Standards-based grading (SBG) is an innovative educational practice that increases learning by better engaging students and creating a positive classroom environment.
This article is an introduction to SBG intended for parents and educators new to standards-based education.
The Basics of SBG
SBG collects more information about student learning than traditional grading.
Instead of a single overall grade, SBG breaks down the subject matter into many smaller “learning targets.”
Each target is an important concept students should master by the end of the course.
Throughout the term, student learning on each target is measured and recorded.
By collecting data, teachers can track learning and dynamically adapt instruction to meet student needs.
Figure 1 shows examples from traditional and standards-based report cards.
Figure 1: Examples of Traditional and Standards-based Grading
A second difference between traditional and SBG is the grading scale.
In traditional grading, students are measured by the percentage of work successfully completed.
The assumption is that higher completion rates reflect greater mastery, and earn higher grades.
Often 90% achieves an A, 80% gets a B, etc.
In SBG, grading is based on demonstration of mastery.
Students complete standards-aligned activities (projects, worksheets, quizzes, essays, presentations, etc.).
Teachers assess the activities and choose the appropriate grading scale level based upon the mastery demonstrated.
The typical scale is 1-4 and reflects students’ increasing capabilities.
1's indicate that students have little understanding of a concept, and consequently cannot demonstrate any mastery.
When starting a new target, many students have no prior knowledge, and begin at 1.
As students learn, they can demonstrate partial mastery, and score 2.
Once they meet a target, they score 3.
Typically 4's are used for students who exceed targets.
Figure 2 shows examples of traditional and SB grading scales.
Figure 2: Traditional and Standards-based Grading Scales
Note: Even though 1-4 is popular, SB grading scales vary widely.
Scales can be 1-5, 0-4, use half points, and use letters instead of numbers.
Yours may be different.
In standards-based education, teaching is responsive to learning.
When starting a new target, teachers present introductory lessons.
As students progress, they are offered more complex material to deepen their understanding.
They continue learning until they reach the target.
Think of a standards-based grading as a ladder,
where students climb up, “a rung at a time,” to reach the target at the top.
Let’s give a concrete example in Figure 3.
Sally starts a new learning target.
Since the concept is new, her mastery level is 1, the bottom rung.
The teacher presents a large group introductory lesson, intended to help students reach level 2 mastery.
It includes an activity where students can demonstrate mastery of basic concepts.
Sally is a good student and learns quickly.
She successfully completes the simple activity, and achieves mastery level 2.
The next day, Sally receives a more complex lesson, intended to help students reach level 3.
It includes a practice activity to demonstrate mastery.
Sally understands the concept quickly again, successfully completes the activity, and demonstrates mastery level 3.
Figure 3: Climbing to mastery
After a single period of instruction, some students progress immediately, but most do not.
It’s common for students to be confused on a topic, and only partially complete an activity.
Teachers regularly provide feedback, reteach, and offer additional opportunities for students to reach “the next rung.”
This process requires practice and patience, and is repeated until students reach the target.
SBG is powerful because it provides a framework to regularly measure student progress.
When teachers have continuous understanding of students’ capabilities, they can adapt instruction to better meet students’ needs.
In SBG, education is more effective and engaging.
Note: It is normal for students to have 1’s and 2’s in a SBG gradebook.
Unlike D’s or F’s in traditional grading, this is NOT an indication of failure, and shouldn’t be cause for concern.
It only means that students haven’t reached mastery yet.
They should grow with further instruction and effort.
Students only score 3’s on all targets at the end of the course.
How Does SBG Improve Education
Now that we’ve described the mechanics of SBG, let's look at its positive impact on the classroom.
SGB creates many changes that improve student engagement and learning.
More Relevant Instruction
In traditional classrooms, many teachers mechanically present curriculum to students -- lesson 1 on day 1, lesson 2 on day 2, etc.
While there are exceptions (e.g. - early elementary reading), often there is little adjustment to instruction based upon learning.
Because students learn at different rates, some students are bored because the pace is too slow.
Others are confused because instruction is too fast.
This is a daily challenge in traditional classrooms.
In SBG classrooms, teachers better understand student mastery.
At any time, they know which students are at level 1, 2, or 3.
This makes it easier to offer level-appropriate work.
Students at level 1 get activities that help them reach level 2.
Level 2 students get activities to climb to level 3.
Classrooms can break into smaller groups with students working independently on level-appropriate activities.
Students are less frustrated by poorly-fitting instruction.
School is consistently more positive when course material is relevant and interesting.
By improving the use of instructional time, students learn more and make increased academic progress.
Figure 4: Adapting Instruction to Student Learning
Learning Targets Enable Student Ownership
Learning targets are written in language understandable by students.
Rubrics break down the stages of learning (“rungs on the ladder”) for that specific target.
This allows students to better understand the goals and steps in learning.
A typical rubric is shown in Figure 5.
By demystifying the academic process, students can better engage in their own learning.
When working on an activity, they can self-assess and reflect on their progress.
They can understand areas of improvement and direct their own activities.
This leads to greater ownership and engagement in learning.
Figure 5: Rubric breaks down a learning target
Focus on Learning
Students are motivated by metrics.
They strive to improve in areas that are measured.
For traditional classrooms, they are measured by the percentage of work completed.
This encourages students to “chase points.” They gladly perform tasks that award points and raise their averages (e.g. - extra credit).
Conversely, it’s common to hear them ask, “Will this be graded?” and skip any activity (regardless of merit) not entered into the gradebook.
This creates unhealthy incentives which skew student behavior and attitudes.
In SBG, the focus is learning.
Students are measured by mastery level, so they attempt to increase their ability to do more complex activities.
They strive to learn and raise their mastery level.
Emotional Safety and Fear of Testing
In traditional grading, scores typically fall over time.
At the beginning of each marking period, students start with 100%.
Their averages fall as they make mistakes.
Students with the fewest mistakes earn the highest grades.
Depending on the size of the mistake (e.g. - a zero), it may be impossible to recover and earn a “good grade.”
This high-stakes environment creates test-taking fear and anxiety which interferes with learning.
In SBG, scores go up as students learn.
The final grade is reflective of mastery at the end of the course, so there’s little penalty for early mistakes.
There's no event that can “ruin” their entire grade.
This creates an emotionally safe environment where students are encouraged to stretch themselves, make mistakes, and learn.
Figure 6: Students can Fear Testing
In SBG environments, teachers spend more time giving feedback.
Feedback helps students understand their specific shortcomings and improve.
This positive environment accelerates learning and students reach higher levels of achievement -- all while being deeply engaged and enjoying school.
Figure 7: Teachers Give Feedback
Accurate Measurement of Learning
One pitfall of traditional grading is inaccuracy.
Student averages are highly dependent on the difficulty of work assigned.
If teachers present only low complexity activities, students can earn high scores with only a weak command of the material.
This situation is not uncommon in poor-performing schools with low expectations.
Some straight “A” high school students have been required to take remedial classes when moving onto college.
The opposite is also true.
Highly demanding instructors may present very difficult work, resulting in overly low student scores.
Curving and extra credit are used to adjust averages into more appropriate distributions.
In both cases SBG improves the situation by providing clearer criteria for measuring mastery.
Mastery of low complexity work yields lower grades while mastery of higher complexity work provides higher grades.
Connecting grades to complexity of mastery rather than percentage completion yields more accurate and consistent grades.
How TeacherEase Helps SBG
This document was written by the team the produces TeacherEase, software for standards-based learning.
We provide a platform for teachers to successfully implement SBG.
Data collection and analysis requires good software to be effective, and TeacherEase includes all the necessary tools:
curriculum content database, formative assessment tool, SB report card generation, SB gradebook, and parent portal.
For more information about TeacherEase, check out: Software for Standards-based Learning.
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Additional SBG Videos
For those who'd like more information, below are SBG-related videos we recommend.