Top 5 pitfalls to avoid in a standards-based grading system shift

Are you thinking about making the shift to standards-based grading in your building or district?  Based upon hundreds of phone calls, consultations, workshops and emails, here’s a list of five pitfalls I have observed that school leaders should avoid.

  1. Use exceeds as a descriptor in the grade book at the secondary level.
    Nothing frustrates Sally and her parents more than realizing the teacher taught the class how to learn the concept in class, but in order to get the highest mark in the grade book, Sally must come up with some type of application or knowledge beyond what was taught on the assessment.  Instead, consider removing “exceeds” and replacing it with “understands the standards” for the top indicator.
  2. Fail to communicate the standards-based grading shift.
    Traditional grading has been around for over one hundred years, so there’s reason to believe a shift to something new or different will require communicating a solid rationale and plan, repeated multiple times in multiple mediums.  Of McRel’s twenty-one leadership responsibilities, communication is one that takes a hit during second order change (and yes, standards-based grading is likely a second order change for many teachers, parents and students in your district).  Tell ’em. Tell ’em what you told ’em. And tell ’em again.
  3. Do not report practice in the online grade book at the secondary level.
    We know that reporting academics separate from work habits is a cornerstone of standards-based grading/reporting.  At the secondary level, the standards (rather than quiz and test numbers) are often reported through an online grade book , leaving little, if any room to document work habits.  Whether it’s retrofitting a grade book designed for traditional grading practices, or using a grade book more in tune with standards-based grading practices, it only makes sense to continue reporting levels of homework completion to parents, despite these assignments not counting towards the final academic grade calculation.
  4. Forget to tell stakeholders what is staying the same during the shift in grading practices.
    If your middle school is switching to a standards-based report card, be sure to let parents know you will continue to host parent-teacher conferences twice per year.  If your high school is shifting to a standards-based grade book, parents will want to know final course grades are still reported on the transcript, and that grade point average will be communicated with university admissions offices.  In addition to communicating what’s changing, don’t forget to let them know what will remain the same.
  5. Inconsistent implementation
    During the first year of standards-based grading implementation, we surveyed parents and students to find out their perception of this change.  Frustrated Roger = Frustrated Roger’s mom and dad, and one of the biggest sources of this angst was inconsistent implementation.  While we had an agreed upon purpose of grading and board-approved grading guidelines, we relied on (often inconsistent) institutional knowledge rather than a documented tight and loose implementation guide for our teachers to operationalize the tenets of SBG.  Somewhere between “every teacher for his/her own” and a lockstep approach is usually a good place to land.  Ensuring teachers are supported to implement agreed upon standards-based grading non-negotiables, will help students and parents adapt more quickly to the change, because they’re seeing it in multiple courses and/or grade levels.

What other pitfalls would you add to this list?

Recommended reading:

Frankin, A., Buckmiller, T., & Kruse, J. (2016). Vocal and vehement: Understanding parents’ aversion to standards-based grading. International Journal of Social Science Studies, 4(11), 19-29. [Available online]

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.

Peters, R. & Buckmiller, T. (2014). Our grades were broken: Overcoming barriers and challenges to implementing standards-based grading. Journal of Educational Leadership in Action2(2), [Available online]

Swan, G.M., Guskey, T.R., & Jung, L.A. (2014). Parents and teachers’ perceptions of standards-based and traditional report cards. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 26(3), 289-299.

Urich, L.J. (2012). Implementation of standards-based grading at the middle school level (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from

“It’s just not fair!” Making sense of secondary students’ resistance to a standards-based grading initiative

A new peer-reviewed article I co-authored is now available in your local academic database!

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. American Secondary Education, 45(3), 9-28.



The School Leader’s Guide to Grading [book review]

As a result of a top 10 standards-based grading books list published not too long ago, a reader of this blog made me aware of The School Leader’s Guide to Grading by Ken O’Connor.  So, I bought a used copy on Amazon and read it during a summer airplane trip, halfway across the country.

I cannot believe I had not read this book until now and whole heartedly recommend it to all principals and central office administrators who are considering a standards-based grading shift.

The preface states, “This book is intended to provide principals with ideas that will improve their effectiveness in helping and supporting their teachers in evaluating and communicating student achievement.”  I believe this book does just that, in a concise and easy-to-read manner.  Although the title of the book does not refer explicitly to “standards-based grading,” author Ken O’Connor communicates four critical conditions for effective grades which are right in line with SBG principles.  For example, one of the conditions states, “Grades must be meaningful” and the author further explains “Getting a B in history tells students and parents almost nothing….To be meaningful, grades need to be based upon standards, outcomes, or expectations” (p. 2).

Perhaps the aspect of this book I appreciated the most was Ken O’Connor’s ability to articulate both theory and reality.  While eliminating letter grades may be the gold standard, O’Connor realizes this may be beyond state, district, or local expectations, therefore he proposes practical ways to help principals keep the focus on learning.

Another helpful component of the book is the examples from schools who are working towards each of the grading conditions.  O’Connor is quick to note these are all examples and not models, which again illustrates the practical and humble approach the book takes in assisting principals with grading shifts.  For example, the book suggest students should be provided multiple opportunities to demonstrate their learning.  Often times, this will involve students completing “correctives” prior to reassessment.  A sample “Assessment Retake Reflection” from a school in Wisconsin is provided for principals to use as a starting point in their conversations with individual teachers or an entire faculty.

Finally, at less than 100 pages (including ~20 pages of appendices), I believe this book is an appropriate length for principals who are often busy managing the day-to-day operations of a building.  If I were to lead a course for school leaders looking at standards-based grading, this would be my first choice.

(Much of this book review was cross-posted on

How does standards-based grading affect standardized test scores?

A teacher from a school in Iowa recently contacted me with an inquiry,

Is there any research indicating students going through a standards based grading system show improved standardized test scores  or college readiness compared to students that go through a traditional grading school?

Context: What we know about educational research

This is an excellent question that comes up often when educators and their school systems are considering a shift towards standards-based grading. Based upon my knowledge of research methodology, it would be challenging (but not impossible) to conduct a study truly isolating standards-based grading as a single variable influencing a school’s student achievement data. In other words, we know that in any educational study, limitations exist (i.e. fidelity of implementation, additional initiatives simultaneously assisting or hindering test scores, the alignment between state standards taught and standards assessed, and any placebo effect).  Finally, any experienced educational researcher will readily admit the challenge of generalizing study results outside of the original context.

How does standards-based grading affect standardized test scores?

I scoured the literature as part of my recent dissertation and found only a few quantitative studies that consider this type of question (How does SBG affect standardized test scores?), some of which look at an entire school and others that look at a smaller section of a school, such as an individual classroom. Each has clearly stated the study limitations.  Here’s a quick copy/paste from my dissertation:

The impact of standards-based grading on external achievement measures is mixed. While some studies indicate a significant statistical difference in one or more content areas (e.g. Haptonstall, 2010; Pollio & Hochbein, 2015), others have not (e.g. Rosales, 2013; Welsh, D’Agostino, & Kaniskan, 2013).

To add additional clarity, I’ve added more detail below related to each of the aforementioned citations.

Haptonstall (dissertation): From the abstract of the study, emphasis mine:

This study examined the correlation between the grades a student earns in his or her classroom and the scores that each student earned on the Colorado Student Assessment Program tests, in Reading, Writing, Math, and Science. The study also examined the mean scores of varying sub-groups to determine if certain sub-groups demonstrated higher means, dependent of the school districts that they were enrolled. While all the school districts that participated in the study showed a significant level of correlation between grades and test scores, Roaring Fork School District Re-1, using a standards- based grading model demonstrated both higher correlations and higher mean scores and grades across, the overall population and sub-groups.

Pollio & Hochbein: From the abstract of the study:

Results indicated that the rate of students earning an A or B in a course and passing the state test approximately doubled when utilizing standards-based grading practices. In addition, results indicated that standards-based grading practices identified more predictive and valid assessment of at-risk students’ attainment of subject knowledge.

Rosales: From the dissertation study, emphasis mine:

This study seeks to determine whether standards-based grading has the same effect on students at the high school level (grades 9-12) by comparing end-of-course test scores and posttest scores of Algebra 2 students enrolled in a standards-based graded classroom with to those enrolled in a traditionally-graded classroom. Two teachers each taught two classes of Algebra 2 and graded one class using standards-based grading and one class using traditional grading methods. Students at both the honors level and the regular level of mathematics were included in the study.
Honors students performed better than regular students on both assessments, but no significant difference was found between the performance of traditionally-graded students and the students who were graded with standards-based grading.  The results of this study indicate that standards-based grading may offer improved methods of communication between teachers, parents, and students and may give students a new perception of learning.

Welsh, et al.: From the abstract, emphasis mine:

Standards-based progress reports (SBPRs) require teachers to grade students using the performance levels reported by state tests and are an increasingly popular report card format. They may help to increase teacher familiarity with state standards, encourage teachers to exclude nonacademic factors from grades, and/or improve communication with parents. The current study examines the SBPR grade–state test score correspondence observed across 2 years in 125 third and fifth grade classrooms located in one school district to examine the degree of consistency between grades and state test results. It also examines the grading practices of a subset of 37 teachers to determine whether there is an association between teacher appraisal style and convergence rates. A moderate degree of grade–test score convergence was observed using three agreement estimates (coefficient kappa, tau-b correlations, and classroom-level mean differences between grades and test scores). In addition, only small amounts of grade–test score convergence were observed between teachers; a much greater proportion of variance lay within classrooms and subjects.

Given inconclusive evidence, why would a teacher or school decide to embark upon standards-based grading?

Here’s what I’ve found: First, the absence of research supporting traditional grading practices is concerning. Too many times, stakeholders enter these types of conversations assuming traditional grading practices are some type of research-proven paradigm when in fact, schools inherited the traditional grading system over one hundred years ago (Cureton, 1971).  Next, beyond the limited quantitative studies related to standards-based grading available right now (and summarized above), classroom teachers can do a better job aligning what we teach with our assessments, a fundamental tenet of grading reform.  In other words, due to a dearth of evidence, educators should strongly consider pragmatic solutions.  For more on these pragmatic themes and their connection to scholarly literature, I encourage readers to consider, “What does the research say about standards-based grading?” a research primer I co-wrote with Dr. Tom Buckmiller several years ago.  Finally, standards-based grading provides students and parents with more useful information about current levels of work (“proficient understanding of Pythagorean’s Theorem”) when compared to traditional grading practices (“85% on the Chapter 3 Test”).

In summary, the impact of standards-based grading on external achievement measures is mixed. With limited quantitative studies available to base this conclusion upon, educators should consider pragmatic benefits of standards-based grading practices and urge educational researchers to respond to this question with more detail in the future.

Works Cited

Cureton, L. W. (1971). The history of grading practices. NCME Measurement in Education, 2(4), 1-8.

Haptonstall, K. G. (2010). An analysis of the correlation between standards-based, non standards-based grading systems and achievement as measured by the Colorado Student Assessment Program (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. (UMI No. 3397087)

Pollio, M. & Hochbein, C. (2015). The association between standards-based grading and standardized test scores as an element of a high school model reform. Teachers College Record, 117(11), 1-28.

Rosales, R. B. (2013). The effects of standards-based grading on student performance in Algebra 2 (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from

Welsh, M. E., D’Agostino, J. V., & Kaniskan, B. (2013). Grading as a reform effort: Do standards-based grades converge with test scores? Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 32(2), 26-36. doi:10.1111/emip.12009

Doctoral program: 36 month update [graduated!]

Nearly three years ago, I started a doctorate in education program at the University of West Georgia.  Today, I am happy to share all coursework and dissertation requirements are finished and as a result, I recently walked across the stage!

(Dissertation chair, Matt Varga, and me before commencement)

Although participating in the ceremony is optional, it provided a sense of closure and personal accomplishment for me.

What is next?

  1. Business as usual as a district administrator.
  2. Teaching a weekend curriculum course for aspiring school administrators this summer.
  3. Continue working with my chair to publish portions of my dissertation research in one or more peer-reviewed journals.

Previous doctoral program updates:

So, you want to become a curriculum lead?

I wrote the column below for Iowa ASCD’s “The Source,” an e-newsletter for state ASCD affiliate members.

So, you want to become a curriculum lead?

Around this time of the year, I usually receive an email or two from a teacher who is interested in transitioning to a more defined curriculum role.  Whether it’s a classroom teacher who recently completed a masters program or a veteran educator thinking about a teacher leadership role created by TLC funds, desiring to have an impact beyond the classroom can be an exciting, yet uncertain time.  In my experience and observations, several different roles exist involving curriculum leadership.  I will unpack each one in the following paragraphs.

Instructional Coaches

The specific responsibilities of an instructional coach often vary by district or building, however these educators are charged with assisting adults improve their practice as educators.  Sometimes, instructional coaches work alongside individual teachers to provide instructional feedback.  Other times instructional coaches work with groups of teachers (i.e. data teams or collaborative learning teams).  Jim Knight has a nice write-up elaborating on the role of instructional coaches.  Finally, an instructional coach job description may include more formal curriculum leadership roles within a building or district, such as serving on curriculum materials review committees.

Some instructional coaches are content-neutral (i.e. the “elementary instructional coach”) whereas others are content-specific (i.e. the “K-8 math instructional coach.”)  With an increase in teacher leadership dollars the past three years, many Iowa public schools now have funds to employ instructional coaches and other similar roles.  Iowa’s teacher leadership funds come with a few stipulations – teachers assigned to a leadership role must have at least three years of teaching experience and at least one year of experience in the school district (Source: Iowa Department of Education)

AEA Curriculum Consultants

Many area education agencies (AEAs) in Iowa employ math, reading, science, and technology consultants. These positions are content-specific and frequently require a masters degree.  AEA curriculum consultants are often assigned several school districts and provide support to individual teachers or entire departments, as agreed upon by the AEA and district.  AEA curriculum consultants also lead workshops at the agency that teachers across the AEA can participate.  Teachers who desire to make an impact beyond a single school building and enjoy making connections between and across districts may enjoy an AEA curriculum consultant role.  Pre-requisites for this role include a strong content knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge and experience leading professional learning.  In addition, AEA curriculum consultants are often invited to participate on state level task forces and committees when new standards and state initiatives are rolled out in Des Moines.

Curriculum Directors/Coordinators

For the past six years, I have served as a district curriculum director for over 100 teachers and approximately 1,500 students.  In some smaller school districts, the curriculum director responsibilities may be assigned to a principal. Still other small districts, share a curriculum director.  Larger districts may employ several curriculum directors or coordinators who specialize in one or more areas (i.e. “Middle School Director of Teaching & Learning” or “Science Curriculum Coordinator”).  In my role, the curriculum director title comes with many additional responsibilities including directing the ELL, Title 1, gifted education, special education, and teacher leadership programs and overseeing the media services and technology departments.  I complete a number of state and federal reports; facilitate curriculum materials review and purchasing processes; attend meetings to keep abreast of new state and federal initiatives; manage the curriculum and teacher leadership budgets; and serve as the primary contact for Department of Education accreditation.  Often times, curriculum directors are on extended contracts requiring an PK-12 administrative endorsement, however some schools may honor a masters degree in curriculum or a related field.

Concluding Thoughts

Serving as a curriculum lead can be a rewarding experience.  Any step away from working with the same students each day/week deserves careful thought.  Hopefully, this column provides an overview of several possible curriculum leadership roles.  We’re fortunate in Iowa each public school opening must be posted on, so we have a one stop shop for curriculum leadership openings throughout the year.  Are you wondering if your experiences might be preparing you for a curriculum leadership role?  It would be my pleasure to review and provide feedback on your resume.  Happy job hunting!

Three Lessons for Schools Shifting Their Grading

I was recently invited to write a brief article for School Administrator, an AASA (The School Superintendents’ Association) publication.  “Three Lessons for Schools Shifting Their Grading” was embedded within a feature article about standards-based grading, (a well written one, I might add) by Ken O’Connor.

The full article is available via the AASA digital magazine link here.

Doctoral program: 30 month update

Nearly two and a half years ago, I embarked on a third graduate program.  A little over six months ago, I provided another update.  Today, I am happy to share the light is very bright at the end of the tunnel:  I recently defended my dissertation!  If you’re not familiar with the process, a final dissertation defense is when a doctoral candidate provides a verbal and visual overview of the study to the committee (comprised of university professors).  Following the presentation, the committee asks questions for the purpose of better understanding the study’s results, conclusions and implications.  Finally, the committee deliberates and communicates one of several possible outcomes: pass without revisions (rare), pass with minor revisions (often), fail (with opportunity to try again), fail.

What is next?

  1. I have several small revisions to make and will then submit my dissertation to an online database (ProQuest) for permanent storage and retrieval.
  2. Complete one more class next semester (noted below)
  3. Graduate in May 2017!


Standards-based grading: Frequently asked questions about reassessment

The email questions continue to roll in this school year.  A math teacher from California gave me permission to share some of our recent communication:

If there is unlimited number of reassessment, how do you manage students who want to re-assess till they attain “got it” and eventually the school year is ending?

Our teachers usually have a “final reassessment deadline.”  For example, if the semester ends on December 20 and grades are due on December 23, a teacher might communicate a final reassessment deadline of December 18.  In the ideal world, students would be allowed to re-assess forever (think: 31 year old re-assessing his high school government coursework!), however the realities of our current educational paradigm (180 days, bells, student schedules, etc.) force us to create arbitrary deadlines, even in a standards-based grading system. It would be very challenging for a teacher to allow reassessments to be turned in up until the last minute grades are due to the school, therefore some type of buffer should be established to allow for the teacher to score and enter the final batch of reassessments.  In general, as long as the final reassessment deadline is communicated early and often, students and parents understand the need for the teacher to grade the reassessments and get them entered into the grade book before the school-imposed grade deadline.
If the student can choose to reassess just one standard, doesn’t it tell the student what concept or skill is required to solve the problem given and makes learning segmented? For the reassessment problem, should it be similar to the previous assessment/practice or should a novel problem be given? 
You’ve identified one of the biggest critiques I have read/heard of standards-based grading — narrowing down learning into finite concepts rather than seeing math as a larger body of ideas in which life rarely tells us which formula to use.  With this in mind, any assessment in a standards-based grading or traditional grading classroom is only as good as its author.  In other words, any test could be written with a very low cognitive complexity or a very high level or rigor.  I have seen standards-based grading tests that break down the concepts into fine-grained concepts and I have seen others that expect students to climb Bloom’s taxonomy.  I believe a starting point is thinking about re-assessments at a similar level of cognitive complexity as the original assessment.  Sometimes the expected level of rigor is described in the standards themselves.  For example:

Identify the shapes of two-dimensional cross-sections of three-dimensional objects, and identify three-dimensional objects generated by rotations of two-dimensional objects.

“Identify” may give the assessment author a glimpse into the expected level of Bloom’s intended by the writer of the standards, in this case the Common Core State Standards. 
Does any of this make sense?

Standards-based grading: Integrating homework completion with reassessment

A teacher from a nearby school district recently emailed me with a few questions about standards-based grading in preparation for the upcoming school.  He gave me permission to share some of our dialogue in this public space.  This is the second of two question and answer posts about homework as practice, rather than merely point accumulator, in standards-based grading. (The first one is here)

Q: I have heard of some teachers that will not allow retakes on assessments unless the homework has been completed. What are your thoughts?

A: Great question! I have seen this work in two different ways, each with pros and cons.

The first perspective goes something like “Students may not complete a reassessment unless they completed the homework prior to the initial assessment.”

Pros: May motivate students to do the homework prior to the first assessment; may help students do better on the initial assessment (because they did their homework).  Cons: May motivate students to copy homework and play this part of the “game of school.”  Only allowing students an opportunity to reassess if they completed homework seems to go against the idea students learn at different rates/paces.  What if the reason the student didn’t complete the homework initially is because he/she had no idea about the concepts?  Why require the student to do a slew of problems incorrectly?

The second perspective is the one I tend to favor, “Students may complete a reassessment only if they completed the homework sometime (doesn’t matter if it it was before or after initial assessment) and complete additional re-learning steps.”

Pros: Better honors that students learn at different rates/paces; may also be a better chance students are likely to ask better questions when completing the homework “Okay, I obviously didn’t get this idea as you saw on the test, Mr. H….could you help me understand it on the homework?”  Re-assessment should be meaningful for students while not overburdening the instructor.  Cons: It’s not a silver bullet!  Students may still game the system by copying from a friend…but there’s less incentive to do so, because if they copy and do not learn, they will not likely do any better on the reassessment.

How do you integrate homework completion and the reassessment process within standards-based grading?  Feel free to leave your experiences in the comments below.