What Impact Does Standards-Based Grading have on Students and Teachers?

What we grade and how we grade sends a clear message to students what matters.

Do we value risk-taking? Do we value revision and reimagining? Do we value the approach as well as the end result? Do we value broader skills as well as the demonstration of the content? This newsletter focuses on moving toward a system that focuses on achievement, effort, and growth over time.

I came across this article in Ed Week, entitled “Mindset Research is Sound; That’s Not the Problem,” which described a fundamental part of how the way we grade and rank students impacts their willingness to grow.

We continue to grade everything from essays to enthusiasm in the face of evidence that grades (even when accompanied by comments) focus students on avoiding looking “dumb” rather than learning. We continue to rank and track students despite the potentially damaging messages this can send about their ability and belonging in school. We continue to treat students differently based on their identities, unaware of how our biases can affect our behaviors and negatively impact students’ motivation and learning. The big question we’re wrestling with at the network is: How do we change incentives, norms, and communication among researchers and practitioners so that we can systematically—and equitably— create learning environments that nurture the natural curiosity and drive to learn with which people are born?

I contacted one of my colleagues and friends Ken O’Connor (otherwise known as The Grade Doctor) whose work is devoted to helping schools ensure that grades are an accurate reflection of student performance. I appreciate his down-to-earth quips, such as:

  • Grading that is faulty damages students and teachers.
  • Grading is inescapable.
  • Grading is subjective and emotional.

Take a look at O’Connor’s powerful post on why standards based grading is the right thing to do.

So what does that look like in practice? I have had the privilege to collaborate with high school English teachers Kevin Siedlecki and Denise Earles who are moving to standards-based grading within the confines of a traditional report card. Denise begins with her own journey to standards based grading based on her frustration with students caring about their writing. “I realized If I wanted a different outcome, I needed a new approach.

Kevin describes the impact of how standards-based learning has created a powerful culture in his classroom. And Kevin and Denise together describe how you can get started in your own classroom. So what’s the impact on students? So pleased to introduce Chloe Veth who describes the impact standards-based grading has on her own learning.

Thank you, as always, for reading and commenting!


Allison Zmuda
Educational Consultant and Founder of Learning Personalized

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Matt Townsley
4 years ago

Hi Allison,
I appreciate you bringing this topic to the forefront of the conversation on your blog. In case you have not already, I invite you tor read several of the academic accounts published to date (noted below) regarding student and teacher perspectives on standards-based grading. I’m hopeful these perspective might add to the teacher voices you’ve shared in this blog post. Let me know if you’d ever like to discuss educator perspectives on SBG, a topic I am interested in thinking more deeply about from a variety of perspectives.

Hany, K., Proctor, M., Wollenweber, J. & Al-Bataineh (2016). Teacher perceptions of standards-based grading: Implication and effectiveness. Journal of Teaching and Education, 5(1), 749-765.

Hill, G. R. (2018). Impact of teacher attitudes on implementation of a standards-based grading system (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. (13426348)

Knight, M. & Cooper, R. (2019). Taking on a new grading system: The interconnected effects of standards-based grading on teaching, learning, assessment, and student behavior. NASSP Bulletin, 103(1), 65-92.

Peters, R., Kruse, J., Buckmiller, T., & Townsley, M. (2017) “It’s just not fair!” Making sense of secondary students’ resistance to a standards-based grading initiative in the midwestern United States. American Secondary Education, 45(3), 9-28.

Schiffman, M. P. (2016). Standards-based grading: Educators’ perceptions of the effects on teaching, student motivation, and assessment at the high school level. (Doctoral dissertation). Available through ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. (10117267).