Sunday / July 21

Four Critical Standards-Based Grading Challenges and Their Solutions

I first wrote about grading for learning in 1995 and more than 20 years later, some of the hot issues we faced then continue to challenge us as we enter 2019. These issues are sometimes used by those who oppose standards-based grading in an attempt to discredit it and are even subject to disagreement among those who support standards-based approaches (e.g., in the Standards-Based Learning and Grading Facebook group and in #sblchat on Twitter).

Informed by the ideas of 41 educators all over the world, who contributed to the fourth edition of How to Grade for Learning (HTGFL 4), I’d like to focus on what I believe are the four most critical challenges when implementing Standards-Based Grading and Learning in schools and districts – and in the classroom:

  • The identification and description of performance standards
  • The use of zeros
  • How to deal with students not meeting timelines
  • The use of formative assessment and how many assessments teachers are required to enter into their grade books in each grading period.

Grade(s) or grading—The number or letter reported at the end of a period of time as a summary statement of student performance

Mark(s) or marking and score(s) or scoring—The number, letter, or words placed on any single student assessment (test, performance task, etc.) (HTGFL 4, page 2)

Challenge #1 The identification and description of performance standards

“Performance standards specify “how good is good enough.” They are the indicators of quality that specify how adept or competent a student demonstration must be.” Ohio Department of Education, 2017. HTGFL 4, p. 67

Performance standards are the core of assessment and grading, so it is critical that teachers use them consistently and that students and parents understand them. Traditionally, performance standards have consisted of letters linked to percentage ranges (e.g., A = 90-100%, B = 80-89% and so on). These have given only the illusion of precision because teachers are very inconsistent with a 101 level scheme and have generally not been able to explain clearly the differences between the letter grades.

One way to overcome this is suggested by Natalie Bolton, an associate professor at the University of Missouri St. Louis, who described a process for developing criterion-referenced performance scales with descriptions of three or four levels of proficiency.

  1. Step one: deconstruct standards to identify learning targets into simpler explicit learning targets to guide daily classroom instruction.
  2. Step two: classify the deconstructed learning targets using a taxonomy related to cognitive complexity.
  3. Step three: develop criterion referenced performance scales for the learning targets.
  4. Step four: use the performance scales to determine grades. Teachers should use the performance scales as the basis of instruction, assessment, feedback, and determining grades. Performance scales should be shared with students in student-friendly language.

A few other approaches are detailed in my book, such as the team of administrators from the American School of Dubai who developed a protocol by which teachers collaboratively develop consensus descriptors for each letter grade without using percentages). Their full story and method can be found in HTGFL, pp. 70-72.

In order for Standards-Based Learning to be successful, there are three critical issues that have to be agreed upon for performance standards:

  • How many levels: I recommend between two and seven.
  • Whether we have a level or levels above proficiency/meeting the standard: For early elementary I think it is appropriate to only identify proficient/not proficient but for upper elementary and beyond I think it is appropriate to identify one level of performance above proficiency to both acknowledge and encourage excellence.
  • How to label a level above proficiency. I recommend “Excels” or “Advanced” or almost anything except “Exceeds,” which should be eradicated from standards-based terminology. (HTGFL 4, pp. 83-85)

Challenge #2 The use of zeros

Some teachers use zeros on assignments as punishment for inappropriate behaviors, most commonly for “missing work” (not submitting required assessment evidence). They do this in the belief that the punishment will push the students to be accountable, but it is clear that for most students, this doesn’t work. Instead, students often see zeros as a free pass to not do the work, creating a classroom culture that promotes the exact opposite of accountability.

The measures of central tendency and ratio that many of us are taught in math classes (usually in Grade 5) provide overwhelming reasons for not using zeros with percentage grades and averaging, because it goes against those mathematical principles. That is not, however, what I want to emphasize here; what is most important is not the mathematical gymnastics, but how we get students to be accountable for submitting required assessment evidence.

One way to do this is with an approach called the Power of ICU (Intensive Care Unit). (Hill, D. & Nave, J. 2009). In ICU the focus is on all students completing all quality assignments. Students with missing or poor-quality assignments have their names placed on an elec­tronic ICU list that can be viewed by all staff members. Parents immediately receive auto­mated texts and/or e-mail messages when their children’s names are added to the ICU list. Students are asked by a variety of staff members: “Whom do you owe?” “What do you owe?” “What is your plan?” “What do you need?” and “How can I help?” Staff members reteach concepts and provide students with extra assistance to complete their work before school, during lunch, during intervention time, and after school. Once students produce quality work, their names are removed from the ICU list and follow-up messages inform parents the work has been completed.  Sherri Nelson describes how this works at Huron Middle School in South Dakota (HTGFL 4, p. 181) and Cory Strasser describes how it is implemented at Pipestone Middle/High School in Minnesota (HTGFL 4, pp. 182-184).

Challenge #3 How to deal with students not meeting timelines

One of the essential principles of standards-based grading is that grades are accurate measures of achievement, not contaminated by bonuses or penalties for behavior. Put simply: teachers should not use mark penalties for students failing to meet timelines for submitting assessment evidence.

Let’s think about some of the common reasons why students may not complete an assignment on time or at all:

  • A student is having difficulty understanding quadratic equations, or latitude and longitude, or how to identify the main idea.
    • Consider: The teacher may need to spend more time helping students to understand these concepts with more one-on-one tutoring, partner work with a strong peer, or engaging in-class activities
  • A student is struggling to meet deadlines on assignments and projects.
    • Consider: There may be an underlying problem in this student’s life. They could be poorly organized, have bad time-management skills (or none at all) or could be experiencing difficulties in their lives outside of school that make it impossible for them to meet timelines. The teacher can help by printing out graphic organizers, providing a place to store the student’s materials, and weekly check-ins.

It is up to the teacher to use their resources and the school resources to support students in their learning – and in their behaviors. One of the best ways to do this is by having times when students will receive support to complete assignments that weren’t done in a timely way. These times could be before school, at lunchtime, or after school, but I believe that the best way to is to build a support period into the timetable. This is becoming increasingly common in middle and high schools “with an interesting array of acronyms and titles – SOAR, WIN, FAST, FLEX, QU#SST, Callback and Tiger Paws” (HTGFL 4, p. 110). Brian Stack, the Principal of Sanborn Regional High School in New Hampshire, provides a description of the “Focused Learning Period” that is part of the day for four of the six days in their timetable schedule. He identifies that this time can be used for Intervention, Extensions, and Enrichments. (HTGFL 4, pp.111 and 112). The bell schedule for the six days is provided in below.

Challenge #4 The use of formative assessment and the number of scores teachers are required to enter into their grade books in each grading period

The standards movement… precipitated a renewed interest in what might be the most favorable course of action to prepare students to meet the expected standards…. What emerged was an almost unified belief that formative assessment practices were the most effective and efficient way to increase student achievement.

—Schimmer (2016, p. 10, HTGFL 4, p. 122)

A belief has widely emerged that formative assessment practices are the most effective and efficient way to increase student achievement, but there is still disagreement and misunderstanding about how formative assessment should be assessed and used. For example, some schools and/or districts that profess to be standards-based require teachers to have a set number of scores each week and require that formative assessment count for as much as 40% of grades. (The worst example I’ve heard recently is a school district that requires teachers to have at least 14 scores each twelve week reporting period!)

This shows a lack of assessment literacy and a lack of understanding that the primary purpose of classroom assessment is to gather information that provides the basis for teachers to adjust their instruction and for students to adjust their learning. To be effective, this guiding information needs to be in words, not numbers; 7/10 tells nothing about what adjustments should be made, but descriptive feedback that identifies strengths and areas for improvement does provide that information. The bottom line is that formative assessment should provide descriptive feedback, not scores, and without scores it can have no direct place in grades. Students receive feedback in band and basketball, and in those activities they understand that practice “counts” in helping them get better. There is no evaluation until the performance – i.e. a critique of the band concert or the final score of the basketball game.

Richard Cash describes how he moved his students from being focused on the extrinsic motivation of grades to becoming intrinsically motivated learners through the use of descriptive feedback. He says “At first, my students struggled with feedback only, but after a period, they got used to the idea and desired it over just a grade. Additionally, I saw an increase in their personal self-regulation, the ability to manage themselves to learn. They were more focused on the process over the product.” (HTGFL 4, pp 133-134)

The evidence that is used to determine grades should come from summative assessments, and no grade for any standard should be determined with fewer than three scores from summative assessments on that standard. If the teacher didn’t provide at least three opportunities on a standard, the grade for that standard should be “NA” for Not Assessed, but if at least three opportunities were provided and the student only provided evidence on one or two the grade should be “I” for Insufficient Evidence. If somewhere between 4-6 standards are reported on in each grading period, then no more than five summative assessments are required in each grading period. Limiting the number of summative assessments provides sufficient time for an appropriate teaching/learning process with instruction, learning, formative assessment, feedback, and relearning before each summative assessment; it also increases the likelihood that each summative assessment is high quality and that students see them all as important.

There is so much more that could be written about these issues and the issues I haven’t addressed, but this blog is already too long. Remember, our goal as teachers should be that students can answer three questions: Where am I going? Where am I now? and What can I do to close the gap (or get better)?  (Chappuis, J. 2015. p.12) The appropriate use of standards-based assessment, grading, and reporting contributes greatly to that ability.

Explore more resources for Grading

The ideas in this article/blog are mine but it was significantly improved through editing suggestions from Ariel Curry, Becca Lindahl, and Mia Rodriguez.


Chappuis, J. (2015) Seven strategies of assessment for learning (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson

Hill, D. & Nave. J/. (2009) The power of ICU: The end of student apathy: Reviving engagement and responsibility. Nashville, TN: NTLB Publishing

O’Connor, K. (2018) How to grade for learning; Linking grades to standards (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin

Written by

Ken O’Connor first developed eight guidelines for grading to support learning and encourage student success that are at the heart of “How to Grade for Learning” as a response to what he thought were inappropriate guidelines in an article in the NAASP Bulletin in April 1994. His response was published in an article in the same journal in May 1995. He then expanded the ideas in the article into a book that was originally published by Skylight Publishing in late 1998. The title Ken suggested was Good Grades, but a brilliant editor at Skylight suggested How to Grade for Learning and it has remained the title through subsequent editions published by Corwin in 2002, 2011, and 2018

Latest comments

  • ” If somewhere between 4-6 standards are reported on in each grading period, then no more than five summative assessments are required in each grading period. ”

    I get it but if we only have 3 grading periods that is ONLY 18 standards…unfortunately we have a lot more than 18 standards to cover in many subjects. How do we make this manageble? Even identifying power standards there are often too many standards.

  • What differences do you see? I think in all subjects we should try to triangulate assessment evidence by using product evidence, observation evidence, and conversation evidence.

  • Sound advice…however, I might suggest there is a world of difference between the humanities and science disciplines when considering what type of assessment should be used.

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