher and creates a disparity of valuation within the grading system at that school.

The final benefit of traditional grading is that it is a simple overall grade for the student. A teacher can just put the grades in the grade book and an algorithm is used to determine what letter a student receives. Of course teachers will use a valuation system with zeros, extra credit and points of for late work (whole different blog on these three later) are used to determine and distort a grade in the hope of communicating a message of student achievement to the stakeholders.

The biggest disadvantage of traditional grading is this: it is a simple letter that fails to denote what a student learns and is influenced by non-academic factors, such as effort based factors (Wormeli). Traditional grading is the accepted norm, but fails miserably in determining what a student has learned. Student A may have a 93% in their English class while Student ‘B’ also has a 93% in their English class. As a parent of either student what does that tell me about my student’s learning? Actually not much other than they have the same grade and same percentage. What if Student ‘A’ did better on their homework and so-so on their tests while Student ‘B’ did great on their tests but didn't do any homework. What does the simple letter grade tell us about each student’s learning?

Standards-based grading

Like all systems for grading standards based has its challenges and its benefits, yet as a whole it can answer the school’s mission of what did the student learn more efficiently and accurately. Standards-based grading involves measuring students' proficiency on well-defined course objectives (Tomlinson & McTighe, 2006).  With a clearer focus on what a student does or does not know, teaching can be fined tuned and differentiated more easily than using a traditional grading system. With standards-based grading the benefits outweigh the disadvantages by a significant amount.

With standards-based grading the teacher, student, parent and other stakeholders get a better picture of what a student is actually learning. With the publishing of state standards being readily accessible to stakeholders, the need to have an accurate report of what a student has learned becomes very important in the grand political scheme of things. With each standard being assessed a student and teacher can look at areas of strength and areas of improvement. With this knowledge teachers can seek to differentiate the learning of each student by challenging those that master a standard earlier than their peers and seek interventions on those students that are lagging behind.

This ability to communicate to the student, parents, and other stakeholders is vital to standards-based grading. By communicating what each standard means and how proficiency can be demonstrated, the student and the teacher have concrete evidence to show student progress as it relates to what they should know. Grades in standards-based grading have multiple grades per student and reflect a student’s ability better when related to the standard. The inconsistency and subjectivity shown in the traditional grading system goes away and focuses on what and how is learned. The focus is on learning not on teaching.

Standards-based grading helps drive instruction by giving a more accurate picture of what a student knows or does not know.  When coupled with frequent formative assessments and the end of unit summative assessments, a teacher can get very useful feedback that will allow them to adjust their teaching in a timely manner. This allows teachers to seek interventions for those students that are struggling with a standard and to  seek more challenging activities for the more advanced learners. Differentiation becomes easier when the correct data is in the hands of the teacher.

Finally, standards-based grading helps to eliminate the need for the unnecessary fluff found a lot of the time in traditional grading. When students are progressing towards mastery in a standard the focus is on the learning and less on the effort (Wormeli, 2006). Rubrics used will have more meaningful labels attached to them highlighting what is to be learned and how to demonstrate it,  and assessments will be addressing specific state, district, and school standards (Work, 2014). Students have less room to negotiate for grades, which unto itself is an ethical dilemma that is better left for a different blog post, and the need for extra-credit will be eliminated as we teach for mastery of a standard.

Opponents of standards-based grading will say that it really does not teach a student any responsibility, since redos and teaching to mastery take away from the accountability of the “real world.” The “real world” does not operate with that level of finality. Just ask any pilot or lawyer if they passed their exams on the first try and if their scores were averaged.

Opponents also will cite that it increases teacher workload by having to reteach and reassess students. Significant amount of time is devoted to reassessing previous work that it would impact teacher planning and teaching. In all actuality it allows for higher levels of differentiation and intervention along with the ability to become a blended or flipped classroom.  The goal of the class is to learn the standards not gain compliance.

Finally, opponents will bring up the fact that the teachers are reinventing the wheel and their previous work is now obsolete. With the review of curriculum and assessments each year, the tweaking and adjustments to the use of formative and summative assessments and realignment to the standards should all that be needed on an ongoing basis. WIth sound instructional practices happening already this should be a simple fix.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to grading our students the results should be crystal clear to all stakeholders as to what our students have learned. This transparency only strengthens the profession, which has been under assault for the last two decades, and allows us as a nation to get a real look at how we compare to other countries.  Having a clear understanding of what is being taught and how much our students are learning is essential to providing accurate data to those politicians that determine our fate via the funding and mandate process.

As a teacher, having accurate data to assess would be critical to the sustainability of my classes and give me a more accurate value of what I bring to a school, let alone to how it can help me as I plan my lessons. Granted standards-based grading is a radical idea to what we currently have, but the system we use currently is too easy to manipulate giving false indications of our students’ abilities. Teachers need to encourage their students take risks and fail in order to learn and not worry about some arbitrary measure of success that is generated in the traditional grading system we currently use.  

Having a clear and accurate understanding of what our students understand is the key to our profession regaining its rightful place in our society. The use of traditional grading practices does not allow teachers to provide an accurate portrayal of what their teaching looks like, but with a standards based grading approach then as teachers we can rest assured that our students have learned something of value.

  • Resources

  • Educational Leadership:Expecting Excellence:Seven Reasons for Standards-Based Grading . (2016) Retrieved 20 April 2016, from

Killer App: MasteryConnect Reinvents the Report Card - Getting Smart by Tom Vander Ark - CCSS, MasteryConnect, parents, report cards, standards-based. (2013). Getting Smart. Retrieved 20 April 2016

Tomlinson, C., & McTighe, J. (2006). Integrating differentiated instruction and understanding by design.Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Work, J. (2014). 3 Peaks and 3 Pits of Standards-Based Grading. Edutopia. Retrieved 20 April 2016, from

Wormeli, R. (2006). Fair isn't always equal assessing & grading in the differentiated classroom. Portland, ME Westerville, Ohio: Stenhouse National Middle School Assoc.

Popular Posts