Step 1: Get into the “Mindset”

Traditional grading practices that use percents and averages to determine a student’s final grade has sent the message to many kids that the point of school is to “game” enough points to get to the class rank they are comfortable with.  If a student isn’t interested in this game, all too often they stop playing.  We as teachers have the tendency to see this as “apathy.”  We then decide that we won’t have any meaningful impact until the student “chooses to be successful.” AKA: play the game.

Standards Based Grading (SBG) tells a different kind of story.  Under this grading paradigm, students are assessed on only what they can do and what they know – not on the mountain (or molehill) of work the student has been able to produce.  There is always another chance to reassess and demonstrate an increased level of mastery.

SBG doesn’t take behaviors and shoehorn them into a content grade.  Punctuality, responsibility, organization, kindness, respect, attention, and attendance are all important; however, they generally are not a key content or performance standard.  These characteristics and skills are critically important to instill and teach to students – but they aren’t part of the “academic base;” they are part of the “responsibility base.”

If we want students who have given up to come back and join us, we need to meet them where they are.  We need to accept that students have growth needs in theigradingfromtheinsideout-265_1r “responsibility base” in the same way as they have growth needs in their “academic base.”  Allowing lagging skills in responsibility to distort they way we communicate a student’s academic progress is what breeds “apathy.”  That’s on us as educators.

Do yourself a favor and get Tom Schimmer’s (@TomSchimmer) Book, Grading From the Inside Out: Bringing Accuracy to Student Assessment Through a Standards-Based Mindset.

Step 2: Select your Standards

Understand the role your course plays in the building/school curriculum.  Remember to keep in mind that all standards can’t be taught by one teacher in one course. Ask yourself, “What is the main purpose of my course?” and “What will a student newly know as a result of my course?”  Your course is one piece of the overall curriculum puzzle.

pen_notebook_19140-2Don’t do this step in a vacuum if you can help it!  Read through relevant curriculum documents (Common Core, Model Academic Standards, prior District work.) Collaborate with your colleagues.  You want to make sure your standards are exhaustive and defensible.

Finally, think about which skills and what content are critical. You are not deciding what is important (there is a good chance that most of your list is important); you are deciding what is most crucial. Decide which specific abilities and knowledge are absolutely necessary for successful completion of your course and preparation for the next step. These crucial learning objectives are your prioritized standards – these are what you are going to assess. You will still teach a large amount of the other “stuff” but your focus and assessment should be prioritized.

Step 3: Devise a Comprehensive Assessment Plan

Focus on your Standards and remember that SBG assesses learning and not events. Your assessment should have a laser focus on the standard(s) and not [directly or indirectly] include other behaviors or content.

Reassessment must be a part of your plan.  Students learn at different paces and in different ways. Any given formal assessment won’t meet the needs for all students in terms of time and design. Students need to have the opportunity to reassess for full out_of_the_mist_18676-2credit in an individually respectful way when they are prepared. Best practice would be to incorporate at least one reassessment opportunity during class time through spiraling past standards into later assessments.

Separate formative from formal and vary your assessments.   Practice should encourage mistakes and risk taking. So long as academic rigor, validity, and reliability are present, alternative assessments should be allowed and encouraged.

Step 3: Modify your Policies & Plans

Units and chapters may become incongruent with your new framework. Be open to rearrange your sequence. It is important to note that there is an expectation that much more than just the prioritized standards are being taught – but there is a priority placed upon the content/skills which are critical.

Policies and procedures should be there to teach students organization, responsibility, and accountability.  We also need to allow for flexibility so that we can meet students where they are and permit them to demonstrate mastery when they are fully prepared to do so.

Step 4: Define Proficiency Levels

I’d argue that 4 levels are ideal – all you really need to know and report is when a student “doesn’t get it,” “kinda gets it,” “gets it,” and “really gets it.” At each end of the proficiency scale, I also include a section for those students that don’t fit – I have a “hasn’t given me enough information to know if they get it” category and a “is so beyond the scope of what we are doing, the assessment isn’t really valid” category.picture_your_gallery_19125

Define each stage of skill/content acquisition.  Be pithy.  Be broad.  Accept that professional subjectivity will play a role in selecting the level.  This is not a rubric.  You might choose to use rubrics targeted for specific assessments to help you and students understand what specific components will be analyzed to assist in determining the proper level. Click here for my Proficiency Levels Document

Step 5:  Convert to Traditional Grade

Be Protective of your proficiency scale.  Your proficiency scale tells an important story. If you are going to make concessions or leave out part of a system, leave it out of the traditional, not your proficiency scale.

Define the traditional grading categories by asking yourself, “What should an A represent?” or, “What should a D actually mean?”  Define all the letters in order to educate your alignment.  Don’t be afraid to abandon percents and averages and include your professional judgement as a part of selecting the appropriate proficiency level and in selecting the traditional grade category.

This is the conversion chart I am using.


Student has demonstrated at least a level of “competency” in all course standards and has demonstrated a level of “mastery” in many course standards.


Student has demonstrated at least a level of “competency” in all course standards.


Student has demonstrated at least a level of “knowledgeable” in all course standards.and has demonstrated a level of “competency” (or higher) in many course standards.


Student has demonstrated at least a level of “knowledgeable” in all course standards or average of scores is at least 2.0

Student has only demonstrated at least a level of “building” in all course standards or average of scores is lower than 2.0


Student has not given a full and honest effort in at least 1 course standard.

Step 6: Be Tenacious and Resolute

There will be challenges along the way.  Your new “system” will encounter problems that you didn’t anticipate.  If you believe, as I do, that standards based grading is what is best for kids, it is worth the struggle.

Remember, the purpose of SBG is to better report what a student knows and is able to do.  Leave room for your professional judgement to come in and “fix” an unfair result of the system or do right by kids.

Click here for a printable/downloadable PDF version of the information on this post!

SBG Implementation Quick Start Guide

8 thoughts on “How to Implement Standards Based Grading

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