Standards Based Grading in the Secondary School (2023)

Letter vs. Standards-Based Grades

Letter Grade

Standards-Based grade

Percentage grade

Standard GPA

A to A+




A- to B



3.0 to 3.7

C to B-

Approaching proficiency



D to C-

Below Proficiency




Below Proficiency

Below 65


Standards-based gradingalso allows teachers, students,and parents to see a grade report that lists overall levels of proficiency on separate skills instead of composite or combined skill scores. With this information, students are better informed in their individual strengths and in their weaknesses asa standards-based score highlights the skill set(s) or content that need(s) improvement and allows them to target areas for improvement. Furthermore, students would not need to re-do all of a test or assignment if they have demonstrated mastery in some areas.

Equality of Opportunity

An advocate for standards-based grading is educator and researcher Ken O'Connor. Inhis chapter,"The Last Frontier: Tackling the Grading Dilemma," in Ahead of the Curve: The Power of Assessment to Transform Teaching and Learning, he notes:

"Traditional grading practices have promoted the idea of uniformity. The way we are fair is we expect all students do to the same thing in the same amount of time in the same way. We need to move… to the idea that fairness is not uniformity. Fairness is equity of opportunity" (p128).

O'Connor argues that standards-based grading allows for grading differentiation because itis flexible and can be adjusted up and down as students confront new skills and content. Moreover, no matter where students are in a quarter or semester, a standard based grading system provides students, parents, or other stakeholders an assessment of student understanding in real time.

Importance of Student-Teacher Conferences

That kind of student understanding maytake place during conferences, such as the ones Jeanetta Jones Miller explained in her articleA Better Grading System: Standards-Based, Student-Centered Assessment in the September 2013 edition of the English Journal. In her description of how standard based grading informs her instruction, Miller writes that "it’s important to set up appointments to confer with each student about progress toward mastery of course standards." During the conference, each student receives individual feedback on his or her performance in meeting one or more standards in a content area:

"The evaluation conference provides an opportunity for the teacher to make it clear that the student’s strengths and areas for growth are understood and the teacher is proud of the student’s efforts to master the standards that are most challenging."

Another benefit to standardized based grading is the separationof student work habits that are often combined in a grade. At the secondary level, a point penalty for late papers missed homework, and/or uncooperative collaborative behavior is sometimes included in a grade. While these unfortunate social behaviors will not stop with the use of standards-based grading, they may be isolated and given as separate scoresinto another category. Of course, deadlines are important, but factoring in behaviors such as turning an assignment in on time or not has the effect of watering down an overall grade.

To counter such behaviors, it may be possible to have a student turn in an assignment that still meets a mastery standard but does not meet a set deadline. For example, an essay assignment may still achieve a "4" or exemplary score on skills or content, but the academic behavior skill in turning in a late paper may receive a "1" or below proficiency score. Separating behavior from skills also has the effect of preventing students from receiving the kind of credit that simply completing work and meeting deadlines has had in distorting measures of academic skill.

Arguments Against Standards-Based Grading

There are, however, many educators, teachers and administrators alike, who do not see advantages to adopting a standards-based grading system at the secondary level. Their arguments against standards-based grading primarily reflect concerns at the instructional level. They stress that thetransition to a standards-based grading system, even if the school is from one of the 42 states using the CCSS, will require teachers to spend immeasurable amounts of time on extra planning, preparation, and training. In addition, any statewide initiative to move to standards-based learning may be difficult to fund and manage. These concerns may be a reason enough not to adopt standards-based grading.

Classroom time can also be a concern for teachers whenstudents do not reach proficiency on a skill. These students will need reteaching and reassessment placing another demand on curriculum pacing guides. While this reteaching and reassessment by skill does createadditional work for classroom teachers, however, advocates forstandards-based grading note that this process may help teachers to refine their instruction. Rather than add to continuing student confusion or misunderstanding, reteaching may improve later understanding.

Perhaps the strongest objection to standards-based grading is based on the concern that standards-based grading might put high school students at a disadvantage when applying to college. Many stakeholders -parents, students teachers, guidance counselors, school administrators-believe that college admissions officers will only evaluate students based on their letter grades or GPA, and that GPA must be in numerical form.

Combining Letter and Standards-Based Grading

Ken O'Connor disputes that concern suggesting that secondary schools are in the position to issue both traditional letter or numerical grades and standards-based grades at the same time. “I think it’s unrealistic in most places to suggest that (GPA or letter grades) are going to go away at the high school level,” O’Connor agrees, "but the basis for determining these might be different." He proposes that schools might base their letter-grade system on the percentage of grade-level standards a student meets in that particular subject and that schools can set their own standards based on GPA correlation.

Renowned author and education consultant Jay McTigheagrees with O'Connor, “You can have letter grades and standards-based grading as long as you clearly define what those (letter-grade) levels mean.”

Other concerns are that standards-based grading can mean the loss of class ranking or honor rolls and academic honors. But O'Connor points out that high schools and universities confer degrees with highest honors, high honors, and honors and that ranking students to the hundredth of a decimal may not be the best way to prove academic superiority.

Northeast Pushing to Change Grading System

Several New England states will be at the forefront of this restructuring of grading systems. An article inTheNew England Journal of Higher Education Titled directly addressed the question of college admissions with standard based grading transcripts. The states of Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire have all passed legislation to implement proficiency or standards-based grading in their secondary schools.

In support of this initiative, a study in Maine titled Implementation of a Proficiency-Based Diploma System: Early Experiences in Maine(2014) by Erika K. Stump and David L. Silvernail used atwo-phase, qualitative approach in their research and found:

"...that benefits [of proficiency grading] include improved student engagement, greater attention to development of robust interventions systems and more deliberate collective and collaborative professional work."

Maine schools are expected to establish a proficiency-based diploma system by 2018.

The New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) and the New England Secondary School Consortium (NESSC) met in 2016 with admissions leaders from highly selective New England colleges and universities and discussion was the subject of an article "How Selective Colleges and Universities Evaluate Proficiency-Based High School Transcripts" (April 2016) by ErikaBlauth and Sarah Hadjian. The discussion revealed that college admissions officers are less concerned with grade percentagesand more concerned that "grades must always be based on clearly specified learning criteria."They also noted that:

"Overwhelmingly, these admissions leaders indicate that students with proficiency-based transcripts will not be disadvantaged in the highly selective admissions process. Moreover, according to some admissions leaders, features of the proficiency-based transcript model shared with the group provide important information for institutions seeking not just high-performing academics, but engaged, lifelong learners."

A review of the information on standards-based grading at the secondary level shows that implementation will require careful planning, dedication, and follow through for all stakeholders. The benefits for students, however, could be worth the considerable effort.


Standards Based Grading in the Secondary School? ›

Standards-based grading (SBG) is an intentional way for teachers to track their students' progress and achievements while focusing on helping students learn and reach their highest potential. It is based on students showing signs of mastery or understanding various lessons and skills.

What is standards-based grading for students? ›

Standards-based grading supports learning by focusing on the concepts and skills that have or have not been learned rather than accumulating or losing points, so parents know what their students need help with.

What are standards-based grading standards? ›

Standards-based grading (SBG) is an innovation in education that focuses on learning and helps increase achievement. It is often combined with updated instructional practices and culture to better engage students and foster a positive environment.

What is a standards-based grading rubric in high school? ›

Standards-based rubrics allow teachers to assess students on standards regardless of how the students demonstrate such knowledge. A standards-based rubric outlines the standard(s) that must be met in the assessment and lets the students decide how they will show they have mastered the content.

How is standards-based grading different from traditional grading? ›

Traditional grading approach only focuses on marks and goals, while standards-based grading system gives due importance to the learning progress. In a way, standards-based grading does not bind a student to show progress in a stipulated time and gain good grades.

What is standards-based grading example? ›

Most standards-based scales are 0-4 or 0-5 and reflect students' increasing skill or mastery. For a 1-4 scale, a score of 1 indicates that students have little understanding of a concept and cannot demonstrate any mastery of it. As students learn and progress, they can demonstrate partial mastery and score a 2.

Why is standards-based grading better for students? ›

Pros of Standard-Based Grading include:

More consistent feedback. Tailored instruction which allows students to better understand what they need improvement upon. Increased motivation as students are able to track progress against predetermined proficiency scales instead of arbitrary letter grades.

What are the concerns with standards-based grading? ›

In many standards-based classes, teachers also do not grade or weigh classwork assignments, which many students usually consider a grade bump. This hurts the students that this grading style is intended to help, because classwork is the only time that every student is given a set opportunity to do their work.

Is standards-based grading effective? ›

Advocates describe SBG as a more accurate and more meaningful method of reporting on student learning than most traditional grading methods (O'Connor, 2017; Townsley & Buckmiller, 2016). learning expectations such as Beginning or Proficient.

What is standards based grading behavior? ›

Additionally, SBG ensures that homework, behavior, attendance, notebooks, and group work are not factored into a student's grade. Standards-based grading allows students to be graded solely on mastery of course content, which can improve student motivation and help with equity.

Does standards based grading have GPA? ›

Standards-based grading will not change how a student's GPA is calculated. At the high school level, the 4.0 scale is converted to a letter grade which is used to determine GPA. The table below shows the conversion from a 4, 3, 2, 1, 0 score into an A, B, C, D, F score.

How is standard based grading calculated? ›

How Is Standards-Based Grading Calculated? Mastery can be calculated in several ways in a standards-based approach. The most popular calculation methods include decaying average, most recent score, highest score, mode, and mean.

What is the opposite of standards based grading? ›

In a competency-based system… Students advance to higher-level work and can earn credit at their own pace. (In a building, district, or classroom using a standards-based grading philosophy, this is not necessarily the case.

What is standards-based grading behavior? ›

Additionally, SBG ensures that homework, behavior, attendance, notebooks, and group work are not factored into a student's grade. Standards-based grading allows students to be graded solely on mastery of course content, which can improve student motivation and help with equity.

What are standards-based grading systems based on? ›

Standards-based grading (SBG) is an educational system that focuses on the effectiveness of instruction and the mastery of skills or standards for a specific subject. It is an innovative approach to education that is often paired with a positive environment for learners who are actively engaged in learning.

Does standards-based grading have GPA? ›

Standards-based grading will not change how a student's GPA is calculated. At the high school level, the 4.0 scale is converted to a letter grade which is used to determine GPA. The table below shows the conversion from a 4, 3, 2, 1, 0 score into an A, B, C, D, F score.

What is the cons of standard based grading? ›

Standards-based grading can have a number of negative effects on students, both academically and emotionally. For one thing, the focus on specific standards can lead to a superficial and mechanistic understanding of the material, rather than a deeper and more meaningful engagement with the subject matter.


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