Standards-based grading (SBG) is an innovative educational practice that helps increase learning in the classroom.
It is often combined with standards-based instruction practices that better engage students and create a positive classroom environment.
This article is an introduction to SBG (and related techniques) 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 a teachable concept that 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 example 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 primarily 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 attempt standards-aligned activities (projects, worksheets, quizzes, essays, presentations, etc.).
Teachers assess the student output and choose the appropriate grading scale level that reflects the mastery demonstrated.
Typical scales are 1-4 and reflect students’ increasing skill.
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 working and 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.
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’ mastery levels, they can adapt instruction to better meet students’ needs.
In SBG, education is more effective and engaging.
Figure 3: Climbing to mastery
When new concepts are introduced, it is normal for students to have 1’s and 2’s in an SB gradebook.
Some teachers show all scores on the parent portal, and these low early scores shouldn’t be cause for concern --
unlike D’s or F’s in traditional grading.
It simply means that students haven’t reached mastery yet, and will likely 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 the advantages of standards-based education in the classroom.
Many instructional changes 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 often 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 student-friendly language.
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
Some students may be extrinsically motivated by metrics, and strive to improve in measured areas.
In traditional classrooms, this often encourages students to “chase points.”
Many will perform tasks that award points and raise their averages (e.g. - extra credit).
Conversely, it’s common to hear students 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 and developing mastery.
Striving for mastery is an intrinsic motivator and transforms the classroom.
Students learn for their own enjoyment and sustain high levels of effort and academic achievement.
Emotional Safety and Fear of Testing
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.
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 that produces TeacherEase.
We believe that successful SBG implementations require good software, so we built TeacherEase to meet this need.
It includes all the necessary tools: standards and learning target management,
online assessment, curriculum content database, SB report card generation, SB gradebook, and parent portal.
For more information, check out: TeacherEase: Software for Standards-based Learning.
Link to this page
If you found this page helpful, provide it to parents by linking it from your school/district web-site. Feel free to use the code below.
<a href="https://www.teacherease.com/standards-based-grading.aspx">What is Standards-Based Grading?</a>
Additional SBG Videos
For more information, we recommend the SBG-related videos below.