Standards Based Grading

Some fun facts about grading.

It has been quite a while since I last wrote about grades. In that time, I have tried a bunch of things, received feedback from many (students, parents/guardians, staff), revised my practices, and also learned a few fun facts along the way.

A few months ago, my principal sent out his Week in Review email, and at the bottom was a link that most of the staff probably didn’t even bother to click on. It was a link to Brookhart, et squad’s analysis of over 100 years of grading research. It quickly caught my eye, and within a few minutes I was immersed in research that spans longer than most people live. To say the least, it was verrrrrrry interesting. Here are a few takeaways (and my color commentary):

  1. During the 19th century, teachers made home visits to orally report student progress. It was an opportunity to not only discuss learning, but also build the ever-important relationship between all parties involved in the student’s learning. It was an opportunity to problem solve together,  with the sole purpose of helping the student learn as much as possible. Apparently this became overwhelming, go figure, and then written descriptions of student performance were born. Still very meaningful, but nothing beats face-to-face. Wow! OG FaceTime with parents/guardians about what classroom happenings AND student progress? Sounds legit.
  2. We have the Ivy Leagues, specifically Yale and Harvard, to blame for the 4.0 and 101-point scale. In the early 1900s, these two fine institutions birthed what makes our students so anxious, competitive, and turned off from genuine learning. #thanksguys Why…why why?!?? << my best Nancy Kerrigan impression.


  3. Teachers grade inconsistently (duh). Brookhart, et squad highlight the findings of dozens of researchers who found that there was “great variation” in the grades teachers assigned to student work. Examples of such research include instances of teachers grading assessments, then being given the same assessment to grade again, only to give a completely different score. Or that time 73 English teachers graded the same essay that resulted in a range of 46 points, covering all five traditional letter grades (ABCDF). Uhh…something isn’t right if the same essay gets five different letter grades from teachers grading it…let’s be honest.
  4. Grades “typically represent a mixture of multiple factors that teachers value” (Brookhart et al., 2016). This makes a lot of sense to me. From an individual standpoint, values will vary from teacher to teacher. Which in turn makes grades even more varied (and unreliable).

I love that last point about what you value, and it is something we, as educators, really need to think about for ourselves, our students. But this leads me to ask many questions. Do you grades reflect what you value? Do they help students learn? Do they effectively communicate what you want to students? Parents/guardians? Next year’s teacher?

Next time you are having a conversation with a colleague about “how many points” this, or “how much should I deduct” that, really think about the subjectivity that lies within that conversation, as well as how those questions in particular will help your students learn more. Think about what the number you assign to that piece of evidence is telling your student about their learning. Think about the message it sends to parents and guardians about learning; all that matters is the high number…nothing else.

So really, what’s the point? Why grade (in the literal sense of grading)?


I have an 89.018%. Can you round me up to an A??

One lovely Wednesday evening while on the Twitter (many moons ago), some folks in my PLN and I were exchanging tweets during #sblchat. Always a great conversation, an idea started brewing….

Next year, I think it would be neat to engage students and parents in an activity to show how much information percentages give relative to grades.

It’s still relatively rough, but here’s the gist of it:

Starting at 100%, have participants describe, in words, what each percent means in relation to a grade.
If they get stuck, to 0% and work your way up.

My gut, I hope, tells me that the participants will quickly see how there is not much of a different between 75% and 76%. Or even better, the difference between an 89.998% and 90.032%.

From there, I would introduce descriptions of the different levels of understanding. Whether you are using a scale like Mastered, Approaching mastery, Tutoring needed, Help (M-A-T-H, if you missed that), or something more universal (4, 3, 2, 1), having clear descriptions of each level is crucial.

I might even throw in sample work that depicts each level. That would be a great experience, particularly for students. What I am currently struggling with is students differentiating between minor, non-conceptual errors and major conceptual errors. I hear things like “Oh, I just have to flip the fraction upside-down. That’s a small error,” when in reality there is a deeper misunderstanding of the concept.

Feedback on this activity? Has anyone done something like this before? If so, I’d love to hear about how you implemented it, its reception, and how you might change it if you were to do it again.

What’s in a grade? – AFL (Part 2 of n)

During my first year teaching, I learned a lot about building a healthy learning environment, creating meaningful relationships with students, classroom management strategies, collaborating with peers, and, of course, grading.

As mentioned in a previous post, I began my teaching career grading similar to how I was graded. I counted tests, quizzes, homework, classwork, projects. I even gave extra credit (#shivers). The whole nine yards. It wasn’t until a few veteran teachers shared their grading philosophies: they followed and implemented Assessment For Learning (AFL).

At its core, AFL is a practice that encourages students to be more proactive in the learning process, teaching them how to self-diagnose understanding and misconceptions. It acknowledges that learning is a process, and that individuals learn at a different paces. Reassessment opportunities are allowed for students to show growth. The ultimate goal is to create self-regulated learners. In the beginning, I thought it was just something new and trendy that some teachers were trying. But the more I learned about it, the more AFL began to make complete sense.

I had the opportunity to meet with a small cohort of new teachers and a veteran, henceforth Ms. A (not her real name), who was implementing AFL during my first year in district. She shared her experiences in preparing students for this shift in assessing and grading, as well as how she had to modify her teaching. One of the biggest takeaways from my year with Ms. A had to do with assessments, particularly how to “grade” them. Gone were the days of tabulating points. In came written feedback. I’m not talking about “Nice job!” or “There is an error here.” Descriptive feedback is an extension of scaffolding. Its intent is to guide a student and provide support to help them realize their error, ultimately to learn from and correct it. John Hattie reports that, with an effect size of 0.73, feedback is among the top-10 things that strongly influences student achievement.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get back to the story.

The first semester of my teaching career just ended, and I decided to make the bold move of adopting AFL. Yep, mid-year. But what exactly does that mean? For me, all things related to compliance (homework, participation, attendance, etc.), as well as non-summative assessments no longer counted for points. Students’ grades were determined based on how they performed on their summative, end-of-unit assessments. Intermediate, formative assessments were given regularly to check for understanding, but it was all about the test. And if students did not perform to their liking, they were allowed to reassess so long as they met the retake requirements (corrections to all unit assessments, completion of practice/homework, and at least one tutoring session with a student tutor, teacher, or private tutor with appropriate documentation of what they worked on during their session[s]). Additionally, and most importantly, I had to make sure students understood what was going to happen. Parents had to be informed as well. Regular, open communication is key when making a change this drastic (or any change for that matter).

Things went well for the next two and a half years, as I didn’t make any significant changes in grading. The grading practice detailed above gradually became the norm in our department, and then school, with some modifications from teacher to teacher. Students got used to formative assessments and homework not counting for points. Correction time was built into instructional days, with students using each other as resources and support. Students began to regularly self-assess and report their level of understanding on each assessment, which, according Hattie, is the number one influence on student achievement based on effect size (1.44).

It seemed like I found the resolution to my grading dilemma. So why did I feel like something was wrong?

It wasn’t uncommon for students to stick around after a tutoring session to talk about school, extracurricular activities, life in general. I recall one particularly lengthy conversation with a couple of students who shared their feelings about school and grades. One thing has stuck with me since:

“Grades make school very stressful.”

And that’s all I needed to hear. I needed to somehow eliminate grades, or eliminate stress, or….both.

Next time on What’s in a grade?: Standards Based Grading. What’s changed since last year? What am I doing now? How is it being received by students? Parents? Other teachers, faculty? Administrators?

What’s in a grade? (Part 1 of n)

My limited time as a teacher has allowed me to see a lot of things. There’s the usual: students come and go each year. Students in my homeroom growing up before my eyes. I saw Common Core roll into our department (and yours). The ensuing struggle to interpret the Common Core once it arrived. I saw social media post after social media post from parents and teachers alike sharing their opinions about Common Core. I’ve seen growth mindset become a “thing.” I’ve seen smiles, high fives, and fist bumps after a fantastic lesson. I’ve seen tears shed because of a loss, breakup, and final exam (true story). But something I didn’t see was a change in the way we grade; that was relatively consistent through the beginning of my career.

Earlier this month I sat in the audience listening to Thomas Guskey talk about grades, and I recall him asking a very simple, straightforward question: why do you grade the way you grade? Now, I’ve come a looooooooong way since year one, in many regards, but my thoughts when asked this question immediately rewound back to that first year: I graded my students like I was graded as a student. Come to think of it, I was, for the most part, graded the same way from kindergarten through elementary school, from high school through graduate school. I was given points. So, naturally, I gave points…a lot of points. And, in part because I really didn’t know any better and veteran teachers suggested I follow suit; so I had weighted categories. You know what I’m talking about:

Tests — 60%
Quizzes — 15%
Projects — 10%
Homework — 10%
Participation — 5%

The above is a pretty generic example, but you get the point (pun intended).

But shortly after I started teaching, I began to question what I was doing. Some things just didn’t make sense to me. I faced my first major dilemma in teaching: grades. It became frustrating to grade because I found that I frequently asked myself questions like:

What do my grades represent?
What should a grade represent?
Should effort be a factor when calculating/determining grades?
What’s the difference between a 79.63% and an 80.24%?
Why is there an 11-point spread to get an A?
Why is there a 60-point spread to get an F?
How emotionally damaging is it for a student to see a 12% in the grade book?
Wouldn’t it just make sense to give them an F? I mean, it’s still an F…
How much does a zero really impact a student’s grade?
But what does that F really mean?

These were just a few questions I pondered…

So my question to you is, what do your grades mean?


This is Part 1 of an open-ended series on grading and my journey to Standards Based Grading. Stay tuned to hear about where I was and where I am; they’re two entirely different places (in case you couldn’t already tell..).