Skills-Based Grading: Trying to Avoid the Standards-Based Tag

Regular readers of this blog know that it was only a matter of time before I came up with a gimmicky new term for what I’ve been trying to achieve in my high school science classroom. I think names are important when I discuss what I do as a teacher to improve my instruction.  I’d like to avoid the label “standards-based” because it has so many different interpretations lately.  I was never sure that I was trying standards-based assessment the same way as other folks, many of whom had many content standards like a checklist to be marched through over the course of the year. I’m very sure that I’m not doing it the way some state boards of education would have me do it, with their state standards appearing in my gradebook and every lesson cross-indexed to which of their benchmarks I’m addressing that day. The “standards-based” movement has stolen the real meaning of what I do from that term so I’m going to coin another one that matches up better with how I operate.

I’m going to call the standards-based assessment and reporting system that I use in my classroom Skills-Based Grading (still SBG!) because that’s where I want the emphasis to be for my students: on developing important skills, not on memorization of content. I’ve had a semester now to watch how it works with students and I am thrilled at the success we’ve seen.

Here are the nuts and bolts of how I’ve arranged things for Skills-Based Grading:

  1. No daily assignments for points
  2. No homework for points
  3. Nothing for points
  4. Its not about points

Here is what it is about:

  1. Important concepts for each course I teach were determined by reviewing Colorado Department of Education science standards and Colorado Community College standard competencies.
  2. Important skills for each course were determined by reviewing the above sources, ISTE NETS, A Challenge to ACT (and be your best) by Paula White, and conversations with the outstanding educators in my Twitter PLN.
  3. The important skills turned out to be the same for all of my preps: research and fact-finding, lab procedural skills, experimental design, data presentation and interpretation, technological proficiency, communication, self-analysis, and cooperative learning.
  4. These 8 skill standards in addition to a single comprehensive content standard are the 9 gradebook columns in individual student GoogleDoc spreadsheets.
  5. The content standard 1 gets its own sheet within the student gradebook for separate tracking of student content knowledge progress.
  6. Any assignment that a student submits  is evaluated for one or more skill and/or content standards using a 4-point scale.
  7. Comments are left on the students’ gradesheets so that they may make changes to improve their work.
  8. A student’s final grade depends upon demonstrating achievement on every standard since standards are not averaged together.

Here are some links for the visual learners out there about how SBG worked this semester:

In practice, what this system does is create the opportunity for students to be rewarded for their excellent writing skills, their technological savvy, and/or their ability to help others in addition to showing that they learned that fats are really called triglycerides and that plants respire as well as photosynthesize. Content will always be available to my students whenever they go online. My job is to teach them how to access and interpret that content and my gradebook now reflects how well they are able to do so.

9 thoughts on “Skills-Based Grading: Trying to Avoid the Standards-Based Tag

  1. Ryan Woodside

    Your spreadsheet grade book looks great. I was wondering
    how you arrived at the “grade” from the 0-4 scale? I’ve always
    thought of a performance grade (1-4) scale and percentile (A-F)
    scale as being parallel but not intersecting lines. Have the
    reconciled the two evaluation scales?

  2. Chris Ludwig Post author

    I borrowed heavily from Frank Noschese’s parent letter in which he has a great way to link the 4 point and percentage scales.
    In my system, the real grade at the end of a marking period is determined by looking for the lowest-scoring standard. If any standard is below 1.5=F, below 2=D, none below 2=C, at least one 3 with no 2’s or below=B, at least one 4 with none below 3=A. Exact percentages don’t really exist in this system, but the closer they are to the next level, the higher the percentage. For example, a student with scores 3 2 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 would have a C because of the 2, but would have a high C (77%) because of all the 3’s in the other standards. Someone with 3 2 2 2 2 2 3 3 3 would probably have a 75% and someone with 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 would have a 73%. I only dealt with low (73%), medium (75%), and high (77%) divisions for each grade range. In other words I didn’t assign 89%, for example.
    The key is to get students to understand the system so that they begin doing what I do, which is to look for the lowest-performing standards and try to fix them. That’s a big mental jump for kids trained to work in point systems where every task is thrown into a big pile of points and low scores can get averaged out. With a system like this, I try to minimize the importance of the percentage grade and get them to focus on specific types of skills.

  3. Joe

    Chris, I am very greatful that you post all of your ideas
    and resources. I also teach biology and plan on implementing SBG
    into my “organized chaos.” I was wondering how you arrived at the
    1st semester skill scores for each of the standards. I was leaning
    towards using the power law or average depending on the r2 value
    (insert yawn). Anyway, any insight would be greatly appreciated. By
    the way, kudos on using Google Docs. I am a big fan and may have to
    borrow your idea. We are trying to use Schoology but I have been
    having the hardest time trying to create a system or work-around in
    the system for SBG. Thanks.

  4. Chris Ludwig Post author

    The scores for each of the skills standards reflect the latest evidence that I have for each particular skill. If a student flubbed a graph interpretation quiz in October but correctly discussed their latest lab data in a more recent blog post then the graphing standard score for the semester reflects the later score. I trained my students to look towards the bottom of their gradesheet to see the most recent evidence in each standard.
    There are some standards that could have been assessed more frequently, but that varied from student to student since they were not all doing the same assignments all the time. Most reassessments were student-initiated so that they could bring a low score on a standard up to where they wanted it.

  5. Dan Fullerton

    Having discussed implementing an SBG/SBAR – type system in
    my classes next year with several teachers and administrators, it
    is quickly becoming obvious that there are many preconceived (and
    often erroneous) misconceptions. Having read your post, I think
    you’ve got the right idea in coming up with your own name for your
    own system, and making sure you present it first by explaining the
    system before allowing it to be labeled. Thanks for the

  6. Pingback: Grading Systems: the good, the bad, the ugly « shifting phases

  7. Chris Cooper


    I just happened across this post (Google search for Skills Based Grading) and feel affirmed by you in what I’m trying (tried) in my own classroom this year. Interestingly, I also teach in Colorado and have called my new system Skills-Based Grading. I “piloted” this system in my AP Literature classes and am pleased with the result. I’m going to take some time later (when I’m not in school) to check out all your links. I would love to exchange some ideas with you, as I sort through the plusses and minuses from this year.

    Chris Cooper

    1. Susan Wade

      I also teach AP Literature and plan to pilot skills-based grading this year. What I’m trying to figure out is how you handle late work with this system. We used to give half credit for work one day late, but that doesn’t work with a scale. Do you have a category for behavior to help hold them accountable and do any of you look at growth?

      1. Chris Ludwig Post author

        Late work can be an issue. My strategy this year is to have reasonably flexible due dates but to have students give input about their weekly progress grade. Each student has to rate their performance for the week and that grade (with some filtering by me) gets entered in our schools online grade book for eligibility purposes. Those students who have been slacking or haven’t completed the recent work for the class have a harder time defending a decent progress grade.

        That kind of weekly completion grade works if you can separate it from assessments of skills. Alternatively, one of my major skill standards is that of contribution to the learning community in which I specifically ask students to demonstrate good work habits. That has been another area where I’ve held slackers’ feet to the fire if needed.


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