Standards-Based Grading: It’s The Right Thing To Do

Guest Author Ken O'Connor, the Grade Doctor February 24, 2017


This is a guest post from Ken O’Connor, The Grade Doctor. In this post, Ken expands on the question: What is standards-based grading?

For my first blog of 2017, let’s go back to basics and revisit what standards-based grading (SBG) is and how it delivers on the core elements needed for high-quality grades.

First, I need to define standards-based grading. For me, SBG is grading that accurately portrays student proficiency/mastery. In SBG grades are based on:

  • Standards, not assessment methods;
  • Levels of proficiency, not points and percentages;
  • Achievement only with behaviors reported separately; and
  • Performance on assessments of learning, not learning activities.

Grades are the summary symbols (numbers or letters) on report cards, not the scores (numbers or letters) that teachers place on individual pieces of student assessment evidence. The primary purpose of grades is to communicate each student’s level of achievement on the learning outcomes detailed in the standards.

All grades MUST be:

  • Accurate
  • Consistent
  • Meaningful
  • Supportive of learning


Grades are accurate when based only on more recent individual achievement on high-quality assessments of learning. They do not include behavior.

Grades are consistent when based on clearly defined and understood levels of proficiency and agreed upon processes and procedures.

Grades are meaningful when they are based on standards and provide direct information about how well each student is achieving the standards. Ken Mattingly, a middle school science teacher in Mt. Vernon, KY said this: “When I went from grading the activity to grading the learning, everything in my classroom changed.”

Grades support learning when de-emphasized and both teacher and learners turn their attention to an assessment model, grounded in detailed feedback, that supports students taking learning risks, making mistakes, improving over time and taking self-assessment.

Implementing SBG is a gradual process. I recommend allowing at least 18 months and up to three years to firmly establish SBG in your school or district. Start slowly by introducing the concept to teachers and providing SBG reading and research materials and videos for them to explore on their own. Do the same for parents and community members.

Provide professional training opportunities so teachers have the time to develop a complete understanding of what SBG will look like in their classrooms when adopted. Explain how the adoption will roll out and provide all stakeholders with a rough schedule detailing the timeline and steps for the implementation.

Over the past couple of decades, I have been part of, or witnessed, hundreds of district and school transitions from traditional to standards-based grading. Below are suggestions for grading practices to implement and to eliminate.

IMPLEMENT these effective grading practices

1. Provide multiple opportunities for students to show evidence of learning:

  • During instruction
  • Re-assessments

2. Emphasize most recent evidence of proficiency on standards
3. Use logic rules, not a calculation to determine subject grades
4. Ensure all assessments are high quality and standards-based
5. Develop students who are reflective learners who know how to set and achieve learning goals

ELIMINATE these ineffective grading practices

1. Point penalties for late work, academic dishonesty, or attendance
2. Extra credit points for things unrelated to standards
3. Assigning group scores when students engage in cooperative learning
4. Curving class scores or grades
5. Everaging student scores
6. Assigning zeros to student work
7. Grading homework

In addition to eliminating the seven ineffective grading practices listed above to fully implement SBG it is necessary to eliminate subject grades and only provide grades for standards. This is relatively easy to do for K–8 but more difficult for high schools because of the external uses of GPA’s to determine, college admission, scholarships, etc. I believe the appropriate compromise is to provide only standards grades for freshmen and sophomores and provide grades for standards and subjects for juniors and seniors as two years of data are sufficient and more appropriate for the external purposes.

SBG eliminates most of the toxic impacts of traditional grading and demonstrates to students and their families that school is about learning and student growth rather than the accumulation of points.

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Ken O'Connor a.k.a. The Grade Doctor

Ken O’Connor is widely recognized as an industry expert in grading practices in K-12 education, and specializes in issues related to the communication of student achievement, especially grading and reporting. Ken enjoyed a 23 year teaching career and was the Curriculum Coordinator responsible for Student Assessment and Evaluation and Geography for the Scarborough (Ontario) Board of Education. Through books, articles, presentations and working with small groups Ken helps individuals, schools and school districts to improve communication about student achievement. Ken has a M.Ed. from the University of Toronto as well as a B.A. (Hon) and a Diploma of Education from the University of Melbourne.

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