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.

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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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