How to make standards-based grading just another fad

A colleague of mine recently described what it was like growing up as the youngest kid in the family. His main point was that the youngest child sometimes learns a lot from watching the older kids fail horribly. Hopefully this post gives you a chance to benefit from being the little brother/sister learning from us older kids so you don’t have to make the same mistakes. Administrators, this one’s for you.

Fad: A practice or interest followed for a time with exaggerated zeal – Merriam-Webster 

As someone who has been experimenting with standards-based assessment and grading for a while now, I’ve noticed a few things that don’t seem to work when implementing SBG. The following is my list of ways to make sure that no one in your school district ever wants to use standards-based grading again.

1. Don’t get teacher input about the process of implementing standards-based grades.

One way that I’ve seen SBG get implemented occurs when administrators or superintendents attend a conference or read a neat blog post about how wonderful SBG is and how it rocked the world etc. etc. They proceed to get their school board on their side with arguments about how a standards-based education guarantees that all students will succeed and that the best way to guarantee this is to make teachers report their students’ progress not as points and percentages but as discrete standards.

Great! But how? Who will develop the standards? Who will decide the format of the standards-based report card? Will you turn the standards-based report into a letter grade? If so, how? So many choices to make, but who will make them?

If administrators go this alone, you’ll run the risk of making this just another educational fad. Fads seem to make teachers mad and reactionary. The more experienced among us shrug and smile at professional development sessions about the next new best thing and most of the time we take the resulting packet or binder back to our rooms and nothing comes of it but another surface for collecting dust. But when you mess with the fundamental structure of their classroom flow and their gradebook? Wow, do people freak out, especially if that directive comes purely from a top-down direction without teacher input. The fad then becomes something truly evil, more than a binder to be shelved, but an actual invader into the sacred space between a teacher and their students, a fundamental warping of the fabric of classroom space-time. Well, maybe not quite like that, but it does piss people off.

Exhibit A: Hundreds of Teachers Rally Against Standards-Based Grading

Don’t do this. If teachers beg you to allow them to implement SBG, let them. When they are ready they’ll make it work. Otherwise its a fad.

2. Require teachers to use state or national standards for their course/classroom standards.

There are a bajillion things out there masquerading as “standards.” Any group of people with sufficient money and political capital can put together a list of things that they think “everyone” should know. My state, your state, and some so-called national groups have certainly done this, recruiting committees of experts to sit in conference rooms for hours on end, word-smithing and getting these beauties just right for public consumption.

So there you are, in your quest to provide a standards-based education, staring at these lists of what kids should know and be able to do. Should you go with national (CommonCore, NGSS), state, AP, IB, college concurrent, or heck, even someone’s grandma’s chemistry syllabus from 1922?

Nope. Allow teachers to create their own standards.

Teachers can certainly borrow bits and pieces from all of these lovely committees who have spent hours consulting one another on the best bits of knowledge for a particular grade level or discipline, but to limit them to one interpretation of what kids ought to know is sort of the opposite of enabling good educators. Furthermore, most of these standards being published recently are written so poorly and so esoterically that teachers need to be trained for hours just to make sense of them. Is this the sort of language that you want to put on a standards-based report card that parents and students will see? They’ll just crumple up/delete it if we don’t write our standards in language that they’ll understand.

And that’s the real reason that teachers should create their own standards for their classes: only they know who their students are, the community context within which they work, and the kind of language (word-smithing) that needs to be used with their particular group(s) of students.

Take all those fancy-pants standards and make them your own. Otherwise, parents won’t understand them, kids will ignore them, and we’ll all hope that they’ll go away like all fads do.

Justin in overalls with the prime minister of Canada


3. Don’t train your teachers before you roll out SBG.

It might happen like this: You’ve done your research and have decided to use standards-based assessment and reporting in your school. You have at least a few teachers interested in using it. As for those other not-so-interested teachers, well, they’ll recognize the benefits, too, once they start using it. You go for it! At your first staff meeting in August you greet your returning staff with your vision of how they will run their classes this new school year. You have them start the new school year by writing their standards and assessments for the new grading system. Aren’t they excited?

Well, no, they’re not. If you haven’t done a lot of groundwork over two, three, or even four years, teachers are going to have a lot of reservations about your new initiative and a steep hill to climb to meet your sudden shift in paradigm.

Think about what you are asking teachers to do:

    • Wade through pages of local, state, and national standards to figure out what other people say they are supposed to be teaching
    • Select from that bloated body of standards the ones that students really need to know
    • Rewrite the clunky language of these standards into words that students will understand
    • Organize the new set of standards into an instructional plan in a way that makes sense thematically and chronologically
    • Learn to work with new or modified electronic gradebooks to collect and display grades using standards instead of points/percentages
    • Write and/or modify activities and assessments that align to the new standards
    • Write rubrics and/or set performance criteria for A/P/PP/U performance levels
    • Determine if and how students’ standards-based grades will be converted to a letter grade

If you want teachers to do all of these things on the fly during their first year of implementation of standards-based grading, be my guest, but don’t expect really stellar results and you should expect to lose the support of much of your overworked staff.

Instead, try implementing some of the steps that this district took before they went whole hog. Solon Community School District, you’re doing it right. Otherwise its a fad and its gonna die for lack of support.

4. Use SBG to provide even less information to parents than your traditional grading system.

One of the big benefits of standards-based grading is its potential to replace the nonsense of numerical points and averaging and zeros with a system that pinpoints a student’s academic strengths and weaknesses in order to help them get better in those areas. This works if students and parents can see which areas are deficient and if they can use the teacher’s observations of student performance to help plan ways to improve.

What often happens, though, is that poorly-implemented standards-based reporting kills any meaningful data that a teacher might have gained from their new system of assessing by standards. If all a parent sees is something like this, the system is in trouble. I can picture a kid getting this report card and the parent asking “Larry, why do you have a PP in Math Content 2? What is Math Content 2? And why is your ORC knowledge a U?” I doubt the kid could answer.

Unless there is an easily accessible, DETAILED collection of student assessments and performance data available for parents to see, the switch to a standards-based report card tells parents even less about their kid than your current rack-up-the-points system. At least in that sort of points system most parents can go to an online grade book and see that their kid didn’t turn in Math Content Sheet 91.1d or that they got a 78% on their last science quiz. Telling parents that their kid is partially proficient in Numeracy doesn’t really mean squat, especially if the parent only sees this judgement of their child at the end of the quarter or semester.

Try out ActiveGrade, BlueHarvest, Three-Ring, JumpRope, or have teachers make their own Google Spreadsheets to record feedback to students and parents. Get your current implementations of Infinite Campus or Powerschool to play nice with reporting standards-based data online. Make the evidence that your teachers collect visible to both parents and students. Otherwise its just a fad and nobody figures out how to improve.


So what does work? How do I start using SBG in a really meaningful way?

Teachers, this one’s for you: start with this article by Frank Noschese. All the fancy stuff will come later. You’ll figure out a system that works for you.

Edit 6/17/15: Also check out Bob Kuhn’s hints for starting SBG in a traditional grading system.

Best of luck to you all!


17 thoughts on “How to make standards-based grading just another fad

  1. David Eckstrom

    I agree completely with everything here. Switching to SBG is one of the top 3 best things I have ever done in my teaching career, but if an administrator forced me to do it a certain way, I would probably hate it.

  2. Laura

    I am really interested in SBG — especially in implementing it in a system completely not set up for it. Do you have any colleagues who have used it successfully in a high school history class, or any resources to point me to? I would really appreciate it!

  3. Jill

    I am in the same boat as Laura. I wanted to begin SBG in my US History classes beginning next year. The problem is, I don’t quite know where to start, what the process should look like, or if I am even heading in the right direction. I’ve seen so many articles on SBG in math and science, but none in a high school history class.

  4. Dan Reid

    OMG !! You’ve expressed EXACTLY how Champaign Unit 4 Schools has implemented SBG. We did #1, #3, and #4 from your list up above and it’s a giant cluster f***. They did let us come up with our own standards for each course, but we have to write them as we go…They gave us no time over the summer to do it. So instead of spending time creating better lessons, over 95% of our planning time and “late starts” and SIP days (and I really mean 95% of our time) goes into creating the learning standards document, rubrics, new assessments, and grading the assessments on a 0-4 scale (which is a time-consuming pit of despair.) Oh, and don’t forget about all of the re-takes that have to be created as well !) BTW, I teach chemistry and have 22 yrs. under my belt. Here’s the main problems we are experiencing (and it’s not just in science, it’s nearly every classroom):

    1) HW is not for a grade, therefore, kids have stopped doing it. Every teacher in the H.S. would agree on this point, and the students self-report this as well. We have discussed how to fix this unintended consequence, but “HW for a grade” flies in the face of the SBG philosophy and that’s a BIG problem. And just so you know, before SBG, I used to count HW as maybe 5% of their grade just to keep them motivated to do it. It never was a significant part of their grade.

    2) All formative assessments count as the same weight, so a short quiz is the same as a test. A short, simple, lab counts the same as a 3 day project with a typed lab report. This is just stupid, so now it forces me to either manipulate the gradebook to off-set this idiotic fact, or I shy away from smaller summative assessments that would traditionally be worth less than a test, or I lie to the students and tell them it’s a summative grade, and then don’t enter it as such.

    3) Kids don’t study for tests as much as they used to since they know that they can just re-take it if needed. And the ones that are smart enough to know how the game is played and are “taking advantage” of this system are only the super-motivated ones that want a 4 on everything (which in our district is the typically just a rich, white or Asian kid and maybe 3% of the our minority population.) The kids that were our traditional “C” or lower students don’t do re-takes (nor do they do the HW that does not affect their grade) so now they are no longer “C” students, but they are D or F kids, and they do not have the maturity to understand that their lack of progress is due to their lack of practice (i.e. HW). And I have lost the ability to motivate them to do the HW by making it affect their grade. And even if you are thinking that I SHOULD grade the HW and make it “count”, then you are telling me that this HW assignment will now count as much as the test.

    4) The grade print-out might as well be written in hieroglyphics. Parents do not understand what they are seeing. Kids just look at the overall letter grade. And no longer can you easily tell if a grade on a summative assessment will raise or lower their overall grade. In the past, as long as you scored above your overall average, your grade would go up, but that’s not true with SBG. And grades fluctuate wildly all semester long each time a new standard is covered. Traditional grades don’t move that much near the end of the semester, but if I cover a new standard in May (…which I will be doing)…, then the first summative assessment I give in this new standard will count as 20% of their overall grade. It’s a shock that I know is coming, and it makes me nervous since the parent and student may see a full letter grade (or more) drop if they do poorly on the assessment.

    What really gets my goat is that we are told that traditional grading is more arbitrary than SBG. I strongly disagree! And if any administrator would have come to me so I could show them how and why I grade the way I do, they would have seen that my points-based system was legit. But their mantra was basically, “traditional grading sucks and SBG is our savior!” Grading with a points-based system works extremely well for a science class. If you don’t think so, that’s fine. If you find that SBG works, great! But being forced to change a system that was not broken in the first place is totally wrong. I used to have 0-100 different possible grades to give whereas SBG only has 0-4 possibilities. Tell me how limiting my choices for grades is better?

    SBG proponents like to throw out the line, “What does an A- really mean?” or “How is an A- really different from a B+” or “Maybe one teacher will grade a paper as an A- but a different teacher will give a kid a C on this same paper.” I again say bull$#%*.

    SBG still has arbitrary cut-offs for every letter grade. In SBG, now a 3.32 is an B+, but a 3.33 is an A-. You still have the same situation as before. And I don’t know a single science teacher that has ever varied so wildly on grading a test as SBG folks think we do. Science lends itself to very precise and reproduce-able grading results. Again, maybe it’s more arbitrary in an English class when you have to grade a 3-page essay, but answers on science or math tests are generally right or wrong with only a little variation on essay questions or how much partial credit to give.

    I’ve done SBG all year and I can’t tell you how often I have struggled between giving a grade of a 2.5 or a 3.0 (which translated to a 74% or an 84% on a traditional points-based system) on an assessment. It happens so often, that I’m forced to just “wing it” or sometimes I default back to counting up ‘points’ and translating a % into whatever the closest SBG grade would be. Even the best-written rubric couldn’t fix this issue.

    My main gripe is that I do not have a choice in how to accurately assess the students anymore. If SBG works for one teacher does not mean that it will for every teacher. Just because the SBG system is new does not mean that it is better. I have seen direct statistical evidence in many courses here at my school that shows that it may in fact be worse. But the ‘kool-aid drinkers’ keep pouring us glasses of beverage to drink and they keep telling us that it just takes time for kids to “buy-in” and that “you need to break some eggs to make an omelet”. I sure as heck wouldn’t want my child to be a part of the broken egg group and I hate seeing my students and fellow teachers broken. My colleague said it best: “Ive never worked so hard to be so mediocre.”

    Then again, I could be wrong. And if I am, then in the spirit of SBG, I’d like the opportunity for a re-take on this post.

    1. Chris Ludwig Post author


      I’ve heard a lot of similar stories from other teachers in your situation. The transition to SBG is not pretty, especially if its imposed from above rather than being your own choice. Students and teachers both have to make some big adjustments that don’t just happen overnight, or even over the course of one school year.

      I’d encourage you to take some time this summer to have a good look at what you chose for standards and see whether those really are the important things you want kids to be able to do when they leave your classroom. I’m a fan of big, broad skill standards rather than overly-trivial content standards. If you can focus your classroom around a set of science skills that you want to teach kids, then some of the numbers game falls away because you are focused on having kids demonstrate those skills in lab and research settings rather than having them achieve a certain score on a test or quiz.

      Your system will evolve the more you play with it and discard what doesn’t work, assuming your administration allows you to improve it. These days my SBG system is evolving not so much in the standards that I chose, but in how I try to get kids to demonstrate those standards. Classroom activities and assessments have to change along with the new look (hieroglyphics!) in the grade book for any real benefit from SBG.

      Student ownership is key. If you can convince students that they really are in charge of how they meet the standards for your classes, then they’ll be more likely to do homework assignments for you if they need to in order to understand a topic that they want to work on.

      I hope you get some time to play with it this summer. Stay with it and good luck!

    2. A M

      I could not agree more with every single word you said 🙂

  5. Chris

    In the article above, Solon community schools is congratulated for implementing SBG correctly. For many families that have children attending the Solon school district, the opinion is different. A public hearing has been held, a petition was circulated and signed by the students to get rid of SBG and another petition is being circulated by the parents to suspend SBG.

    1. Chris Ludwig Post author

      I’m pretty sure that there is no “correct” way to implement SBG, but there are some definitely wrong ways to go about it. From the outside, at least, it appears to me that Solon did its process reasonably well, by phasing in SBG over several years and allowing for faculty and community input into the process as it went into full effect.

      SBG will always rub some people the wrong way, particularly those students and their parents who are good at compliance and used to getting A’s on their report card. No one is perfect at everything and there are no “A students.” Everyone has something to improve upon, and SBG is just better at pointing that out.

      As long as we allow ourselves to assume that the grade is what is important, SBG will always fail. It’s only in those places where teachers, students, and their parents use SBG together to change what students are doing in classes that it will have any real impact. As long as we are doing the same old stuff in the classroom then yes, there should be petitions brought to change the system.

    2. LeAnn

      Good! Glad to hear that parents are unhappy with bright students being lumped in with traditional ‘non performers”. Mediocrity should never be encouraged.
      I am currently working to undo this garbage system in my local system as well.

  6. SolonParent

    Mr. Ludwig,
    Actually, Solon did not do it right. Perhaps it looks that way from the outside, but the truth is that SBG was implemented far too hastily. Only a handful of teachers used it before this year. If you speak with the teachers confidentially, they agree. There were some parent meetings at the start of the year, with a lot of SBG rhetoric and very few answers. As the year has progressed, concerns of students and parents have been met with a lack of regard by our administration. I am amazed at how our implementation matches exactly with #1, #3 and #4. What Chris (from Solon) said above is absolutely true. It is our hope that the members of the Board of Education will vote for major changes or reversal of SBG. It is frustrating to hear that educators are being told that it has worked in Solon. In all actuality, we need to reassess.

  7. Heather C

    Dan Reid hit it right on. Every point he made is exactly what we are experiencing in Colorado…from the way the teachers feel, to the parents and students, to the administrators…
    I graduated on the old point system, colleges do the point system, not sure why we are trying to frustrate everyone.
    The old system not only worked, but it actually made sense.

  8. Dan Reid

    Update on SBG in Champagin, IL (Central H.S.) –The admin. heard the cries of despair and held off implementation of SBG for jr. and sr. classes for 2013-2014 and for the next school year (and foreseeable future?) The freshmen and soph. level still has SBG, but here’s what’s changed. You can use quarter point intervals (2.25, 2.5, 2.75., etc) if you can justify it somehow in the grading rubric. Homework can now be a standard! So kids have a reason to do their hw and turn it in on time since it can affect their grade, but the standard is only about 5% of their overall grade. The rubric for the hw standard has stuff in it about turning the hw in on time, accuracy rate, etc. Here’s another change for the better…You only need to offer one retake per formative assessment instead of unlimited retake opportunities, and the retake score, if worse than the first attempt, can replace the first attempt…but most teachers use an average if the kid does worse on the second try. The retake is only available if the kid did the original hw AND many teachers make up an additional “re-teaching” assignment that has to be completed as well before a re-take can happen. FYI–I lucked out this year (and the next) b/c I only taught upper classmen so no SBG for me 🙂 And I need to say this–The other physics teacher and I used a grading system which we called a “hybrid-SBG” system which has the same basic tenants of SBG just without the 4, 3, 2, 1 grades. We assigned hw, but gave the kids the answers so they could check their progress as they worked on it at home. Since it wasn’t for a grade, we still have pitiful completion rates. We are trying to figure out what to do about that for next year. We are toying with making it worth 2 points if it is completed on time and 1 point if it is turned in a day late, and zero points after that. We asked the physics kids if this would be enough motivation for them to do the homework more than they do now, and they said, “Heck yes!” If you make the hw worth SOMETHING, then they will do it, but if it is worth only as an insurance policy in case of failure on a future quiz or test, then most won’t “buy” into it. The big thing we still do in the traditional way in our physics class is use total points and percentages. The other physics teacher and I gave a survey this week to our physics classes. The topic was on which “grading system” they preferred and which system made them understand WHY their science grade was the way it was. Not surprisingly, out of 68 surveys, approx. 96% preferred the hybrid (%) system and 80% understood their progress more clearly under a hybrid (%) system than SBG. We couldn’t get 96% of our kids to agree that the sky is blue.

  9. Tyler

    I am a student who has seen both grading systems at work. Being in advanced classes, I have followed the transition right along the border. I take some SBG classes and some non-SBG classes. Throughout the transition, I have seen my school district do every single one of these so far.

  10. Thomas Meservey

    Wait! There are districts or states that DON”T HAVE STANDARDS for courses or grade levels? How is this possible? So what kids learn in any given classroom is a crapshoot? American history is whatever the teacher decides it is? Second grade is just the year after first grade? And Iʻm not talking about units and lesson plans, that is a given. You mean from classroom to classroom in a district there is no way to anticipate what students are expected to know and be able to do? This canʻt be.

  11. Cameron Stewart

    The whole idea behind SBG is great. If students don’t need to do their homework, they don’t have to. That way their time isn’t wasted doing math problems that they already know how to do, or reviewing vocab words they already know, etc. Unfortunately, the kids that DO need to do their homework no longer have any motivation to do so. The only argument teachers have is “just do your homework if you want a good grade”, but the students are only seeing a way to get out of boring assignments. Speaking from the perspective of a student, you will have a very hard time trying to convince a bunch of high school students that they should do their homework just for the practice. You always have a couple students who will always do their homework, but the majority of the students are skipping practice, and failing their tests, which is all they are graded on. The whole thing sounds like a good idea, but as its been implemented in schools, it isn’t working, and everyone’s grade is tanking. This new system is being put into place all over Utah, and it basically sucks.


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