Part 2: What Does it REALLY Mean to Do Standards-Based Grading?

This blog originally ran on CompetencyWorks.
There is so much written about grading that I’m hesitant to offer my thoughts on what is needed to do it well. And this article is certainly not a “how to” step-by-step plan on implementing standards-based grading. I’m compelled to write about it because I keep hearing about districts trying to use grading changes as the entry point to competency education.
If folks are going to do that, then this blog might be helpful. Just be mindful–most in the field will recommend that you do not lead with grading. (Please take the time to check out Part 1, where I do my best to differentiate standards-referenced, standards-based and competency-based grading.)

What does it really require to implement standards-based grading?

From what I can tell based on my conversations with competency-based schools across the country, the following are the major activities, structures and practices that need to be in place before you introduce new grading policies and practices.

1. Provide Additional Time and Instruction to Support Students Who are Not Yet Proficient

If you are going to commit to getting students to proficiency on all the standards for a grade level or a performance level within a course or a school year, you are going to have to be prepared for those students who are going to be “not yet proficient.” One piece of that is to have ways to provide “timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.” (That’s the fourth element of the working definition for competency-based education.)
Many schools in their first year of conversion expect after school or lunch time to suffice for teachers to be able to work with students. However, they quickly figure out that isn’t going to work and begin scheduling for Flex Hours each day. Noble High School has taken this the farthest with fine-tuned operations and multiple opportunities to make sure students are getting exactly the help they need every week.
From what I can tell, it is impossible to do standards-based grading if you don’t have really strong mechanisms for providing additional instruction for students who are not yet proficient. (See The Learning Edge: Supporting Student Success in a Competency-Based Learning Environment.)

2. Create Strategy for Helping Students Develop Habits of Work

A second and highly related issue to addressing students who are “not yet proficient” is the idea of habits of work. It is often the inability of students to be self-directed learners that produces the situation in which they can’t keep up with the work. This appears to be as true for honors students as for those who have gaps in their foundational skills. When we take away the ability of teachers to use points to incentivize specific behaviors, we have to replace it with something. That something are the habits of work. (I learned from Casco Bay to think about it as the HOW of learning, whereas academics are the what of learning.)
The HOW are called different things in different schools (work study, guiding principles, habits of learning, lifelong learning skills, etc.). Furthermore, schools create very different mixtures made up of social-emotional learning skills, higher order skills, mindsets, the traits or dispositions we think students need, and specific behaviors or habits that lead to success. It is helpful to recognize the difference between those skills students need to be successful as self-directed learners and those we want them to develop to be college and career ready.
Districts think about HOW developmentally, with different habits for different ages. It’s worth taking the time to make a quick rubric for yourself–let’s say age on the y axis and the different skills on the x axis to think through which ones are most important developmentally. It is also helpful to think about the interplay between the skills (for example, it ends up that grit isn’t a key ingredient for building creativity). A good resource for is Foundations for Young Adult Success: A Developmental Framework–just know that their use of the term competencies only focuses on higher order skills that we want kids to develop before they leave high school.
Note: When buying a digital grading system or student information system to help monitor pace and progress, make sure you can change the habits for different age groups and even for different students. One of the newer products is hamstringing their customers by demanding that habits of work be the same for every student throughout every grade.
I’ve seen two different types of rubrics created for habits of work. One type indicates how often a student demonstrates the skills: never, sometimes, usually or always. This is certainly the easier way to go–just be sure you don’t override natural strengths and tendencies. For example, a student who likes to work alone and thrives in that setting shouldn’t be penalized because they aren’t always collaborative. Perhaps expecting them to demonstrate that skill once a semester or once a year is enough. That’s different than turning in evidence of learning as an indicator of time management, as it disrupts the cycle of learning and the operations of the classroom.
The other types are very specific examples of how students mature in their building of skills. This takes time to develop but can be very powerful in working with students, especially those whose behaviors are tripping them up. The two I would suggest looking at are QED Foundation’s rubrics used at Making Community Connections Charter School and Building 21 (go to page 23 of the handbook).
One last thought about Habits of Work–make sure you guard against attribution. It’s one of the horrific ways that institutional “isms” stay alive in our public systems. When a student is late every day, it’s certainly easy to jump to the conclusion that the parents don’t value education. But the narrative is flipped when you ask why and find out that the parent is working two jobs, going to community college at night, and their daughter or son is helping get the other kids off to school and then takes two buses every day to school. That’s called grit.

3. Consistency in Credentialing Proficiency

Standards-based grading depends on teachers having a shared understanding of what students need to demonstrate to be credentialed as proficient. This requires three things.

  1. It needs to be clear what it means for students to be proficient, including shared understanding of the depth of knowledge of standards with aligned assessments.
  2. Proficiency needs to be calibrated by teachers looking at student work and discussing how they would score it and why. This should be done horizontally across grade levels as well as vertically to ensure that your fourth grade and fifth grade teachers agree upon what proficient in all the fourth grade level standards means.
  3. There needs to be a shared scoring system.

If you try to implement standards-based grading without this in place, you are going to leave the teacher-to-teacher variability in place. Students will compare their work, wondering why one essay was deemed proficient and another wasn’t. Soon you’ll have parents knocking at the door.
As you move forward, you might want to consider something like what Chugach School District has done to ensure quality control. Teachers can credential proficiency within performance levels, but for students to advance to the next level, the district reviews the assessment data. It’s possible to create a similar type of mechanism within your school or district to make sure that when students advance, they are doing so with confidence that they are truly ready for the next level.
One of the more challenging issues is what a Level 4 means. I’ve seen it mean everything from demonstrated ability to teach other students, extra credit, advancing to the next standard (this means it isn’t really Level 4–it’s actually a different standard), and honors level work (more complex problems, more challenging text, more complex products). Increasingly, I’m hearing schools describe Level 4 as related to the highest levels of depth of knowledge requiring application. Thus, it becomes something students demonstrate for a unit, not for a specific standard or within an interdisciplinary project.
Note: However you think of Level 4, make sure all students have the opportunity for deeper learning and applying their skills, not just the most advanced or faster learners.

4. Engage Parents and Communities

Engage parents early so they understand why it is important to change the grading system–don’t just focus on the change it self. There are different strategies being recommended by technical assistance providers about community engagement. One version is an inclusive engagement process at either the district level (if you are small enough) or at school level in which parents, community members, and students contribute to what it is they want for their kids or for their lives when they leave high school. This tends to be broader than college and career ready and will have an impact on your grading system. You will want to be able to monitor progress, provide feedback, and engage students and their parents around the domains and competencies that are important to them.
The other version uses a more traditional buy-in model in which districts decide what is going to happen and then engage (or sometimes simply inform) parents and the community. This is likely to keep the focus on academics and often a few cross-cutting competencies such as collaboration and communication. I’ll always argue the first approach is going to get you a lot further along. It’s also an intensive process that requires facilitative leadership. So look for partners in your community that can help you.
Students will be your best ambassadors. Make sure that the new scoring systems work for them and they can explain it. In addition, I’ve heard from many educators who say that student-led conferences can be really helpful in introducing the new grading systems.

5. Designing Your Grading System and Policy

There are lots of details to figure out about a new grading system and policy. The first recommendation is to do research into what other districts and schools have used and what bumps they have encountered along the way. Here are a few of the things you will have to figure out:
Scoring: The scoring system, however it is organized (inadequate evidence, emerging, developing, proficient, advanced, etc.) will need to be used to support the calibration process described above. Take the time to run them by your local school council and student advisors to make sure the terms are meaningful to them. (See In Search of the Goldilocks Scale for an example from a school about this process.)
Policies: You will want to have an easy-to-use grading handbook available on your web page that answers all the questions students and parents might have. If a student doesn’t turn in evidence of learning, can they take summative exams? If a student doesn’t pass the summative exams, what is your strategy and policy for re-assessments? What are you going to do if a student hasn’t completed all the work of the semester? How long do they have to complete everything? How about honors? Are they still going to be in honors courses or expected to demonstrate honors work? Do they still get higher weighting for their work? How are you going to separate honors work from regular work?
Most importantly, make sure everything is transparent. I’ve seen a gaggle of high achieving students who are highly dependent on the GPA for motivation seethe because they didn’t have access to the algorithm in the digital grading program. Building 21 has done a great job at explaining how scores are developed and how they converted to traditional grades for submission to the School District of Philadelphia.
Report Cards: A lot of energy goes into the design of new report cards. It’s particularly hard because we haven’t figured out new metrics to capture the growth of students. (Funders, you can really help move the field with a strategic investment in this–we need a combination of totally brainy quant-jocks combined with a bunch of incredibly creative, do-what’s-best-for-kids educators to tackle this one.) What I’ve heard over and over is to make sure the first page is simple so that it is clear to parents how their kids are doing, as well as to beware of the culture of colors (although red in China may mean luck or happiness, in the U.S. it usually indicates a big, big problem). Then you can add much more detail in the following pages. If you have a report card that really works, we would love to see it and share with others.
Transcripts: In general, districts are converting to traditional grades and GPA scoring because of college admissions and scholarships. Great Schools Partnership has worked with high schools and college administrators to develop a proficiency-based transcript. The Learning Accelerator is continuing this work in other parts of the country. It’s definitely worth engaging an intermediary or key organization to help bring together the different stakeholders to get sign-on from colleges that they will accept competency-based transcripts.
As we move forward, I think it would be worth engaging our colleagues designing competency-based higher education programs about how they are developing very creative, very powerful ways of communicating what students have learned, their interests, and their portfolios. They are thinking way beyond what I’ve seen in K-12 so far.
Depth of Knowledge: One of the things we haven’t really figured out yet is how to ensure equity around deeper learning. As a parent, do I know from the grading system that my child is having adequate opportunity as well as succeeding in applying the skills to new contexts? I haven’t yet seen grading systems address this system…it’s one of the things we need to figure out.
Based on my emerging understanding of competency-based grading, it will require all of the above in addition to building the capacity of how to personalize the classroom so students can be learning within their zone or personal performance level. This includes front-loading units so students can advance when ready (as compared to a pacing guide) and practices to support student-directed learning so students can learn at their performance levels. Most of all, it requires courage from district and school leaders until we can get more flexibility in the state accountability assessments. Thank goodness for ESSA.
For more, see:

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures, please see our Partner page.

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.

Discover the latest in learning innovations

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.