2010-2011: My Standards-Based Grading Year in Review

As I’ve written elsewhere, my focus this year has shifted from tinkering with educational technology to tinkering with, well, most everything else about my classroom. The main focus has been about changing how I grade students. When I started teaching I used the typical points-based grading structure where 10 or 100 point assignments are given and students rack up points towards a total. From there, as I got sick of the points game (can you say cheating?) and tried to limit it, I moved to a more streamlined system in which students still earned points, just fewer of them.  This year has seen the implementation of a standards-based assessment and reporting system, variously called standards based grading, or occasionally skills-based grading.

The main focus of this system is to provide feedback to students, parents, and myself about how students are performing on specific, predefined learning targets. This puts the focus on learning specific skills and content, not simple completion of tasks for points. So how was this accomplished? In short, I had to restructure my gradebook to reflect each major skill or content area in which I wanted students to be able to demonstrate proficiency. This meant that I first had to define the standards that I would assess students on. This task was not too terrible, since I teach a variety of concurrent credit (sometimes called dual credit) classes and had great guidelines from the college-level classes to pull from.

Next, I had to decide what tool to use to do the actual reporting of student progress on the standards. Our school’s online grading program was certainly not up to the task, so I designed a gradesheet in GoogleDocs instead. This let me set up conditional formatting of spreadsheet cells to use different colors to highlight areas of strengths and weaknesses. Once an appropriate gradesheet was created for each course I taught, it was a straightforward task to clone the gradesheet for each student and share it with them via their GoogleApps account. Using GoogleDocs also gave me the option to share students’ gradesheets with their parents as the need arose, since the school’s online gradebook really doesn’t show the detailed feedback that the gradesheet does.

Then, of course, came the real test of the system: actually using it with students. This meant having to explain standards-based grading to them during the first few days of class. Let’s just say there were lots of blank stares. Talking about standards-based grading with students was probably a lot like talking about dancing, you might get the general idea and like the theory, but until you do it for yourself, there is no real sense of how it works.

But students did figure it out and, by the end of the first semester, they had a pretty good feel for what their gradesheets were all about and were beginning to use them to guide their learning. I began to hear the language of the classroom change a bit to where students began talking about which standards they still needed to meet instead of asking how many points an assignment was worth. Some students even asked me to give other students access to their gradesheets so that they could discuss them together and figure out what steps to take next.

It wasn’t all rosy, of course. Some students were so used to a points system that the idea that one unmet standard could lower their grade was really foreign to them. Even some of the higher-performing students, used to building up a surplus of points, had to think a bit differently. But most students caught on, and many seemed to really enjoy the flexibility of the system.

Here is a quick rundown of the things that impressed me about a standards-based grading system:

Guiding instruction

If you really want to know what your students are learning, try laying it out visually in your gradebook. For me, the big aha moment came after several weeks of school when I realized that there was no evidence of one of the major standards, Experimental Design (Std 4), in anyone’s gradesheet. Why not? I hadn’t provided them any opportunities to meet that standard yet. After that, I tried to plan activities that would help students design their own labs. I struggled with that standard all year, actually. Looking ahead to next year, I know for sure that one of the areas that I need to work on is to get students more involved in performing real scientific investigations.

Informing students of specific strengths and weaknesses

After several weeks of trying standards-based grades, it became obvious in the gradesheet what I knew from my experience of teaching over several years: each student brings a different set of skills with them to my classes. Some students were rocking the technology savvy standard (Std. 6) with their prezis, videos, and animations while others were brilliant writers that were at high levels for their communication standard (Std. 7). Each student gradesheet was unique, but having the gradesheet as a reference made conversations with students about their grade much more meaningful than simply saying “you have to work harder”or “just turn stuff in.” We could see exactly which content or skills each student needed to work on.

Allowing for mistakes and experimentation

One of the great things about standards-based grading using a 4 tier scale is that students don’t dig themselves into holes like they can in some points systems. Using cumulative points, the kid who forgets to turn in an assignment loses points and their grade suffers (sometimes drastically), unless you later give “extra credit,” which is usually unrelated to any real learning. Instead, standards-based grades separate out the areas of difficulty into discrete chunks which can be addressed individually without necessarily dragging down the entire grade.  My students were allowed multiple chances to meet each skill or content area standard, a fact that they really appreciated. This meant that students could botch a quiz or try some web tool that didn’t work, but they could try again with a different assessment to try to show an increase in their ability or understanding. For example, here’s part of a gradesheet from a student who fixed some misunderstandings:

In at least three of the standards (columns), there is evidence that the student performed better on a second try at each standard.


Showing student progress and achievement over time

This is perhaps my favorite part of using standards-based grades and the individual gradesheets. Each gradesheet starts out the year as a blank slate, but as we work together through the year, encountering new challenges, students begin to see a color-coded record of their achievements, sort of a trophy case, perhaps, of all that they have done throughout the year. Yes, numbers are involved (0-4) just like a regular gradebook, but there is something about color that draws the eye and paints a picture of what has been achieved in a way a numerical score cannot. For example, here are the content knowledge (Std. 1) gradesheets for a few of my students:

Evidence of content knowledge 1

Content area knowledge learned by Student A

Content area knowledge learned by Student B

Content area knowledge learned by Student C

You can see at a glance that Student A had some strengths and weaknesses throughout the year, Student B showed excellent understanding in all that they did, and that Student C struggled to produce evidence of learning for a number of content areas.

I’m going to let my students have the final word in this discussion of standards-based grading. I asked students in my biology classes to produce a short “advice” video that I could share with next years students to make the transition to SBG easier on them (and me). Here and here are a couple of the videos that best explain what students think about my grading system. I love the quote at the end of Cherlyn’s and Tenchita’s advice video: “Its different, but you’ll get used to it. Its better than anybody else’s.”

Post Navigation

24 Thoughts on “2010-2011: My Standards-Based Grading Year in Review

  1. MsGajda on May 21, 2011 at 11:19 pm said:

    Thanks for sharing your reflections, Chris. I’m fascinated by your SBAR system since I teach similar courses (Biology) but I’ve used a different strategy. After first semester, I abandoned the four point system in favour of a binary system since my students still regarded their scores as as points (therefore a 3 would be a 75%). I also took a reductionist style to my SBAR system by detailing every skill or bit of content knowledge that I wanted my students to leave the course with. While I love the way SBAR has worked in my math class, I don’t love how it has worked in my general science or Biology course. I’m wondering if your system with more general standards works better for content heavy courses. I just found that my students wanted to know exactly where the final number on their report card was going to come from… my solution was to be more detailed with standards, but I’m not sure that was the best strategy.

    • @MsGajda- The broad content standards work quite well, in my experience. They are generic enough so that multiple pieces of evidence can be used to show whether a student has mastered that particular content without having to break the gradesheet into lots of tiny factoids of learning. Besides, I don’t really want to lock my students into some sort of science trivia contest. In general, I led students through a few activities per content area and they either completed those activities, created their own stuff, or didn’t do anything. In practice, students usually had two to three major pieces of evidence per content area standard, but sometimes had only one major project as evidence. That didn’t bother me too much. I was often convinced by that one project, and I hope anyone looking at their gradesheet would be convinced that they came away from my class knowing at least something about all of the required content areas.

      • “Science trivia contest” is probably the best way of putting it! For your broad content standards, did the students know ahead of time what a “3” looked like? Did you provide exemplars or detailed expectations?

        I think the reason that I went to the “high resolution” standards was that I wanted to be really transparent. My biggest fear was that a student would say “I don’t know what Ms Gajda is looking for”. My solution was to put the detail into the standards. How did you help the students see where their “destination” was for a content standard?

        I’m also really curious about how your class period would run, as it seems you have lots of technology in your class (and you take full advantage of it!).

        • In all that we did this year, what I was “looking for” was simply an analysis from the student of what they learned. I did not show them example work ahead of time because I did not want to limit them in the forms that their reflections took. I merely provided activities that I thought would help them learn particular content or skills. It was up to them to convince me that they learned something from those activities. The grading rubric for everything was the same: 4-that’s amazingly good and you went exploring on your own, 3-you get it, 2-you sort of get it, and 1-you don’t get it yet. I understand the argument that students “won’t know what you are looking for” without rubrics and exemplars, but I think kids work just fine without them, and are, in fact, a lot more creative without them.

          As for how my class periods would run, the most common pattern would be for kids to come in and grab their laptops (we’re 1:1 using a cart of 28 MacBooks, but the laptops stay in the room) followed by a short introduction to tell students what they should be working on that day and where to find it online (usually posted in Edmodo). Students then dig into the activities for the day and eventually write about them or use some groovy web tool to post stuff to their personal blogs. Of course there were the occasional lectures, especially at the beginning of major units, and lab experiences as well.

          My next post will be an analysis of how student blogging worked this year, so watch for that soon.

          • I am definitely torn between providing a rubric and leaving things a bit more open-ended. I would like for my students to have more creativity – maybe my problem is the types of activities I’m giving them. My biology is course is more like a human anatomy and physiology course and probably needs the most work.

            Thanks for responding to all my questions! I look forward to your post on student blogging – I’m very interested to read your reflection on it!

  2. Great reflection.

  3. Scott Hutchison on May 23, 2011 at 1:14 am said:

    Great reflection and thank you for including screen shots of Google spreadsheets. Now to the final grade…? How did you arrive at something that resembled a letter grade or GPA or number percentage? The tipping point for many teachers, new to even thinking about SBAR, I have spoken to in high school is the need to assign…. based on most recent, median performance (O’Connor-esque)…. blah blah, a grade number. i.e. 88% or B+ How did you go about this year?

    Were your assessment questions labelled with Standards or Learning Targets?

    The visual (conditional formatting) is really first-rate!

    • @Scott: For final grades, I look at their performance on the 9 major skill standards and look at the overall picture, paying particular attention to gaps. Its probably holistic and fuzzy grading in a sense, but there are some rules to it. A student needs to achieve at least one 4 (exceptional) with the rest of the standards being 3’s to be considered for an A, mostly 3’s with no 2’s to get a B, 2’s with no 1.5’s for a C, 1.5’s with no 1’s for a D, and F’s really only show up for those slackers who didn’t do anything. In the second semester, I introduced the mighty question mark which means “I have no record of effort on that particular standard, even though I’ve given you plenty of chances.” A question mark has the effect of dropping a student’s score by a full letter grade. The idea, of course, is to make sure students are working on achieving all the standards, not just specializing in what they come into my class being good at.

      Percentages within a grade level (A, B, C, etc.) were arrived at in a pretty fuzzy way, since they are just a vestige of the old system and I don’t care about them, although I still report them since students (and parents) still do. If a kid was in the A range and had several 4’s, they could be at a 95 or 97%, a kid with all 3’s is a 87% while a kid with several 2.5’s and a few 3’s is an 83%, and so on.

      As for whether my assessment questions were labelled as to which standard they met, yes, but probably not in the way you are thinking. I’ve read about people giving major tests in which they label each question as to which standard they meet and then they disaggregate the results by standard and score the whole thing by standards. This is not what I do, but I’m assuming that’s what you are thinking about.

      Instead, what I do is to have very targeted quizzes and tests that only assess one particular standard at a time, and since I have very broad content standards, that is pretty easy to do. But we don’t do tests that much. Most of my “assessment questions” really came in the form of blog post prompts. We had regular check-ins as a class where I would list the different posts that they should be working on and indicate which standards particular posts could meet. I’ll write more about the blogging soon.

      • Scott Hutchison on May 30, 2011 at 3:58 am said:


        Thank you. Apologies for delay but I am both sleuthing your archived blog posts and others to get a sense of arriving at final grades. Your system of calculating grades is impressive and works for me. It allows for professional judgement based on student performance and engagement. I am sure parents enjoy this feedback in terms of specificity over a points based system?
        The high-school math and science courses I am involved with still rely on a progression of quizzes and tests which culminate in standardized exams for seniors. As such many teachers see the merit in ‘coaching’ good test writing along with knowledge and skills. I really see a blend of these combined with increased student involvement as authentic preparation for post secondary education.

        I look forward to your blogging post.

  4. Hi Chris,
    Thank you for sharing your reflection! What do you do with a student who has all 4’s and one 1? His 1 is not because of insuffient chances to retest.

    • The student who has all 4’s and one 1 on the 9 major standards would receive a final grade of F, if they allowed that situation to persist to the end of the grading period. Fortunately, in reality, students used their gradesheets to identify problems like the situation you mention and fix them before the grade became final. I did have one or two students in a similar, although not so dramatic, situation and they were able to pull off an A or B when they addressed the incomplete standard.

      • Hi Chris,
        Thank you for your response! I’ll play devil’s advocate here and ask you a question I often get from parents: “My kid is perfect on 8 out of 9 standards. That means he perfectly complete 89% of your material for the year. How do you justify giving him an F?”

        • I have no problem trying to pull parents out of the points/percentages mindset and getting them to think in terms of the skills that their son or daughter is learning. The grade should be based on demonstrated skills and content knowledge, not compliance.

          As I mentioned earlier in this comment thread, its not as if I keep the scores secret until the end of a grading period. Students can work to improve their grades at any time. So to the parent who has this comment after report cards come out I would simply show them their student’s gradesheet and blog. I might also direct them to look at the blogs of other students who are more successful in the class, for comparison. When shown exactly how much (or how little) their student has produced, parents understand the grading system better.

        • you’re absolutely right about sniikrtg the right balance of the size of each standard. Standards shouldn’t be broken down too small, or the interaction of them will be lost (a painting of a single hair on Mona lisa’s head.) Nor should the standards be too large so that all detail is lost in the measurement (a painting of the town where Mona Lisa lives.) We need to find Mama bear size standards, not too small, not too large. @calcdave My radar is definitely up for the pretty tech too. I try and see the use and efficiency of it’s use before diving in. Khan isn’t too pretty in that fashion, but the media is making it out to be the end all and be all of 21st century education. @Matt I know what you’re getting at, and it is partly addressed by the size of the standards. The students need to be able to make their own decisions about how to solve problems, and not rely on the name of the standard to give it away. It has been a challenge this year to strike the right balance. I think that I’ve somewhat succeeded, but only time will tell if on the regents and in the future the student can look at a problem and know what to do. I have a pretty good feeling that my kids can do this. @hillby I love your use of gasoline on this fire. Burn on!!

  5. Noel on July 12, 2011 at 6:41 pm said:

    Chris – I know this year that I have to make a change. I am so disappointed with the traditional methods and now am seeing some light. I have stumbled across your posts, Shawn Cornally’s posts, and Matt T’s posts all about SBG. I teach high school Biology – Regular and Advanced and have been studying your grade sheet set up. I am determined to try SBG for my upcoming year so I am curious on your version.
    1) I didn’t read any comments about you allowing “backsliding” or “improvements”. For example, Student A had 4 opportunities to prove the standard B8 and you kept all of the scores. How did you go about assigning the final “grade” for that one standard? He earned a 1.5 which stayed a 1.5, but then earned a 2.5 but that was changed to a 3 in the final column?
    2) What if this same student took the 2nd Semester final and got a 4 on the B8 standard – then what is their final grade?
    3) For each of the 3 students, you had different assessments listed. Did they choose which assessment they wanted to turn in for credit for that particular standard? For example, Student A “mmmm carbs post” for Biochemistry, but Student B had “carbohydrate review post” listed to meet that standard. Could you clarify this too?

    Thank you. Noel

    • Noel,
      Thanks for the comment and I wish you luck with your SBG implementation. I highly recommend it as a way of organizing your classes and giving students targets to aim for.
      As for my style of SBG, I’m more of a holistic grader than someone who has a strict formula for pigeonholing students down to an exact percentage score. I just want students to demonstrate that they are learning the basic concepts and skills in my courses. I tend to try to look at their overall body of evidence for each standard when determining their final grade, so backsliding or improvement are only relevant until the next assessment on that standard adds to the picture.
      Some of your questions can be answered by pointing out that the content area standard 1 is the conglomeration of all the evidence that the student has provided for all the topic area “facts” that they have learned during a semester. What you see in the far right column of the standard 1 gradesheet is my best guess as to the current status of the overall standard 1 score. As you read down the sheet you move forward in time to the next assessment that the student provided.
      As for why there are different assessments in the different students’ gradesheets, that’s because most of the assessments were in the form of posts to their own blogs. Each student chose the format in which they would present evidence of learning a particular standard and posted that artifact to their blog. I would give comments and a rough score for that post. Students could edit the post or submit additional posts on similar topics for the same standard. For more about the student blogs, see the next post here on my blog.

  6. Hi Chris,
    Thanks for the post!! I am a high school biology teacher who will be experimenting with SBG in my classroom next year. It seems like your experience with SBG has left you with a lot of valuable information to offer. As part of my action plan to implement SBG in my classroom next year, I need to connect with teachers who have already experimented with SBG. I also need to get feedback from them about how student performance changed when SBG was used as opposed to the traditional grading method. So my question to you is did you see a change in student performance when you used the SBG method as opposed to the traditional method and do you have any data to share on this topic?

    • Alex,

      Thanks for the comment. I’ve been pondering your question about whether SBG raises performance and whether I have data to share about it. I’d have to say that we would have to look closely at how we define “raising performance” and what data we would use to prove that SBG is having an effect. I tend to dwell on individual students improving their skills over the course of the year and in that context my observations would argue that SBG can be great at helping students look for gaps in understanding. Do I have any SBG vs non-SBG data that could be used to argue that SBG works better? Probably not, but that’s mostly because I think we’d be comparing apples and oranges. I do think that SBG has the potential to guide students to see what the learning goals of a course are and to help them plan what needs to be done to meet those goals. If “raising performance” means creating more opportunities for students to be independent learners, then yes, I think it raises performance.

  7. Go Sasaki on February 7, 2012 at 11:27 am said:

    Thank you for your reflections and information Chris! I have converted my Biology and Bio H classes over to SBG over the last two years, and your reflections have been very helpful.


  8. Sunny on March 29, 2012 at 6:15 pm said:


    • Sunny,
      I’m sure, like most things, that there are good and bad implementations of an idea. I don’t know your exact situation, but at its best, this sort of SBG system asks students to develop a variety of skills that they will use the rest of their lives. Gathering points for an A is ok, if it teaches you hard work and dedication, but sometimes there are other skills such as data analysis, communication, and working with technology that are of lasting importance too. I’m sorry that you are stuck in a system in which it seems that perfection is the goal, but in all honesty, there’s no reason that anyone should get an A just for turning everything in. In my classes, like those of many teachers across the country, the A is reserved for those students who go above and beyond what is taught or expected in class. An A means you really know the content and have mastered all of the expected skills. Now if that list of skills is reasonable, the system works. If the goals are completely unattainable, then I think you need to have some discussions with your teacher about how their system is set up.

  9. Rachel on March 27, 2014 at 8:33 am said:

    Hi Chris,

    I am wondering about the amount of time it takes you to update each individual student’s googleDoc grade sheet. I have about 80 students. Is this a feasible task?


    • Rachel,
      I use a tool called BlueHarvestFeedback instead of the spreadsheets nowadays, but when I did use them, I had around 120 students to manage. Worst part was setup. After that, management and grade entry wasn’t too time consuming.

Leave a Reply