Part 1: What Does it REALLY Mean to Do Standards-Based Grading?

This blog originally ran on CompetencyWorks.
I read a lot of clips about how districts are advancing competency education around the country, and it always seems to me that when there are any negative reactions they are in response to new grading practices, usually referred to as standards-based grading. It strikes me that negative reactions pop up when districts either use grading as an entry point (which puts all the focus on the grading and not on why competency education is valuable) or they’ve put some of the pieces of standards-based grading in place but not the entire framework necessary to make it more trustworthy than traditional grading.
How does a district implement high quality standards-based grading, and when is the right time? I’ll do the best I can to synthesize what I’ve been learning from districts, but please do not hesitate to disagree or add more nuance to these thoughts.
Before I dive deep, allow me to once more review the three types of grading systems using standards (at least that I know about): standards-referenced, standards-based and an emerging concept of competency-based.

What is the difference between standards-referenced and standards-based grading?

In his book, Formative Assessment & Standards-Based Grading, Robert J. Marzano explains the difference. “In a standards-based system, a student does not move to the next level until he or she can demonstrate competence at the current level. In a standards-referenced system, a student’s status is reported (or referenced) relative to the performance standard for each area of knowledge and skill on the report card; however, even if the student does not meet the performance standard for each topic, he or she moves to the next level. Thus, the vast majority of schools and districts that claim to have standards-based systems in fact have standards-referenced systems.”
The element of standards-based policy that is consistent with competency education is that schools continue to work with students, providing more instruction (not just time) until students reach proficiency. They are not passed on to the next course or teacher unprepared.
Note: I will be honest here. I’ve gotten a little confused about the discussion of standards-based grading, as it still seems to imply the coverage of grade-level standards and kids as widgets going through the factory. Most standards-based grading appears to be based on covering grade level standards and providing instruction that is based on those standards. However, when students are missing important pre-requisite skills this may require them to learn standards at other performance levels.
Essentially the emphasis is still on the system, the desired standards, rather than on students. The idea of advance up upon demonstrated mastery is that students are learning the skills that they need for the next level of their studies. This means that we really need to make sure that students have actually mastered all of the foundational skills. Thus, competency-based education is a both/and–we want students to demonstrate proficiency in the standards AND build their pre-requisite skills. (I’ve written about this conundrum in Time to Tackle the Elephant and Meeting Students Where They Are series will continue to do so until we figure it out).

What is the difference between standards-based grading and competency-based grading?

Periodically, I see the term competency-based grading used and I’m not always sure what they mean by it, so I ask. There appear to be two qualities that educators are suggesting to differentiate competency-based grading from standards-based grading:
1. Application and Connection: Competency education and the focus on competencies require that the skills be applied and preferably applied in a new context. You might know the standard, but you need to be able to apply the skills and content in order to become competent. Hence, competency education. This also suggests that students are able to learn skills at higher levels (think Webb’s Depth of Knowledge at Levels 3 and 4). As I understand it, many standards are in fact written at those higher levels while others are not. The idea explained to me by some educators is that you want students to be able to apply the skills identified as competencies–those big ideas–appropriate to performance levels, so that kids really understand how they can use the skills they are learning.
Thus, I think some of competency-based grading is also about those powerful “I can…” statements and helping students to make powerful connections between the skills they are learning in school and how they can apply it to improve their lives or even improve the world around them. (See this post on Moving Beyond the Test Score with Hope at RSU2.) Finally, competencies are those big, important skills we want students to be able to do by the time they graduate — thus they are skills that students build over time rather than something they can do and check off within a course or a year.  Competencies are an important organizing structure.
2. Meeting Students Where They Are: Marie Watson from Red Bank Elementary was the person who first introduced me to the idea that standards-based is about covering the standards, and competency-based is about meeting students at their performance level. I’ve continued to think about this and increasingly believe that this is a powerful distinction given how difficult it is for us to teach students at their performance level. (I like the phrasing “at their zone.” Don’t we all want to be operating at our zone?) It also helps to illuminate the problem I keep bouncing around with standards-based grading. What if the student has a four-year gap between performance and grade level? Given that most schools are covering standards by grade level, do we still expect teachers and schools to work with them before they progress to the next grade level? That doesn’t make any sense to me, especially in a personalized environment. They need a personalized plan that has a trajectory about their pace to get them back on track.
The implications of this understanding of competency-based grading is that we hold this as the North Star–districts can say they are making the transition to competency education, but I don’t think it makes sense to say that they are doing competency-based grading until they have developed the capacity to meet students at their performance levels. Again, this doesn’t mean tracking or sorting students based on their performance levels. It means knowing where students are in their skill levels and designing the most effective strategies to help them build the pre-requisite skills AND meet grade level standards. Our challenge is to became more knowledgeable, and invest in research if needed, about how to most effectively help students make progress.
Note: From what I can tell, it doesn’t always make sense to meet students only at their performance levels and assume all learning is linear. In fact, we are trying to find research about this and so far haven’t tapped into the right networks. Thus, for right now all we can say is that we just need schools and teachers to be able to make the instructional decision that is best for kids.

Question for all readers: What do you think about this idea of making a distinction between standards-based grading and competency-based grading?

Please leave me your answer/comment below, or tag me in a tweet using @sturgis_chris.
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Chris Sturgis

Chris Sturgis was the co-founder of CompetencyWorks, the go-to source about competency education. Her knowledge of modern education models have developed by visiting over 100 schools that are leading the way in the U.S. and New Zealand. In 2018, she was awarded Outstanding Individual Contribution to Personalized Learning Award by iNACOL (now Aurora Institute). You can find more articles about personalized, mastery learning approaches at LearningEdge.

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Marsha M Myles

Thank you, Chris, for bringing clarity to this conversation. The only way to achieve a more meaningful way to assess students is to differentiate these terms. Competency-based grading, at this time, is the ultimate goal to shoot for.

Matt Townsley

Hey Chris,
I think we may have talked about this nuance once in person.
I see the idea of "competency-based education" as defined by your Competency Works site ( as a system-wide shift. In other words, it's impossible for a single teacher to be "doing CBE" without the support of the entire building/system. If this is the case (CBE is systematic), what does it really mean to be grading in a competency-based way? I would argue a teacher could be grading in a standards-based way and not fully embrace CBE tenets due to a lack of systematic supports (this may be what you're referring to as "competency-based grading" such as truly permitted students to advance to new coursework based upon mastery or utilizing learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge. Does this make any sense?

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