My Journey to Standards Based Grading

Denise Earles

English teacher Denise Earles from Madison Public Schools, CT is part of an innovation project to experiment with standards based grading in a traditional school system.


When I began teaching 12 years ago, after two other careers, I did not have the typical mindset of a “new” teacher. First, because I had spent three years in a middle school special education classroom, and second, because I was the parent to five children, so for me high school teenagers did not evoke fear. I was as green as any other newbie as far as teaching strategies and managing curriculum though.

I tried many strategies and fell on my face plenty of times. I graded the same way my papers had been graded when I was in school: lots of red pen and a letter grade displayed at the top of the page. Then I learned. I put the grade on the last page … I made them work for it.

I soon realized that this type of feedback was not transforming my students into better writers, so I began limiting my feedback to a few salient grammatical issues and content-based concerns.

Yet, no matter how much time I spent grading a paper, only one thing was consumed by my students— the grade. I’d hand back papers and wait for the sound of shuffling, then the subsequent groan or exclamation of joy. The End: the paper relinquished to the folder never to be seen again.

My next tactic was groundbreaking: I made students keep a running tally of my comments in order to facilitate reflection, and (hopefully) improvement in the areas each student needed.

I withheld the grade until after they had reviewed their papers. I offered options for rewriting papers: averaging the grades, throwing away the lower grade. Each option prompted some revision, but mostly only surface level changes were made.

I realized that if I wanted a different outcome, I needed a new approach. I began grouping students and reteaching skills like how to write a thesis statement, and how to vary sentence structure. Student papers improved as long as I was partnered with them and “steered the ship” so to speak, but they still cared more about the grade than the skills and I spent a lot of time re-reteaching for each paper.

After seven years of experimentation a few things happened that sparked an improvement: I read a book and I attended a workshop at Columbia. The book, A More Beautiful Question, opened my eyes to the idea of inquiry and led me to think of ways I could get my students to practice inquiry with their own work. The workshop at Columbia was on … the Workshop model (Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop) that my district had recently adopted, of which one major component was conferencing. The conferencing concept really hit me in the gradebook.

What if I made students conference with me BEFORE they could do a revision?

What I did not realize at first was that the very language I used to explain the idea provided the reason that it would not work. Forcing students to conference AFTER they had poured everything they knew how to do onto a sheet of paper was a task of drudgery that would result in only a few more points.

As I delved deeper into the ideas behind inquiry, I decided that having students ask questions of their own papers in order to improve them WHILE they were writing would solve many problems: the feedback would no longer come (at least) a week after they had finished the paper; the process would require students to be metacognitive about their learning; students would be in charge of the conferences, thus focusing on what is relevant to them in the moment. This idea had some teeth, but still omnipresent was the “braces” of a grade.

I employed this method last year with some success. Parents and students had to get used to fewer grades in the grade book, but those grades were usually higher because of the focused work on each major paper. Unfortunately, even a good idea cannot eradicate the history of a grading system and the impact it has on student achievement, so my students (and parents) were still very hooked on grades.

Students would continue to revise papers expecting that eventually they would reach an A because they continued to put in effort. But we teachers know that isn’t how it works.

And this, friends, is what drove me to standards-based grading.

It was a long and informative drive with some great scenery along the way; scenery that helped guide my journey. This year when given the opportunity to try standards based grading with a colleague I didn’t dip my toe in to test the water, I cannonballed in! I made the final leap and eliminated grades altogether (or so we thought— more on this later).

Mindsets didn’t change overnight, but four months in I no longer hear, “How many points off if it’s late?” Instead, when I conference with a student I now hear, “I noticed a lot of comments on my homework about summarizing instead of analyzing. Can you check this paragraph for that?” What!?! You read my comments? Yes they did— because this was the only “rating information” they received.

Our version of standards based grading is not perfect. It began with a need and grew from our practice. It is a journey in and of itself. I like what it is doing for the rapport in my classroom and what it seems to be doing for student achievement, but it is not a scientific experiment that can be replicated in every classroom.

Because this is a journey for parents, students, and teachers it helps to keep tabs on the expected outcomes and to revise accordingly when something isn’t working.

Here are some questions to help guide your journey:

  • Why do you want to try SBG? (Your response here is super important and becomes the foundation of your process.)
  • Are your standards focused on the important skills and content needed in your course? (We’ve revised our standards three times this year and have plans to review them again before we start next year)
  • How frequently do students (and parents) need to have a snapshot of their progress?
  • How specific should a progress report be? Should there be a grade or a bar graph?
  • Are you giving enough feedback on their work (and is it presented in the language of the standards?)?
  • Are students setting and reaching their own goals?
  • Is SBG making your students better students or is it making them better learners? (AKA have they learned how to jump through a new set of hoops or are they actually becoming better at learning?)
  • What are students doing with the information you give them:
    • Do they know what to do to get better?
    • Do you give them multiple opportunities to show their growth?

There are probably a thousand other questions I could list here, but really the best questions will come from your own reflection and from listening to your students.

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