Standards Based Grading

Diving: An argument for Standards Based Grading

In order to become a certified diver an individual must master certain tasks and grasp certain concepts.  The concepts are assessed in written format while the skills are assessed by actually completing them for the instructor under water both in the pool as well as in the ocean.  As I've written about in previous blogs, I recently underwent diving certification.  The experience has resulted in significant reflection on my part.

In the process of certification, if a student struggled with a skill, he/she continued working on that skill until it was mastered and then moved on, often catching up with the group.  The expectation was that everyone would eventually master all the skills.  All students encouraged each other to gather courage and complete the tasks, especially if anyone was feeling nervous or even scared. 

If a student wasn’t successful with the written assessments, he/she was required to complete some additional studying and then reassess, continuing the cycle until sufficient content was mastered.

As a diver, you need to know how to enter the water several ways, including "walking in" to deep water as shown here.  As a diving student you must perform each method for the instructor.

Modifications were built in all along the way to make sure students had the proper support to master both skills and content.  Extra time was given, further instruction was offered, and additional examples provided.

During my own certification process, on our last open water dive, a student did not properly assemble her gear and during the checks it was determined that she had an empty tank preventing her from beginning the dive with us.  She had to remain on the boat waiting for a full tank of air.  It didn’t matter that she had a good attitude, she’d done her homework, she participated in class, and had almost rigged her gear properly.  The skill wasn’t mastered so she could not enter the water, as her life would be in danger.  She had to wait and redo the task before entering the water.

In diving you must be able to properly set up the gear in order to survive under water.  

Furthermore, another student lost his mask in the water, an honest mistake.  The rest of the group tried to figure out a way to help him, finally, the girl without the tank gave him her mask.  When one member of our group fell overboard before we had arrived at the dive site, we all helped him back into the boat making sure he was safe and prepared to proceed.  There was a team effort to make sure everyone had a fair chance to succeed.

In diving, if the focus weren’t mastery of skills in addition to understanding of content, life would be endangered.  While good attitude, completion of homework, attentiveness, and care all help in mastering skills and understanding content, these attributes do not determine a good diver and therefore are not included in determining whether an individual has qualified for diving certification.

As I’ve reflected on this experience, I realize how much I advocate for this same approach in the classroom.  Shouldn’t the expectation be that all students attain the skills and master the content?  Shouldn’t we have “back up plans” to help teach students who don’t “get it” the first time around?  Shouldn’t the environment be supportive and positive with students cheering each other on and helping each other out? Shouldn’t pupils be allowed extra time and additional assessments, if necessary, to demonstrate mastery?  If it were so, wouldn’t students be less intimidated about asking questions and would feel more encouraged with a determination to succeed?  Furthermore, while completion of homework, attendance, neatness, and preparedness (i.e. having proper supplies) are important learning behaviors in helping a student to succeed, these attributes do not determine whether a student has, indeed, mastered skills and understood the content.

As teachers everywhere are returning to the classroom, we are all considering what type of environment we seek and how to achieve it.  In the end, we all want a positive learning atmosphere in which all students thrive in the learning process.  The question is how do we ensure it for this coming year for all of our students?  I suggest, that if we look to the model of diving certification, we might find some answers to take us in that direction!

An update on the journey towards SBG: The Report Cards

What happens when teachers see the report cards as parents see them

“I have never seen one of these” remarked a teacher.  “Me either” pipes in another.  Murmurs of agreement ripple through the room.  Our teachers are looking at sample report cards from elementary, middle, and high school that parents read regularly when similar papers arrive in their mailbox.  Since I am both a teacher and a parent I am struck with this reality: teachers are engaging in practices of reporting without realizing, through no fault of their own, what the final product looks like.  Then I realize that at my last school I never saw the report card that students were receiving!  It is strange, isn't it?

The teachers pour over the samples with great interest identifying differences, inconsistencies, and confusing information.  “This is really interesting” the theater teacher observes.  Again, murmurs of agreement.  She continues, “Imagine if you have a child in elementary, one in middle school, and one in high school.  This would be so confusing because those reporting systems differ”.  “Even if you had a first and third graders it would be confusing because even those reporting systems differ” adds a language teacher.  Everyone ponders this fact and a few people utter that probably the report cards should be rewritten to be clearer and more consistent.   A finger vote yields 100% agreement in giving our focus group the “go ahead” to rewrite the report cards.  Their intensity and genuine interest is evidence, again, for me of how much these teachers care.  They care about the students and they care about the parents.

Back in February we had actually received this very council from Ken O’Conner when we met with him during an ECIS conference on Assessment for Learning.  We were deliberating the approach we would need to take to gradually move ourselves to a standards-based reporting system.  “The first thing you need to do, “ he advised, “is to rewrite your report cards|.  So, we now have 100% support from the staff to proceed with step #1.

We met this past week as a focus group to evaluate the changes necessary for the report cards.  In addition to the overall look of the report card, we discussed the “citizenship” grade that teachers currently record at the end of each quarter.  It is one grade that encompasses the idea of effort.  Our first task was to better define this grade and break it down into the pieces that it represents. After researching and considering several report cards from other schools we came up with a list of ideas.  We think that these four areas can adequately assess a student’s “Approaches to Learning”

  1.   Works cooperatively
  2.   Works independently
  3.   Turns in completed assignments on time
  4.   Comes on time and prepared to class

Each teacher would assess each student in each of these areas, determining whether the student consistently, often, sometimes, or rarely meets the expectations.  The next step for us, as a focus group,  is to write the descriptors for each area.  Can you think of an additional area we might need to consider or a component of any descriptor that you think should be included?

No grades, Comments only, please.

All of them bent their heads intently over their papers.  They were furiously writing and responding to the colored marks on the pages – and I hadn’t even asked them to!  I almost didn’t know how to proceed, as I hadn’t expected this reception.  So I just waited and observed their productivity.  One student asks, “What do you mean by this comment?”  I explain and then he replies, “Oh! I get it!” and proceeds to write.  Another girl seeks clarification in understanding.  Another ponders a deeper response to one of the questions she had already written on.

What is going on?  Students are responding to comments-only feedback I had written on their lab write-ups.

In the Dylan Wiliam conference I attended a month ago, we were advised that feedback should “move learning on” and should “put learning in the hands of the learner”.  We were told that this type of feedback is best in the form of comment-only marking.  Dylan further shared with us a somewhat controlled study in which the same teachers working in several different classrooms in several different schools administered assessments with three different kinds of feedback: 1) Comments only, 2) Grades only, 3) Comments + grades.  Only the students receiving comments-only feedback demonstrated improvement in achievement.

So, I decided to try it.

Last week my students had completed a series of reflective questions on a global warming lab activity we had carried out in class.  I wrote only comments on the reports with no grade indicated anywhere.  I must admit, it took some restraint to not tally the incorrect answers and put some kind of total on their papers.  Today I handed the students their lab papers and asked them to look through the comments to make sure they understood what I had written.  I was so surprised by the immediate reaction that ensued as they began pouring over their papers and my comments.  I was even more amazed when they picked up their pencils and began replying to the comments, without even being told to do so!  I think I stood there rather stunned for a few seconds as I processed what was happening. Then I thought, “Dylan Wiliam was right” and here is the evidence, the comments-only feedback put the learning in the hands of the learner and it moved learning on.  Oh, and not one student asked what the grade was.  

So, does this mean I’m on a track of developing a “no grades” policy?  Umm, No.  However, I do see myself using comments-only feedback in the beginning of a unit when students are developing understanding and then giving grades on assessments that are given later in the unit when mastery of the content and skills is expected.



What about those zeros in the grade book?

As we know, it is quite common for a teacher to issue a zero for missing, neglected, or late work.  However, does the zero actually reflect what the student has learned or can do? 

Furthermore, when we consider the practice of averaging scores, is it mathematically accurate to include the zero?  The weight of a zero is so much more powerful than anything above 60 resulting in the near impossibility for a student to compensate for that zero by receiving high marks on subsequent assignments.  A zero unfairly skews the average.  Imagine a weatherman is recording daily high temperatures in order to calculate the average high temperature for the week but he misses the reading for Wednesday.  Would he just put in a zero for that day?  So why do teachers think it is OK to include zeros for missing assignments when averaging scores?

It seems zeros are then assigned in order to punish students for missing, neglected or late work.  If grades are used as a punishment then how can they be an accurate communication of achievement?  Is the punishment supposed to motivate students to reform?  I don’t think anyone anywhere can find evidence that demonstrates that zeros and low grades encourage students to complete work.  Grading gurus such as Ken O’Conner and Thomas Guskey would argue that assigning zeros actually lowers motivation and inhibits student learning (O'Conner) (Guskey).  So why do we do it?

I am a firm believer that if a student has not completed the work, then an “Incomplete” should be awarded until the work is complete.  If I don’t have enough evidence to properly assess a student’s achievement levels, then I will record an “I”.

For late work we need to find other consequences.  I’m still trying to find the perfect solution for this.  We have been trying to find a satisfying, fair, manageable, and consistent manner to distribute consequences for late work.  We tried a lunch homework detention but that was ineffective due to time constraints.  In one of my classes the fear of being assigned to scrub the lab floors and lab benches has kept late work at a near zero.   This segues into a discussion on motivation, doesn’t it?

For now, however, I’d like us to reconsider the practice of incorporating zeros into averages.  Do we really think it is a fair and accurate practice for reporting on student learning and achievement?  I, personally, do not.


Connor, Ken. How to grade for learning, K-12. 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin, 2009. Print.

Guskey, Thomas R.. Practical solutions for serious problems in standards-based grading. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2009. Print.



What do grades mean? Separate achievement from behaviors.

Do you want a cardiac surgeon who just tried really hard in medical school and residency or one who actually mastered the skill of heart surgery? Or as I asked in a previous post, do you want to sit in an airplane with a pilot who tried really hard in flight school or one who actually mastered the skill of flying?

Does a company hire an individual because he/she put forth great effort in college,  or because the individual attained a certain skill and knowledge set that will benefit the company?

At what point did we stop expecting the mastery of skills and focus instead on behavior in the classroom?  When did “getting the grade” become  “doing everything the teacher says” instead of “learning the skills and content”?  As soon as we link a student’s grade to behavior we are unfairly skewing grades in the favor of compliant and ‘normal’ students.  Why penalize a student with Asperger’s Syndrome by lowering the overall grade because of angry (and yes, disruptive and annoying) outbursts during class despite the fact that achievement of skills and knowledge is exceptional? Is that accurate reporting?  Is that fair?

If grades include behavior, what do the grades mean?  For example, is a “B” a reflection of below average learning behaviors coupled to excellent achievement or is the “B” illustrating superior compliance paired with mediocre achievement?  When independent factors are consolidated into one grade, the meaning of the grade becomes hazed.

In addition to meeting standards with regard to content and skills, students do need to learn the value of submitting quality work by a deadline, collaborating with others, having good attitude and work ethic, and being respectful.  Personally, I would like to see a separation of grades as a report for academic progress  and grades reflecting learning behaviors.  I think a grade should be recorded to reflect skills and understanding achieved while a separate recording system is included to report on the learning the behaviors of each student in every class.  I would like to literally see an “employability skills”  section on the report card where a grade is given for punctuality, attitude, effort, attendance, work habits, and submitting work on time.  As Ken O’Conner outlined in a seminar I attended in the fall, grades should be a communication of academic achievement and not compensation for behaviors so let's separate out the grades for behaviors.

I challenge you to look at your report cards whether your children’s, nieces’/nephews’, grandchildren’s, or the school you work at.  Ask yourself, “What is the purpose of this report card?” “What do these grades mean?”  “Do these grades reflect what this child knows and can do?” You might be surprised by what you discover.

A "B" or a "C" for a student with missing work?

What do you think?  Give a “B” or a “C” to a student with missing work?

A student has scored “B” average on all assessments; however, the student has several missing homework assignments.  The student was given all sorts of warnings and opportunities to make up the missing work.   If the teacher places a “0” for each missing assignment the student’s average becomes a “C” even though the student has demonstrated a “B” achievement level.  Should the student receive a “B” or a “C”?

My colleague came to me with her conundrum.  We looked at PowerSchool together.  There was clearly enough evidence, even with the missing assignments to determine that the student had, indeed, achieved the “B”.   However, what to do with those missing assignments?  The teacher really wanted to communicate to the student the importance of the work and the need to put forth effort but she didn’t want it to be in the form of a punishment of lowering the overall grade.  She also had the official effort assessment to record.  This information accompanies the grade in all subject areas where a “1” reflects high effort and a “5” achieves little or no effort (see descriptors below).  Personally, I think the effort category should be the reflector of the effort in the classroom while the grade ought to be an indicator of achievement and I supported this teacher’s desire to ensure her grades were an accurate communication of performance.

In the end she decided to remove the “0”s from the averaging and award a “4” for an effort grade.  This morning she entered my classroom gleaming and absolutely elated about some outcome.  She proceeded to describe how the student had approached her about the “4” in her effort grade.  They read the descriptors together and then had a real conversation about the missing work and learning behaviors.  My colleague said it was the first time that she really connected with this student and the student completely agreed with the “4” level awarded for effort.  Furthermore, at the end of the conversation the student expressed that her goal for this quarter was to work at a “2” all the time.   “I feel so good” my colleague shared.  Truly, she was glowing. 

I asked her if I could blog about this experience and she replied, “Yes, you can blog about it! I love being a teacher!”

In my opinion, my colleague is completely fair and accurate in her grading.  The grades are not a punishment nor are they a reward – they simply reflect accomplishment.   Thus, they are not a point of discussion or contention.  The needed conversation ended up being about how the student can improve her learning behaviors and thereby become a better learner.  Really, given the situation, can it get any better than that?  No wonder my colleague felt “so good” and her love for teaching was affirmed.

In my opinion, standards based grading is the way to go.  Period.


Current Effort Grade Descriptors (though I think these need a work over themselves----I’ll save that for another blog post)

1 -- Sets challenging goals and sustains a strong commitment to them.  Consistently attempts the highest possible personal standard of work. Consistently meets or exceeds classroom expectations. (On time, prepared, and focused).

2 -- Often demonstrates attempts to do his/her best work.  Often meets classroom expectations (On time, prepared, and focused).

3 -- Works to ability, but is satisfied with meeting minimal work requirements.  Usually meets classroom expectations (On time, prepared, and focused).

4 -- Consistently does not work to ability.  Often fails to meet classroom expectations (Student fails to be on time, prepared, and/focused).

5 -- Fails to work to ability level.  Makes excuses for lack of effort.  Little or no effort to meet classroom expectations (Student fails to be on time, prepared, and/or focused).

Second Update on our journey towards SBG

Our goal was to let the staff see for themselves that a change in our reporting system was necessary.  We were hoping that they would approve a move by our focus group to rewrite the report cards.  We handed out copies of several report cards from the school.  Teachers eagerly poured over the documents in groups of two or three.  I heard exclamations such as, “I had no idea they were all so different”, “I’ve never seen these before”, “There is no consistency”, “Even the descriptors are different!”  And on it went.  Every group could be heard reaching a consensus that a change needed to be made.

So, we took a vote.  Fortunately the staff voted unanimously in favor of reworking the report cards.  It felt like a small victory. 

Now, we will create a uniform reporting system that appears visually similar in both elementary and secondary school.  The most exciting thing for me, however, is that it gives us an opportunity to separate the learning behaviors from academic achievement.  I cannot wait to see a draft of that in print!  It finally feels like we are on our way to standards based grading, even though I know the journey is a long one.

First update on our journey towards SBG

Our focus group for Standard Based Assessment and Reporting had another meeting today.  We looked at five of the current report cards our school uses (apparently there are 23 on file!) between elementary and secondary schools.  It was astounding how much inconsistency there is and how meaningless the report cards appear to be when stacked up next to each other like that.  It is clear we need to rework the method of reporting at our school.

We additionally followed up on our faculty meetings in the secondary and elementary schools.  Clearly the elementary school teachers were more receptive than our divided (or should I say divisive) secondary teachers. 

I also shared with the focus group my experience in showing one of the teachers from the “include behaviors in the grade” camp how I manage reporting learning behaviors in my grade book without processing them in the final grade.  Upon seeing my reporting system this teacher responded very positively, “Oh yes, I could totally go for that.”  We concluded, in our focus group, that the secondary teachers might be more open to the SBG if they could be assured that behaviors would, indeed, be assessed and reported on, even if the behaviors did not affect the actual grade of the student.

We have decided that we will divide our focus group into two teams.  One team will create a streamlined report card that will work throughout the elementary school.  A distinct feature will be a column for achievements (based on the standards) and a column for learning behaviors.  The other team will create a reporting system for the secondary school that also separates achievements from learning behaviors (or, as I prefer to call it, “Employability Skills”).  Armed with more effective reporting systems, we will once again approach the staff in an effort to move in the direction of standard based assessment and reporting.  

What do grades mean? An argument for SBG.

A parent came to one of our math teachers a couple of years ago and asked, “My son has the highest average in the class so why doesn’t he have an ‘A’?”  Why is it that people seem to think there has to be an “A” student in the class?  Would these same parents be satisfied if every student in the class had an “A”?

What if not one student is achieving the expectations in terms of the standards? Then, no one should have an “A”.  However, what if every student has met the standards? Then everyone should have an “A”. 

What does an “A” mean anyway?  For many parents, it seems that an accumulation of “A”s increases the chances of entry into college.  I don’t know if they care about what the “A” itself means.  Does it mean their child, having earned an “A” in Science can apply the scientific method and design and conduct experiments on his own as a senior in high school?  Or does it mean he tried his best to master those skills but still can’t really meet the standard but he turned in all his HW, was attentive in class and was a generally compliant student?  If it is the latter, is he truly prepared for college and the next step in life?  Many parents just want to know what their child needs to do in order to “get an ‘A’”.  Usually parents expect that if their child works hard and turns in all the HW, that the child should “get an ‘A’”, regardless of whether the child actually has met the standards of learning.

Are those the standards these parents wish to apply to all students of any type of learning?  Do they want to sit in an airplane with a pilot who just tried really hard in pilot school but hasn’t actually mastered the standards of flying a plane?

Time for Assessment - on the student's time

The 6th graders studied the images and considered the questions and began furiously writing on their tests.  I could hear the rhythms of pencils being repeatedly lifted and pressed to the desk, resulting in a soft drumming disseminating throughout my classroom.  It was comforting.  The class was turning the page, eagerly moving ahead to analyzing and graphing data.  However, one boy, John, remained processing question one.  He was just as intent as the others but not making the same progress.

After about 40 minutes, the second to last student finished the test and pulled out her Kindle.  Upon completion students were to leave the test on their desk and quietly take out a book to read or peruse the National Geographic magazines in my room while waiting for the rest of the class to finish.  My goal is for each student to have a fair amount of time and a fair environment to finish the test.   A student should not feel rushed just because others are done with the exam.  I want each assessment to be a fair opportunity for a student to show me what he can do and what he knows, not how fast he can demonstrate these achievements. 

So, there we sat. And sat.  And sat.  John continued to plod along.  It was excruciating.  The students kept looking at the clock and then at me.  They were anxious to get on with the experiment I had planned.  As was I.  But, we waited.  And waited. And waited.  At one point, John stood up with a smile on his face, extending his test to me.  I was thrilled that he was only a about ten minutes behind the others.   Abruptly he exclaimed, “Oh wait” and plopped down to erase his entire graph!  I wanted to cry out, “No, just turn it in!” 

Finally, data graphed and all blanks filled, his test was finished.  At first I questioned my decision to make the entire class wait.  However, especially later when holding his assessed test in my hand, I realized how valuable the evidence was.  Here was a student who I’ve suspected needs some learning support.  I have other observations and signs of his need, but this was real proof.

Now, how do we get the parents to agree?

Feedback Assessment, and Redos

This past week my 6th graders created a wall display of six different habitats with five to six animals grouped into each habitat.  They then each selected one animal that they would research and create a label with an annotation outlining the adaptations that that specific animal had allowing it to survive in its habitat.  We created a Google Docs with the sign-up sheet. Each student also entered in the planned annotation into the same document.   I wrote feedback on the document.  I gave them time to make changes.  Then I provided an assessment based on their written work and entered in the grade book.  If they made additional changes to complete the assignment according to the standard, I recorded the new grade and removed the weighting for the previous grade.  Thus, they (and parents) have a record of their progress without imperfect attempts damaging their grade.   Result: Amazingly accurate and well-done annotations from every single student.  So good, in fact, I was able to use their wall display as a reference for my 9th grade Biology class.

Though my attempts at informative and formative assessment don’t always yield these perfect results, I know what I’m aiming for and I’ll keep forever at it until the results are consistently bringing all students to the standard.

Take your Time

"It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop" - Confucius

I came across this quotation today and felt it fits so appropriately to my current journey in teaching.  For one, isn't this an encouraging thought for "struggling" students?  If we want them to truly master the content and skills then it is our duty to provide them with a fair opportunity to do so. A fair opportunity might mean additional time for assignments or on tests.

 I have a student who is the hardest working individual that I know.  I'm not exaggerating.  She tutors every day after school, of her own choice.  She positions herself in the front row and never lets a misunderstanding slip by.  She's the first to stop me, "Wait a minute Dr. Markham, I don't get it".  She carefully works through all the material and clearly requires more time than others to get to mastery.  But she will not give up because the rest of the class is finished or because everyone else appears to "get it".  She plods along.  She asks about missed questions on exams to truly understand.  I truly admire her effort and willpower.  Additionally, often she needs and extra day to complete a project or just an extra 10 or 15 minutes on an exam so I always give it to her.  After all,  a true assessment of mastery of content should be independent of the time required to demonstrate mastery, right?  These aren't state or national timed exams.  As a result, I always feel confidant that her assessments are legitimate and honestly show what she knows.

In regard to fully implementing standard based assessment and recording into my classroom (and our school?!?!) will, by nature, need to be a slow process.  Thus, we should not be discouraged with the speed of the journey but should carry on with our goals in sight.

Standard Based Grading

I wonder how many educators "buy" into standard based grading.  I recently attended a workshop by Ken O'Conner, author of How to Grade for Learning and I found the workshop absolutely confirming of ideas I had had swirling within my head for years and practices I had implemented without attaching a name to them.  It was a freeing experience.  The passion I feel for the topic is the impetus for this blog.

I attended the conference as a role I have as part of a focus group currently evaluating standard based grading and the possibility of implementing it school wide.  I am convinced it is the only way and am moving my classrooms in that direction regardless of what official policies the school adopts.  Taken from an article I recently read, I want my lessons "from the warm-up at the beginning of class to final grades...[to be] formative-minded, or about finding out 'how well do my students know this?'" (How We Got Grading Wrong and What to Do About It by Laura Varlas ASCD 55:10 Oct. 2013).  

After the conference, the four of us who attended presented to our focus group the ideas of the conference and a proposal to move forward.  Next week on Wednesday we will offer an initial presentation to the staff to simply get everyone thinking about grading practices. 

Here are the books, among others, I have on my nightstand:

  • How to Grade for Learning by Ken O'Conner
  • Standard Based Teaching: A Classroom Guide by Danell Elder
  • Developing Standards-Based Report Cards by Thomas R. Guskey and Jane M. Bailey
  • Practical Solutions for Serious Problems in Standards-Based Grading  Thomsas R. Guskey, editor

I plan to keep track of this journey of implementation (and other teaching experiences) on this blog.  Please feel free to add comments and thoughts on the topic, especially if you have any experience with standards based grading.