Getting Started in Standards-Based Grading: Creating Course Standards


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.
Kevin Siedlecki is in his 8th year as an English teacher at Daniel Hand High School. He also coaches freshman boys football and varsity girls lacrosse.

For the student, being graded on every little thing is overwhelming. Students respond either by becoming grade-grubbing balls of stress, constantly concerned about why they “lost points” or shutting down and giving up. In an effort to better correlate achievement to grades, we gravitated to a standards-based philosophy.

We started with the approved curriculum, informed by the CCSS, and explored what we REALLY wanted students to know and be able to do as a result of the course. There are many ways that teachers have implemented standards-based grading, and we do not pretend to know what the best way is for everyone. In our high school English classes, we decided that standards should be based on big-picture competencies, not granular details that lead to those competencies.

Growth Areas

For our English classes, we started with the approved curriculum, and asked ourselves: What do we value most? We drilled down to what we call growth-areas, what Sturgis (2014) calls “levels of knowledge” (p. 4): skills that students should be practicing and improving in our subject. Those skills are ways for them to demonstrate their mastery of content, meaningful to the students, and applicable to other academic contexts as well as life outside of school.

Also important to the standards as we see them: students can never really be done with them. They are broad enough that a student can always be improving. For us, the four growth areas are: Speaking, Writing, Thinking, and College-Ready Academic Habits.

For each growth area we created a progression of standards that takes the students through a deliberate and systematic development of competency.

For example, the standard in Writing for the first six weeks of American Literature (our 11th grade course) is Sentence-Level Writing. Basically, within the first six weeks of their junior year, in addition to producing grammatically correct writing, we want them to start thinking about moving on to writing with personal voice. The first unit of that course focuses on rhetoric, so we created a standard that describes what we want them to be able to do after exposure to that content. The language of the standard is:

“Finished pieces are generally free of mistakes in grammar, punctuation, spelling and usage. Uses rhetorical appeals, and rhetorical techniques appropriately.”

That standard then informs our instruction. Instead of grading each formative and summative assessment in the process of achieving competency, we give specific written and verbal feedback on each assignment, always pushing them to the next level.

The next step for Writing is Sentence Level Writing II:

“Uses precise verbs and a variety of sentence structures to communicate clear, coherent thoughts in writing.”

Students move on from specific instruction in rhetorical techniques to advanced grammatical instruction. They learn the effects of various verb tenses and sentence structures, including how to choose precise verbs, and the difference between subordinating and coordinating clauses. As a result, we expect students to articulate their reasons for choosing verbs and structuring sentences in any piece of writing.

After Sentence Level Writing II, the natural progression begins to lean toward Writing Style:

“Deliberately uses diction, figurative language, tone, and sentence structure to communicate clear, coherent thoughts in writing.”

Diction and sentence structure extend the singular focus on the rhetorical techniques from the previous standard to a diverse focus that requires all parts of a sentence to interact in meaningful ways. Now it is not about using “a” metaphor, but rather using the right metaphor to deepen the meaning of the writing. It is not only about using anaphora and tricolon, but recognizing the effectiveness of less-obvious parallel structure.

The last step in the Writing progression for juniors is Voice:

“In addition to writing with style, occasionally break the rules artfully. Your writing sounds like you, not generic academic writing.”

All the “right” figurative language and “effective” style choices are used to create consistent, coherent writing that takes on the personality of the author. The last standard is never really finished. If a student enters the class writing at a very high level, we can still push him or her to improve and experiment with voice all year. The student has something meaningful to learn through every practice, and we can personalize our feedback to and instruction of that student to his or her needs.

The key to producing a progression of standards is deciding what lasting lessons you want your students to learn. We do not ask our students to memorize ten rhetorical techniques, and then grade them based on the percentage they can identify in a given piece of writing, or how many they use correctly in a final, summative product. We are giving multiple opportunities to identify and explore rhetorical techniques in their own writing.

Because we don’t grade any individual assignments, students are encouraged to take risks — to find the balance between artful rule-breaking and distracting rule-breaking. They are doing more rigorous work with the content and skills they learn. Some students may be progressing toward the standard by the end of six weeks, others may have met the standard, but are still working to improve skills that are obviously applicable to their lives outside the classroom. At the end of the six week marking period, they might be pushing into the next step in the progression, but they are never finished learning a standard.

To replicate our process and create standards for your own classroom, think of these three keys:

  1. The standard is something that you value and the students value. A standard should be transferable — that is, not be so specific to your course or your subject that a student could think it has no relevance to their life outside your classroom.
  2. The standard is broad enough that it gives students some choice in how they demonstrate mastery. It should be about using knowledge, not having knowledge.
  3. The standard is specific enough that you can assess on a simple scale. Many proponents of Standards-Based Grading like a four-point scale. Students can use knowledge on a test, but you shouldn’t waste your time deciding whether any particular response on that test is a 7 out of 10 or an 8 out of 10, or even if the test grade is a 83 or an 87. And you shouldn’t waste your student’s time making them decipher what those numbers really mean. As Rick Wormeli says, “Don’t mistake precision for accuracy.”

Questions? Comments? Leave them below, or reach out to us. We would love to hear from teachers in other subjects who are using Standards-Based Grading successfully!

Sturgis, C. (2104). Progress and proficiency: Redesigning grading for competency education. Competency Works. January 2014.

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Brynn Osicka
Brynn Osicka
5 years ago

I am a high school English teacher doing standards-based grading. I am the only one in my district, so I’m alone! I would love to get more of the stuff you two have created. Would be willing to pay$$

Allison Zmuda
5 years ago
Reply to  Brynn Osicka

I can put you in touch with the teachers that drafted the post if you are interested in learning more. They also have another post that will be released sometime later this week. My contact information is

Alicia Rogers
Alicia Rogers
3 years ago
Reply to  Allison Zmuda

I’m in this same boat! I’d like to learn more by reviewing other people’s work before I attempt to create my own on my own.

5 years ago

Brynn, Kevin and I would love to chat. Email me and we can set something up.

Sharanda Payseur
Sharanda Payseur
5 years ago

I am an English teacher. I am looking to begin using standards-based grading, but no one in my county uses this. I need some guidance please.