3 “Don’ts” of Standard-Based Grading

This is my fourth year teaching, but it was not until the latter part of this school year that I understood how to actually grade my students. Often times when report cards came out, I would look at grades assigned to certain students and think “I know this student knows more than what this grade implies”, or “This student really doesn’t know my content as well as the grade suggests”.  I struggled with how to ethically “fix” these situations.  How do you accurately connect the report to the amount of knowledge and mastery the student has attained?

I found my answer in late fall 2018 when I attended a workshop on Standard Based Grading (SBG). The main concept of SBG is to measure the student’s level of mastery on a given topic/standard, and the effectiveness with which that material is taught. Retakes of summative assessments are a must – especially if the student self-assesses and determines he can show more growth. This differs from traditional grading methods in which classwork, bellwork, homework and formative assessments are assigned during the process of learning and then graded. SBG looks for mastery at the end of a unit instead of factoring the learning process into the report of learning. The ideas presented at this workshop made me excited about assessing and grading again. I was eager to try them in my classroom. However, what seemed to be an easy concept soon became a struggle for my students and myself.

Before I tell you what happened (or what didn’t), let me say we have now come to the end of the school year and I wish I had found this practice years ago. I know my students are better for this and I am a better teacher for it. But, it was difficult for a type A personality like me to start this in the middle of the year. I discovered three Don’ts that I wish someone would have told me before I started this journey.

Don’t Look Back
By the time I found this classroom-changing strategy, I had finished my first nine weeks’ unit.  My students and I were ready to begin something new after a much-needed Fall break.  One would think I came back to the classroom enthusiastic about trying this new approach to grading with new material.  Nope!  Instead, I decided to look back with my students at the three standards already covered and start over with them to make sure they fully understood the material. Not only had I covered cells, organisms, and cell theory in the first nine weeks, I was going to teach those standards more. I was determined to make this material stick and use what I had learned about SBG to do so.  To say my classroom was filled with grumpy students and a grumpy teacher is an understatement.  We were all so bored with the material I think in the end students were studying at home to earn a good grade not for the learning, but just to move on to something new.  So my advice, whenever you start this process, just start. Don’t look back to the material you have already covered, and don’t feel as though you have failed the kids you have taught in previous years that have not had the opportunity to take advantage of this strategy.  Make the commitment to start now and move forward.

Don’t Rush
Wherever you are in the school year when you start this process, understand it will take time, a lot of time, to get it right.  This is not a miracle “fix it all” strategy that works instantly for every student and every classroom.  I had the mentality that I would walk into my classroom fresh from a break with this newfound tool in my belt and it would just work perfectly.  Nope!  Students resisted, teachers resisted, I resisted.  I tried to merge standards together; I tried to fit it all in.  I realized one key piece: I am the expert on what students should know.  In order for any of us to be successful at this approach (or successful at teaching in general), we have to change from a mindset that values Quantity to one that values Quality.  Take your time teaching, assessing, re-teaching, and reassessing standards that you know the students need.  Slow down and enjoy the material along with the students.

Don’t Give Up
This is the biggest one.  Don’t give up on yourself or your students.  This is a journey we are all taking and no one has it perfect yet (I have to repeat this to myself hourly).  Each class you teach will need something different from you.  It will be difficult to find times for students to retake a test, and it will be difficult when you need to reteach a topic to only a handful of students while moving the rest on to the next standard.  But, it is worth it.  I have been called crazy for allowing a student who slept through my test to make it up.  A zero would not have shown me what he knew.  Students have cried for easy classwork grades in order to pad the grade book.  Believe me, many times I wanted to just to stop the parent conferences and the tears.  But, I have also been told my class is one in which learning happens.  And students have been overheard saying they wish all teachers graded like this.  I am, for the first time, confident in sending my students on to the next grade with an accurate representation of what they learned in my classroom. Stay strong through the chaos because the reward is sweet.

So even after all the stress and overwhelming days, you might ask, “Would I do this again?” The answer is OF COURSE.  It works!! And, now that I have figured out (at least some of) what not to do, the results will be that much better next year.


Amber Emerson has a Bachelor’s Degree in Biology and a Master’s Degree in Secondary Education, both from the University of Alabama. She has been teaching middle school science since 2014. She lives in Tuscaloosa with her husband and her two dogs. She enjoys traveling the world.

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