The Poor Man's Excuse for Standards Based Grading

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Whether I’m presenting to a school faculty or speaking at a conference, these slides and information always seem to get people out of their seats and taking pictures and frantically writing down notes.

Now, for the purposes of this piece, I'm going to assume you're already familiar with the flaws in traditional grading and you know you need to make a change. If you're not or don't see a need for change, I’d encourage you to check out my pieces “Audit Your Gradebook”, “The Trouble With Grading” or especially “What’s in a Letter Grade?” I believe toxic grading progress can prevent students from learning course content and these articles offer some of the reasons why.

Instead, I’m going to offer some solutions for Edunators who already know their gradebooks are flawed and want to correct them.

Many school districts (including my own) have made the switch to a full blown Standards Referenced Format in which student’s grades are never averaged together into one score. Instead, achievement on individual standards is reported relative to a student’s comprehension of that material, usually a 4-point scale with “3” being “proficient” and “4” being reserved for exemplary work beyond grade-level or what was taught in class or expected of students. That type of system wide change however is quite difficult and requires years of research and implementation and frankly, many teachers are not inclined nor in a position to take this on.

So what can individual teachers do to ensure their gradebooks are focused on learning? I recommend two changes.

Step 1: STOP grading individual assignments and instead only enter into your gradebook specific standards or objectives you’d like your students to learn.

Figure out exactly what it is you want your students to be able to know or do as they leave your classroom. It’s the first of Rick DuFour’s “Critical Questions” of a Professional Learning Community – and if you’re up for a bit more of a challenge consider it from a student’s perspective.


While the left hand column of your gradebook is student’s names (represented above by names of teachers in my building) the top row should be the standards you want students to know. You’ll no longer be grading individual assignments. Instead, every assignment your students complete is formative assessment, or practice, for a summative assessment.

Only the most recent assessment of a given objective should be reported in a gradebook – remember gradebooks are meant to be a communication piece, no more, no less. They should report a student’s progress on the learning you deem important.

What if a student does poorly on the summative assessment? How can they improve their grade?

They’ll complete a remediation activity of some kind using a different learning style or method than was previously used and re-do the assignment. Or better yet, they’ll complete a DIFFERENT assignment designed to assess the same content knowledge or skill – remember, remediation does not mean the same thing louder! Students should be allowed to continuously re-try objectives they’ve struggled to learn. Who are we to deny a student an opportunity to learn? Some will insist this method does nothing to teach students responsibility, but unfortunately that’s a lesson many students aren’t developmentally capable of learning in this manner – check out my “Two Things Teachers Focus on Most…Instead of Learning” article for more on this topic.

We’re not going to punish students by averaging together their old attempts with their new attempts. That sort of bizarre number crunching is one of the things Ken O’Connor discusses in his awesome book 15 Fixes for Broken Grades.

Grading in this manner allows us to differentiate at will – do we really care how a student demonstrates understanding of a topic as long as they do? So each student could complete a different assessment of the same material, and be recorded the same way. It easily incorporates formative assessment because essentially EVERY ASSIGNMENT is formative until a student “masters” the objective – then the gradebook is updated and the most recent assessment becomes “summative”.

But what is “mastery”? That brings us to the second change we’ll need to make.

Step #2: Eliminate the 100 point scale and especially the “Super F”.

Standards Based Grading systems utilize a four point scale because 100 is simply meaningless. It’s too many. What’s the difference in content comprehension between an 89 and an 80? Or a 75 and an 82? Not much…but the “grade” reported could be significant. Instead, learning comprehension can easily be divided into four categories as mentioned above. Here is how we define these four levels at in my school district, a very simple graphic we share with both students and parents.


If you’re looking for a way to make this sort of logic apply to your current grading model, consider something like this:


A few key points:

  • Given that many schools use five letters for grades (F, D, C, B, and A) we need to create an additional level of comprehension from the traditional four point scale many Standards Based Programs recommend. When I was faced with that dilemma, I treated “F” as a sort of “Level 0” if you will. The only way you could receive an “F” for me was to offer zero evidence of learning. If you demonstrated any level of learning even the most simplistic concepts, I you received a “D” in my class under the traditional grading model. Did I have far fewer F’s? Yes….but what’s so wrong with that? Kids instantly became more hopeful, they tried harder knowing how much harder it was to actually “fail”.
  • An “A” in this model is FAR more difficult to achieve than a traditional “A”. In most grading systems, “A” represents meeting of all expectations. The problem is…what do we do with kids who need challenged beyond our normal classroom expectations? Don’t some kids perform beyond what we expect? We need a way to report that. Be aware that earning an “A” in this format is much more difficult, so expect a parent/student backlash if making this change suddenly, particularly if your grades impact desired rewards like Honor Roll, class rank, etc. The good news of course is that your top students will now be required to challenge themselves more than ever before, and not be rewarded simply for “playing school”. They’ll get the challenge they deserve.
  • Finally, a note about the “Super F”. I implore anybody who’s considering this format in their grading to seriously consider eliminating the “Super F”. Mathematically, a 0% carries so much more weight than any other grade, that when it comes time to average together grades at the end of the term, it skews the final grade in an unrealistic and unfair manner. Consider if you have five objectives in a nine week grading period – a little less than one every two weeks – if a student were to receive one 0% for any reason, followed by four scores of 90%, their end of the quarter grade would be a 72%. They’ve NEVER performed at a “C” level…yet that’s the grade they receive? A score representing they’re “below grade level” in our format? Ridiculous. By simply creating a new floor for our grades of 50%, that same student’s end of course average is 82%, much closer to their demonstrated ability. 50% is still failing in any grading system....make it the floor of your gradebook and Eliminate the “Super F”.

A few drawbacks to the “Poor Man’s Excuse for Standards Based Grading”

  • One of the flaws in this “Poor Man’s Excuse for Standards Referenced Grading” as opposed actually implementing such a program is that it doesn’t do a great job of showing student growth. Because we’re only recording the most recent scores – in an attempt to provide an accurate representation of the student’s learning – we no longer see their old scores. They should never be averaged together, but it is nice to be able to show growth and say “Look how far you’ve come!” This method does not do that without additional resources, such as portfolio presentations, etc.
  • Please be aware that even though I HATE the notion of a "bell curve" and would never reccomend grading to ensure such a notion, your grades will naturally bunch up in the middle. It is much, much harder to "fail" using this model (as if that's such a terrible thing) but it is also much harder to get an "A" in this system than it is to get an "A" in traditional classrooms. Your top students will struggle with this initially, and so might their parents. Be prepared for the valedectorian in danger of losing his or her 4.0 to be furious that they're required to go "beyond" to get an "A". They're used to playing school, doing what's required, and being rewareded for it. They're not used to being asked to stretch, grow and work hard because for some school has come easy for them. Many other top students will appreciate the challenge, as will their parents who may have felt their kids weren't being asked to work hard, but it's something to think about.
  • Likewise, at the end of the grading period, most schools and grading programs will still require teachers to average together the scores from all objectives into one final grade. That’s a shame, given that a student could score very well on one objective, fail another and likely earn a “C” though they’ve never performed “C” work. Again – it’s a flaw with traditional grading that requires district or school wide change. This “Poor Man’s Excuse” can help teacher’s improve their gradebook, it can’t solve all the problems without a system wide change. 


I hope your school or district is considering making the shift to Standards Referenced Grading, if they haven’t already. If not, I hope you as an individual teacher will consider using this method or a similar one. At the very least reflect on your own practices and consider if your current practices truly reflect learning.

I thank you for reading and welcome your feedback. If anybody has any other tweaks to traditional systems, please feel free to email me any suggestions to improve this method. Please Tweet, Share or forward this link to any educator you feel could benefit from reading it and contact me if there’s anything I can do to help you or your school “Become the Edunator” and focus on learning.  


You or someone you know struggling with difficult students? Check these for some potential solutions!

Previewing as a Free and Easy Student Intervention - An alternative solution to many common academic struggles.

One Way to Handle Defiant Students - It's not a punishment, but it is accountability for students who refuse to do classwork.

Lest We Forget: School Sucks - Relationships are key and teachers must "Know thy enemy".

Obstacles of Learning Solution Index - Simple solutions to a variety of simple classroom problems.

What's In a Letter Grade?

AplusGreat, you got an A! Now what the hell does that mean?Assuming you don’t want to abolish grading entirely, if you’re going to be focused on learning you need to determine what exactly you want your grades to reflect. Hopefully by now you’ve Audited Your Gradebook and you know you want it to reflect learning and nothing else. That’s great, but it’s not the whole story.

Teachers can essentially make their grades say whatever they want and they don’t really have to do any fancy number crunching to do it.

Letter Grades Represent a Student’s Place Relative to Peers

Blech. Please don’t do this. This is the old-school model of the “Bell Curve” whereby the majority of students receive a “C” because that means “Average”. A’s are reserved for the top whatever percent of the class, regardless of how much they actually know about a topic. In this system, letter grades serve as classifications to determine how students rank amongst their peers.

Seriously this model sucks. Don’t give us that crap about that was the original purpose of letter grades when they were developed in the Ivy League 200 years ago. That may be true, but times have changed back then. For starters, slavery is illegal, most people don’t work on family farms and we’re not just talking about societies academic elite. There might be something too all this nonsense at the University level, but even Stanford Law School and others have adopted a model of Standards Referenced Grading. Leave this over-competitive nonsense in the past and recognize that the purpose of schools is to help all kids succeed, not determine who’s most likely to.

Letter Grades Represent the Quantity of Knowledge Shown

Still blech. If you give a test with 100 problems on it (What the hell is wrong with you?) and a student gets 88 of them correct, you assign a grade of 88% which in most school’s equates to a B+. Traditionally, the percentage represents the number of questions correct, or the amount of knowledge learned. This seems like a great model if you want your students to do a lot of really basic problems, but what do they do with the more difficult ones?

Letter Grades Represent A Combination of Quantity and Depth of Knowledge

Less blech than before but still slightly blech. This is actually what the vast majority of teachers use, whether they realize it or not. Suppose you give an easy test that a student receives 90/100 points on. Then, you give a hard test that a student receives 50/100 points on. Add them together and your student has a 140/200 or a 70%, usually a C-.

But what does that C- actually mean? Does it mean the student struggles with hard questions but not with easy questions? Not necessarily, they could have gotten a 70 on both tests and received the same grade, or gotten a 90% on the hard test and fallen asleep at the wheel on the easy one. This “C-“ could mean a variety of things, and nobody knows. Hell even the teacher would need some time to figure out what exactly that C- represented.

Suppose you give a test in which the hard questions are worth more points than the easy ones (again, as many teachers do). If there are still a variety of ways to get to “C,” “B,” or “A” then what does the grade really mean? It’s a combination of quality and quantity, a combination that can’t be deciphered. Now combine those test grades with classwork grades, homework grades and other tests and you get a summative grade at the end of the term. You could have “A” students with huge holes in their understanding and “C” students who know more than the teacher but are too “lazy” to do their work. What do these letter grades actually represent? Good luck figuring that out.

Letter Grades Represent Depth of Knowledge

Problematic, but definitely not blech. This speaks to Kathie Nunley’s Layered Curriculum model in which students receive a “C” for doing the most basic Depth of Knowledge functions like rote memorization and basic recall. As students think more in-depth, such as comparing and contrasting or analyzing they can earn a “B”. Students who demonstrate the ability to think critically, critique and develop new ideas can earn an “A”. Grading in a way that reflects Depth of Knowledge makes sense.

Like the others, the problem with this model arises again when you try and average things together. Suppose on one unit a student worked at the highest Depth of Knowledge imaginable, work so inspiring Benjamin Bloom himself would stand and applaud. Then, suppose the following unit the student just wasn’t getting it. For the sake of argument let’s say they worked hard, but struggled to understand. What grade does the student then deserve at the end of the term? More importantly, does the cumulative grade at the end serve any purpose? Or do we just need to help this student with the material he struggled to understand in depth?

So are composite grades at the end of a term completely useless? Not necessarily.

Perhaps there is some benefit to being able to say at the end of a term “On average, little Johnny performed at a [x] level.” Maybe this is beneficial to future teachers, maybe it’s not depending on the school. Some districts will use it to make decisions about retention or promotion and parents sometimes appreciate this sort of data as well.

What’s far more beneficial however is to adopt a system of Standards Referenced Grades, where students are assessed relative to how well they understand a specific standard. Those grades are recorded specifically, so that teacher and student can look at them and see what objectives the student still needs work on. Rather than averaging them together at the end of the term, teachers, parents and administrators can then look at percentage of objectives passed, rather than the average score on an objective. This provides a much more detailed, more accurate measure of student achievement than does a composite average of scores – each of which was likely obtained differently using different criteria.

How do these “percentage of objectives passed” translate into letters? In short, they don’t. So you have decide for yourself whether there is an appropriate manner of doing this. Many Standards Referenced schools “dual-report” using a letter grade system as well, whereas others don’t bother, leading to some confusion or dissention within the community. Ultimately it’s all up to the teacher to decide what’s in a letter grade...and to be focused on learning, one must take that decision seriously. 

Audit Your Gradebook

As we’ve discussed elsewhere, poor grading is an epidemic plaguing our schools. It kills the joy of learning for students and sucks the life blood from the souls of teachers. But it doesn’t have to be this way.While Ken ‘O Connor and others suggest a variety of “fixes” for broken grades, might we suggest a more simplified approach to grading?

If it doesn’t reflect actual content knowledge, it doesn’t go in the gradebook. Period.

Picture1Ridding your gradebook of anything that doesn't reflect student learning of content won't only help your students focus on learning, but it will provide you as the teacher with usable data to support decision making and free you from the draining experience of pointless grading.Student “doing” as opposed to student learning is one of the two things teachers focus on most often instead of learning. So before you enter ANYTHING into your gradebook ask yourself “Does this reflect student learning, or does this simply reflect student doing?”

Why does this matter?

If you as a classroom teacher are going to become focused on learning, an Edunator if you will, then you can’t be left guessing as to whether or not your students learned material. You’re going to need evidence of student learning.

The Case For Oral Defense Grading

Oral Defense grading is a fantastic alternative to traditional written assessments and a great way to really ensure your grading is focused on the actual learning of content knowledge and not mere task completion. It’s  a concept we first picked up from Dr. Kathie Nunley whose Layered Curriculum model has saved at least one teaching career. Her website is a great resource for parents and teachers,  even if you’re not on the Layered Curriculum bandwagon.

In a nutshell, Oral Defense is simply asking students to answer questions verbally rather than in written form. Virtually any assessment you would have students write can be adapted to an oral assessment. And there are a variety of benefits to this sort of grading.

 For starters, it’s a much better representation of what students actually KNOW than is writing down an answer. For example, if a student answers questions from a textbook, they likely just looked up the answers from page 224 to answer the questions on page 226. They copied down the answers while listening to their iPod, fighting with their younger siblings, watching TV, texting their friends and eating dinner. The retention of knowledge isn’t real great there. So giving students points for completing the assignment doesn’t seem right given that they may not have learned anything at all. Instead, simply ask them “List two precedents set by George Washington.” When they stare back at you blankly and say “Huh? I just did the questions from the book!” you can reply “I know, that was question #1, guess you’re not ‘done’ yet after all.” That’s all assuming of course that your student actually completed their work and didn’t just copy it down from a classmate ten minutes before class. Not only is it very hard to fake knowledge in Oral Defense, it’s virtually impossible to cheat as well.oraldefenseOral Defense grading is not only more accurate than traditional grading, it increases student accountability and encourages teachers and student to focus on learning course objectives, not simple task completion. It also means less take home work for teachers and more student engagement.

Oral Defense works sensationally well with knowledge based subjects such as Science and Social Studies, as in the previous example but it works great with Vocabulary in any subject. Rather than simply assigning six vocabulary words and giving students a lame matching quiz over them, tell them you’ll be asking them to define and use three of the words and don’t tell them which ones.

Skill based classes such as Language Arts and Math can benefit form certain elements of Oral Defense grading as well. For example, suppose you’re working on persuasive essays. If one of your key components of this essay is that students have a thesis statement supported by [x] number of reasons, consider working in some oral defense during the editing process by asking students “So what is your thesis then? Why do you believe that? Tell me what resources you used in your paper to support your argument.” It adds an element of reflection to the writing process and encourages students to think about the topic differently, knowing that they’re going to have to articulate the elements of their paper as well.

In math class, consider asking students to “show you” how they solved a certain problem and tell you what rules they used to do so. Essentially, it’s the old trick of asking students to “show their work” except you’re going to have them “teach the teacher” about it.

If you’re worried that Oral Defense seems like it would only benefit the most basic Depth of Knowledge levels, don’t be. Consider giving students the objective and letting them choose from a variety of assignments that help them learn that objective, one of the basic premises of the Layered Curriculum model, but rather than ask the student the specific questions about the work, ask them the objective instead. Students can complete any one of a variety of assignments, but at the end, everybody will have to “Explain the Scientific Method” if that’s the objective. Oral Defense in this case helps students make connections between the purpose of the work and the objective they’re trying to learn, and it keeps their focus on learning the objective, not completing the task.

Oral Defense can also be very beneficial to English Language Learners and non-readers as well. Yes, those skills are important for students to learn, however, teachers of other subjects need to assess these students in their knowledge of their respective subjects and sometimes poor Language Arts skills can mask how much a student actually understands about Science or Social Studies. Knowing confidently how much a non-reader or ELL student understands (or doesn’t) helps the teacher make informed decisions going forward – such as how much time and effort they should spend helping students read and write in these content areas, or if they really do need to concentrate on the subjects at hand.

Grading in this manner can be beneficial in taking some of the work load off of teachers. Although having these mini-conferences with students all hour can be extremely exhausting, at the end of the day the teacher doesn’t need to take home a mountain of tests or papers to grade. Their grading is already done. Furthermore, because the teacher talks content with every student, the teacher is much more aware of what individual students may be struggling with. Another bonus, students appreciate the face-to-face time even if it is only for 2-3 minutes and the relationships that can be built because of this can be very beneficial to classroom management and being focused on learning. 

Lastly, Oral Defense can take some of the pressure off of late or forgotten classwork or homework. Since it places the responsibility on the student to actually LEARN the material rather than simply complete the task, suppose a student comes to you upset that they forgot their homework though they SWEAR to you they did it. Ask them questions from the homework instead. After all, what’s more important to you – that they DID the homework or that they LEARNED what they were supposed to learn? Yes, it’s important that they be responsible enough to remember their work but your gradebook is not the time or the mechanism to have that fight. Record how much the student knows about the objective, then deal with the responsibility independently (or not at all).

Oral Defense may actually do more to encourage responsibility than typical grading, because students know they’re going to be asked these questions and be held accountable for this learning, whether they completed the task or not. Except now, they’re being held accountable for learning objectives, not just “doing work.”

If you’re considering giving it a shot, here’s a tips to keep in mind.

  • Usually, it really does work better if the teacher moves and the students sit. Go grade them on their turf. This makes it less intimidating for the student, helps with classroom management by using some proximity control, and ensures that students who don’t want to be bothered don’t get that chance. However, this can frustrate your top students who want to come get graded as soon as they feel like the know something, so the temptation will be for the teacher to sit and say “come see me when you’re ready.” This allows students to slip through the cracks. Consider at least alternating, having some days where they come to you and some where you go find them.
  • Obviously, this method can be a trick depending on the age of your students and your classroom management skills. It’s imperative that teachers have strong relationships with students, or at least sound rules and procedures in order to really make this work.
  • Make sure students have something engaging that they should be working on. Kathie Nunley advocates choices on virtually every assignment, which helps ensure students are engaged and working productively while she’s Oral Defense grading
  • Organize desks in a way that helps you move around. Long rows are tough to maneuver for Oral Defense.
  • Resist the urge to “teach” while you’re assessing. Obviously you want to help kids who are struggling, but if you spend fifteen minutes with a kid who doesn’t understand it, you’ll not be able to assess all your students. Give each student 2-3 minutes and move on, making a note to come back and help out the kids who need it later, such as by grouping students the next day.
  • Sometimes grading students with a partner, alternating questions, can REALLY help their comfort level and allows you to move a little faster.

Oral Defense grading really does provide a more accurate assessment of student learning, encourage focus on learning the objectives, provide less take-home work for teachers and encourage student accountability. There’s a bit of a learning curve, but it’s worth it to try it a few times and see if it fits your classroom. For more on this type of grading, check out Kathie Nunley’s article In Defense of Oral Defense Grading or our own Guide to Using Layered Curriculum. 

The Trouble With Grading

The trouble with grading is….well…actually grading is just trouble.

Many have made the case as to why grading should be done away with entirely. We enjoy the work of Joe Bower (follow him on Twitter @joe_bower) and you can read his opinion on the subject here. Joe also cites a very professionally written, powerful and academic article by Alfie Kohn which you can read here. Either summarizes the case against grading effectively. If you as an aspiring Edunator decided your classroom would be better served without grades entirely, you'd not hear any argument from us. Frankly though, while grading possibly does more harm than good to the academic process, those who view the purpose of education as determining which students are most likely to succeed in the future (RE: Most of the world) would never allow for it’s ultimate destruction. More frankly, many teacher's aren't ready to teach without them.

failLearning is awesome, but assuming grades are neccessary for learning is a mistake. It’s a shame really, because learning is awesome. Virtually every teacher everywhere, not to mention parents, knows that “light bulb” moment when we see a kid “get it” for the first time. We’ve all experienced the sensation of being passionate about a subject – working frantically into the night consuming all we can, producing all we can – not because we have to but because we want to. Finding this sort of meaningful work makes life worth it and helping students find this passion should be the universal agreed upon focus of all teachers everywhere.

Similarly, feedback is awesome. Feedback makes the world go round. Would Facebook be the sensation it is without the “Like” button? Would Twitter be as successful without the “Re-Tweet” feature? Why do people love these? Instant feedback! It could be argued that the premise of setting a goal and working with somebody that helps you achieve it is the biggest reason why team sports are so popular. Coach’s provide instant feedback, positive or negative, which is possibly a reason why the corporate world has fallen in love with the “coaching” model of leadership so much as well. People don’t mind getting better, they hate being bossed around.

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Is My Classroom Focused on Learning?

Step 1: Accept Responsibility For Learning

Step 2: Grading For Learning

The Poor Man's Excuse for Standards Based Grading

This piece originally appeared in the Newsletter. Not a member? Sign up now!
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Step 3: Develop a Culture of Learning

Step 4: Lesson Plan For Learning

Step 5: Reflecting For Learning