Recalculating: A Secondary ELA Teacher’s Venture into Standards-Based Grading

Over the past two decades (almost), it would periodically occur to me that the grades I assigned my students did not necessarily reflect their level of skill. Ten points off here. Ten points added there. A zero for this assignment. A 110/100 for that assignment. Such arbitrary numbers, it would seem. But education being what it is, I would push those thoughts out of my mind and just grade like I was taught to grade…and like I had been graded as a student…and like everyone around me was grading. “It just is what it is,” I would say to myself.

Then one day I walked out of my school late in the afternoon and saw my curriculum coordinator, Khristie Goodwin, standing on the front steps, deep in thought. She asked me if I had ever heard about proficiency scales. No, I had not, I confessed. And then she encouraged me to do some research and let her know what I thought about them.

Fast forward a year, and here I am writing this blog post.

Because I did the research. Then Mrs. Goodwin sent me to Marzano Research for a workshop on SBG with my principal, Heath Harmon, and two other colleagues. And I was hooked.

It made SO. MUCH. SENSE. All I could think the entire time was, “Why hasn’t this always been the way grading has been done?”

In all honesty, I always thought of standards-based grading as an elementary thing, if I thought of it at all. I never expected to have to deal with it on the secondary level and definitely never anticipated WANTING to deal with it. Yet here I am shouting from the rooftops that this is the way to go. Here are seven changes I have made in my classroom since implementing SBG…and a couple of bonus lessons learned.

1. Everything I have students do in class is attached to a priority standard.

Upon first look, you may think, “well, of course, everything you have students do should be attached to a standard.” And I would have said the same thing. Then this happened on the first day of school:

“Okay, guys. You will have a test on your summer reading book next Monday.”


“Wait. Maybe not. I have to think about it.”


What in the world am I assessing? I haven’t even taught them anything yet. Any test I would normally give them would just tell me if they had read the book or not. That’s not a standard.

What do I do?

So I went to my colleague, Cade Somers, who is on this journey with me, and found he was having the same thoughts I was having. Because while we like to think everything we do is connected to a standard, SBG makes it crystal clear when it is not.

I decided to use the book to teach writing standards that I would then assess. I had to go deeper and actually TEACH them something before I could assess whether or not they had LEARNED, not whether or not they had READ.

2. The amount of feedback I give my students has grown significantly.  

This is not to suggest that teachers who grade traditionally do not give a ton of feedback. As an English teacher, I have always felt like I have spent a great deal of time offering my students advice on how to improve. However, with SBG, I am giving feedback on every single assessment, not just essays. If I score it, I give feedback on it. I also give feedback on behaviors (respect, responsibility, relationships, resolve, and resourcefulness). And, as you can imagine, this takes a ton of time and thoughtfulness.

Cade introduced me to a website called Vocaroo that has helped. I can sit in my classroom with the door closed during my planning period or after school and just talk to the student about what he or she has done well or not so well, and Vocaroo records it. While this can be really awkward when a colleague or wandering student walks in, it’s great to be able to give students personal feedback that allows them to hear my voice. When I’m done, I can save the recording and send them a link so they can hear it when they get a chance.

Google Classroom also has a tool that has made this easier: the comment bank. You can type feedback that you find yourself giving over and over and just copy it into a comment on the student’s Google Doc from the comment bank. Google Keep could be used in a similar manner. And I think Cade uses the Notes app on his MacBook. There are so many tools out there to help make feedback easier and less time-consuming.

Is all that time worth it? I hope so. I feel confident that my students know what they can do to get their scores up, and those who want to work hard to get those scores up are definitely using the feedback as intended. And that’s the point, right?

3. Assessments can look like anything from an essay to a test to an exit slip to a conversation.

This one may actually be my biggest struggle–not because I cannot come up with a variety of assessment but because I cannot get a firm grasp on which ones are worthy of scoring. This has left me with priority standards that only have a couple of opportunities to show mastery while other priority standards have fifteen or sixteen opportunities. This is a work in progress for me.

I do love that I can personalize assessments for students when it makes sense. For example, I have a student who loves to write, and she is a really talented, mature writer for a ninth grader. I was waiting until the second semester to begin assessing my students on grammar and mechanics because I wanted to have time to teach them how to correct some things first. But this student was already demonstrating an incredible command of language, so I went ahead and assessed her. Because she missed several days of the semester because of surgery, I was able to average the language standard in with the other standards and not count one against her in which she was lacking due to absences. Another example is a student who is on my debate team. I assessed the speech he wrote for RI 9.1, which requires citing of textual evidence because he did such a good job with evidence in his speech for an extra-curricular activity.

4. I am much more aware of which students are ready to move on and which ones need to take a step back.

Most of my students are on the same page for the majority of the time, but I have noticed a small number who are already proficient in some skills and ready to move on to more complex ones, or at least to more complex texts. I’ve also noticed a larger number of students who could use a bit of remediation before they will be able to reach proficiency for some of the standards.

Yes, I may know this without standards-based grading, but SBG has made it clear exactly where their strengths and weaknesses are very early in the process. It also gives me an effective way to have a conversation with them about their strengths and weaknesses as we look at the proficiency scales and point out which parts they are mastering and which ones they are not.

Once we get further into the year, I will be able to push my stronger students beyond the standards while I continue to work on getting the others to proficient, and, hopefully, the students will be able to see exactly why they are working on different skills rather than having to make assumptions about why some students are being allowed to move on to new things while others are still working on standards we have already covered.

5. I have to get organized.

Guys, I am not an organized person. Organization has always been a struggle for me. But SBG would be impossible if I didn’t have a system. Thank goodness for my PLN (Professional Learning Network)! I joined a Facebook group of teachers who use SBG in their classrooms, and a wonderful, generous teacher in that group shared something called a “data binder” with me. I then shared this data binder with Cade, and Cade tweaked it to fit our needs. I could cry with gratitude for both of these humans. The data binder houses all of the priority standards with links to the proficiency scale for each one. It has a tab for each of those standards where the scores and feedback are recorded, and there is a GRAPH of the scores so the students can see their growth. One tab is a learning target tracker for the students to track their own understanding as we move through a lesson or unit. There is a tab for the “employability skills” (I listed those above as behaviors I assess), and I have added tabs for each of the standardized assessments students are required to take throughout the year so they can see that progress as well. I created a copy for each student and shared it with them and their parents…and it’s magical.

I have evidence of everything! And I can access these data binders from any computer, even my phone, at any time I need to. Awesome, right?

One place I still need more organization is employability skills. The data binders have a place for me to add scores and feedback for these every two weeks, but I’m struggling to develop the habit of recording these as I notice them. I even made report sheets that I printed and put inside a paper folder, and I still cannot get myself in the habit of keeping them updated. We all have struggles, I guess, and I confess this is one of mine.

Now that I have entered the second semester, I am trying to utilize Blackboard to house basic information about assignments so parents can more easily see which assignments students are missing. I am still keeping all of the feedback and scores in the data binder, but parents were having a difficult time keeping track, so I’m hoping this helps.

6. I do not feel pressured to score every single thing they do.

“Is this for a grade?” How many times have you heard that question? Even before SBG, I hated that question. I don’t think any of us would claim grading as one of our favorite parts of being an educator. If we had our way, we would probably just create seamless, well-crafted lessons to impart our wisdom upon the souls in front of us and the perfect students in our care would soak up everything we wanted them to learn and no mention of grades or credit would ever cross the lips of any of our pupils or of their parents. But that’s not our reality. Students expect grades. Parents expect grades. Administrators expect grades. Heck, the pizza place expects grades so they can give out honor roll coupons. So grade we must.

But with SBG, I no longer feel the need to grade (score) every single assignment. I explain this to my students like this: If you began taking tennis lessons today and had never picked up a racket before, would it be fair for me to walk up to you at the end of that lesson and tell you how horrible you are at tennis? Of course not! So why do you want me to grade an assignment when you have only had one lesson on that skill? It’s not fair to you.

And it’s not.

I can’t explain this logic any more clearly than Rick Wormeli can, so watch this video if you’d like to learn more.

The bottom line is that every assignment SHOULDN’T be for a grade. Yes, we should have checks for understanding as we go so that we can alter our instruction in order to get our students where we need them to go, but that doesn’t mean we have to formally score every assignment. And that’s not really what my students want me to do. What my students are really asking me to do is to give them CREDIT for doing this work. They have been trained to do things for points, not for the learning. And I have been just as guilty about this as anyone else.

One of my former students is now a teacher’s aide for me. He has Cade for tenth grade English, so he is being introduced to SBG this year. He was in my classroom as I was explaining how grades work with SBG to my freshmen. When I finished, he said, “So I see why this is a good thing, but it’s not what we’re used to. We are used to doing work, turning it in, and getting an A. We aren’t used to actually worrying about whether or not we’ve learned anything or mastered a standard.”

I almost cried tears of joy. YES! Yes, Gavin, that is why we are doing this!

Of course, I asked him if he would repeat himself so I could record it, and he said, “I don’t even remember what I said.” Teenagers! Am I right?

Another student told her biology teacher that it is so much easier to make a 100 than a 4. Yes! That’s what I want to hear. Grades should mean something, and I think my students are starting to understand how traditional grading can be skewed and not be an accurate reflection of what they have actually learned.

7. I have to manage my time wisely.

Remember how I said I struggle with forming a new habit of documenting employability skills? Well, if I struggle with documentation of behaviors, let’s just say time management is body slamming me to the ground right now. It’s a very good thing that I don’t have to grade (or score) as many assignments as I had to grade before because the ones I do grade take up a great deal of time. Those voice memos I record for my students? I can’t exactly do those in a crowded room. I have to be alone. And even the comment bank requires I have a computer handy. So some of the times and places where I used to be able to sneak in some grading aren’t a viable option for me anymore. I also get bogged down in feedback for the employability skills and really need to figure out a more streamlined way to get that done.

But with that said, the time is well spent. I feel like the time I spend on giving feedback is valuable, for both my students and myself. So it’s rewarding time. I just need to figure out how to create more time in the day. If you have any suggestions on how to do that, please share.

Bottom Line: I love this SBG thing. I love that it forces me to stay focused. I love that my students are getting to track their progress. I love that an A in my class means they actually know their stuff and that an A+ means they are rockin’ the standards and not just “good at doing school” or bringing me Expo markers.  I love that my students are given the freedom to mess up during the learning process and that one assignment will never ruin their grade when all is said and done.

I truly believe that standards-based grading is the way to go and that our kids deserve us to give it a try. If this unorganized mess of a human being can do it, I know you can.

Michelle Shelton teaches Pre-AP English 9 and computer science at Oxford High School in Oxford, Alabama. She also coaches the debate team and co-hosts the podcast, Across the Hall, with Cade Somers. An earlier version of this piece was posted to her professional blog at

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