Too often, standards-based grading is not the problem (or the solution).

At a few recent workshops I have facilitated, well-intentioned teachers submitted the following questions:

  • How do we hold students accountable for homework?
  • What do we do with students who do not want to reassess?

I was delighted to share my personal experience as a teacher and district administrator involved with standards-based grading, however in each case, I started with the following caveat:

That’s a really great question!
Let’s be honest with ourselves though for a moment: these are motivation issues educators are grappling with regardless of their grading system. In other words, standards-based grading is not the problem OR the solution to motivating struggling learners.

For example, ask any secondary teacher using points and percentages in their classroom and they’ll share their struggles motivating some students to complete homework assignments. When homework is repurposed as ungraded practice in a standards-based grading classroom, there’s a temptation for students to not complete it. In both grading systems, our task as educators is to motivate struggling learners. There’s no quick and easy step-by-step answer!

Standards-based grading does often provide educators (and parents) with better information, which in turn can cause us to raise these type of questions with an increased level of concern. That’s a good thing though, right?!

When a few teachers caught me during a break in the workshop, they confirmed they were in favor of moving forward with standards-based grading at their school, however it is possible other teachers may not have this same mindset. If student motivation is used a reason for not moving towards standards-based grading, it may be helpful to remember that often standards-based grading is not the problem or the solution.

Walking the talk: Embedding standards-based grading in an educational leadership course

The purpose of this recently published paper is to provide a model for educational leadership faculty who aspire to walk the talk of effective feedback by embedding standards-based grading (SBG) in their courses. Rather than focusing on learning, points are the currency of K-12 classrooms across the country. Over 100 years of grading research suggests typical grading practices are subjective at best. Some schools are responding by implementing SBG, yet few articles describe how higher education embeds this philosophy in educator preparation coursework. In this essay, the author documents how to design assessments, align rubrics, and provide feedback to aspiring school leaders in line with three tenets of SBG.

This peer-reviewed journal article is available for download here.

Townsley, M. (2019). Walking the talk: Embedding standards-based grading in an educational leadership course. Journal of Research Initiatives, 4(2). Retrieved from


Leaders of Relationship Building: Listening is a part of leading

[Note to readers: This column is part of an ongoing series for Iowa ASCD’sThe Source e-newsletter.]

Leaders of Relationship Building: Listening is a part of leading

What does it mean to be a curriculum lead? This is the fifth column in a series for Iowa administrators, teacher leaders and anyone else interested in enhancing curriculum leadership. So far, we’ve discussed the work of curriculum, instruction, and assessment; data analysis, processes, and professional development. This week, we’ll be taking a closer look at what it means to be a leader of relationship building. Future columns will consider the remaining facets of curriculum leadership: performance, operations, and change.

According to the functions of our work, curriculum leads, “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” Listening matters! One way of thinking about this is that administrators ought to be the least vocal educators in the room. Sure, the central office and principals comes with a TON of positional authority, but this doesn’t mean administrators ought to be flexing their muscles with top-down conversations at every meeting. I am not suggesting grass-roots, plan-every detail during the meeting based upon a vote leadership is required either. In fact, I was advised early in my administrative career that time is limited, therefore it is more efficient to critique than create in most meetings. Some of the most effective administrators I have observed come to a meeting with a tentative plan for moving forward and ask those in attendance to provide their input. During the meeting, the team often revises, re-orders or re-prioritizes the next steps. Other times, administrators bring more than one option for the team to consider and seeks their input on the most feasible option. In both cases, listening to others is a high priority.

At one leadership team meeting comprised of administrators and teacher leaders at Solon, I brought what I thought was a timely plan for our upcoming professional learning day. Per the usual protocol, I asked the leadership team to provide additional guidance: “What were we missing?” and “What do teachers need right now?” As it turns out, the initial plan I presented was not in tune at all with the leadership team’s thinking, so we ended up scrapping the whole thing and starting from a blank slate! This was not very efficient at all! In fact, it took a lot more time to clean up the mess I had created through extra work following the planning meeting. On a good note, the team ended up facilitating a much better professional learning day. In addition, I was told by several teachers that administration earned even more trust with those in the planning meeting, because of the way the situation was handled.

Instructional coaches and others in curriculum leadership roles might model this practice, too, by asking a plethora of questions at planning meetings or in reflective conversations following classroom observations. For those of us who have completed Iowa evaluator approval coursework, ORID (PDF) questions is a possible framework to consider in conversations with colleagues in a meeting. Objective questions such as “Where does this next step fit into our district strategic plan?” can help a team stay focused on the right work. Reflective questions might sound something like: “How do we feel yesterday’s professional learning went?” Interpretive questions could include “What things could we do next week to increase teachers’ understanding of the writing workshop framework?” and “What other ways could we assess the sheltered instruction lessons we observed this morning?” Finally, curriculum leaders might use decisional questions such as “What supports do we need to continue to work on these areas of concern?” to encourage a group towards action. All of these questions are designed to facilitate conversation rather than monopolize it!

Our role as curriculum leaders is also to remember these wise words from Susan Scott (2004), author of Fierce Conversations, “the conversation is the relationship.” When we engage in dialogue with fellow educators, we can develop others’ ability to lead or we can micromanage them. As members of many teams, committees, and task forces, we can aim for collaboration whenever possible or we can be the first to be frustrated. When doing it right, our colleagues should describe our conversations are more often encouraging than demanding. Jim Knight (2015), author of Better Conversations, suggests authenticity and good communication work hand in hand. In other words, our aim should be to “walk the talk” of listening. If our end goal is to seek input frequently and do nothing with it, our motives will quickly be exposed. Knight (2015) encourages educators to know what we believe in and act consistently with those beliefs. May we strive to be known as leaders that listen and seek the input from those around us.

In closing, curriculum leaders who value relationship building seek first to understand and then to be understood, all the while understanding the conversation is the relationship.

Resources to further learning as a leader of relationship building:

Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Our Life One Conversation at a Time, by Susan Scott (2004, Berkley)

The Art of Coaching, by Elena Aguilar (2013, Jossey-Bass)

QBQ! The Question Behind the Question: Practicing Personal Accountability at Work and in Life, by John G. Miller (2004, TarcherPerigee)

Better Conversations, by Jim Knight (2015, Corwin)

Top 5 Standards-Based Grading Books (2016-2018)

In early 2016, I listed what I thought were the top ten books written about effective grading practices. Many books have been written about standards-based grading in the last three years, however I wanted to highlight five that have impacted me the most.

Here we go!

  1. O’Connor, K. (2018). How to grade for learning, K-12 (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
    Ken O’Connor has written a fourth edition to what may be the most widely read book on effective grading practices, which is why the third edition was noted on my initial top ten list. Beyond the theory behind each of the grading guidelines are implementation examples from schools across the world.
  2. Rinkema, E. A. & Williams, S. (2018). The standards-based classroom: Make learning the goal. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
    This book focuses on more than just grading practices. By looking at curriculum, instruction, and assessment, educators can envision a classroom-wide shift to more effective grading practices. I admit that as a teacher I often over-emphasized feedback and grade book revisions at the expense of designing effective instruction. Rinkema and Williams provide a realistic and useful blueprint, one I wish would have been available ten years ago.
  3. Wormeli, R. (2018). Fair isn’t always equal (2nd ed.). Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
    The first edition was on the initial top ten book list as well. While much of the content is updated, the main message is still the same: transitioning to more equitable grading process is just as much (or more) about mindset than it is classroom moves. I recommend this book for any teacher or group of educators who would like engage in thinking more deeply about the “why” behind standards-based grading.
  4. Schimmer, T. (2016). Grading from the inside out: Bringing accuracy to student assessment through a standards-based mindset. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
    Not too long after posting the initial top ten book list in January 2016, this book by Tom Schimmer came out. A few months later, I secured a copy and was especially enamored by the chapters entitled, “Five myths of standards-based grading” and “How to repurpose homework.” This is on my highly recommend list for those working towards standards-based grading practices.
  5. Schimmer, T., Hillman, G., & Stalets, M. (2018). Standards-based learning in action: Moving from theory to practice. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
    Speaking of Tom Schimmer, this book written with Garnet Hillman and Mandy Stalets is worth buying, too. Each chapter includes underlying research, a plan for action, and talking points to be used with parents. Whether the reader is looking for perspectives on redos and retakes or effective feedback, this book provides helpful guidance.

What book(s) from 2016, 2017, or 2018 would you add to this list?

Top 10 standards-based grading articles (2016-2018)

In early 2016, I wrote what I thought were the “Top 10 standards-based grading articles” available at that time. Nearly three years have past and a number of quality articles have been written in that time.

Here we go!

  1. Brookhart, S. M., Guskey, T. R., Bowers, A. J., McMillan, J. H., Smith, J. K., Smith, L. F., Stevens, M. T., & Welsh, M. E. (2016). A century of grading research: Meaning and value in the most common educational measure. Review of Educational Research, 86(4), 803-848. [Available online]
    Too often, those of us in education receive some of the same questions from multiple audiences. In the case of changing grading practices, I often hear, “Why do we need to change our grading practices? They worked for me!” One article I often point to is this one, which I believe will someday be seminal work in our field. The authors conclude, “One hundred years of grading research have generally confirmed large variation among teachers in the validity and reliability of grades, both in the meaning of grades and the accuracy of reporting.” In other words, traditional grades have all kinds of problems.
  2. O’Connor, K. (2017). A case for standards-based grading and reporting. School Administrator, 74(1), 24-28. [Available online]
    Ken has written a number of excellent books and this article seems to sum them all up in a concise way. Although the original audience of the article was school superintendents, I feel confident sharing it with anyone interested in an overview of both why and how grading practices should improve.
  3. Buckmiller, T., Peters, R., & Kruse, J. (2017). Questioning points and percentages: Standards-based grading in higher education. College Teaching, 65(1), 1-7. doi:10.1080/87567555.2017.1302919.
    Standards-based grading can be done in higher education! Tom, Randy and Jerrid document the perceptions of students in an educational technology course. In fact, the learners reported SBG was clear, more fair and a means for going beyond “playing the game of school” in college.
  4. Scarlett, M. H. (2018). “Why did I get a C?” Communicating student performance using standards-based grading. Insight: A Journal of Scholarly Teaching, 13, 59-75. [Available online]
    Dr. Scarlett proves yet again that standards-based grading cane be done in higher education, this time with an impressive attention to the planning and implementation details.
  5. James, A. R. (2018). Grading in physical education. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 89(5), 5-7. doi: 10.1080/07303084.2018.1442063. [Available online]
    It seems like standards-based grading early adopters are typically in the core content areas such as math, ELA or science, due to the accessibility of state and national standards documents. In this article, the author describes what SBG looks like in physical education. This write-up will inevitably be helpful for schools going “all-in: with SBG and few PE examples to draw from.
  6. Buckmiller, T., & Peters, R.. (2018). Getting a fair shot?. School Administrator, 75(2), 22-25. [Available online]
    Buckmiller and Peters receive fifteen points of extra credit for landing on this list more than once. When high schools make a change to standards-based grading practices, one of the often-noted concerns is around implications for the higher education admissions process. Through interviewing staff at several university admissions, the authors document several themes which include, “Letter grades and transcripts based on standards are acceptable, if not preferable, in the eyes of admissions offices, but with some caveats.” In other words, high school students experiencing SBG are getting a fair shot when applying for college.
  7. Reeves, D., Jung, L. A., & O’Connor, K. (2017). What’s worth fighting against in grading? Educational Leadership, 74(8), 42-45.
    It would be hard to NOT include this article collectively written by three of the most often cited experts in the grading reform field. Reeves, Jung and O’Connor clear the air and suggest several non-negotiables schools should consider in their quest to better communicate/report student learning.
  8. Wormeli, R. (2017). We have to prepare students for the next level, don’t we? AMLE Magazine, 5(1), ##-##. [Available online]
    The title speaks for itself. Rather than worrying about the next grade or institution of learning, educators should “…not sacrifice good instruction because those in upper levels are not there yet. Instead, we employ what we know works, and we spend time mentoring those above us in what we do.”
  9. Townsley, M. (2018). Mastery-minded grading in secondary schools. School Administrator, 75(2), 16-21. [Available online]
    I hesitated to include one of my own articles in this list, but by golly, I think it does a nice job describing what standards-based grading can look like at the secondary level. Feel free to let me know in the comments if you think my thinking was severely clouded when elevating this one to the top ten.
  10. Tucker, C. (2018). Rethinking grading. Educational Leadership, 75(5). [Available online]
    I’m not sure how I missed this article until a month ago when I was doing a literature search. Catlin lays out her fears and successes when implementing standards-based grading in a way that really resonated with me.

What articles would you add to this list from 2016-2018?

Why is standards-based grading slower to catch on at the secondary level? One idea…

One of many possible reasons why standards-based grading has been slower to catch on at secondary level when compared to elementary settings….
From a study of nearly 3,000 K-12 teachers:
The evidence gathered in this study shows that nearly all teachers believe that grading plays a role in the teaching and learning process. However, the data show that elementary and middle/high school teachers’ views remain widely different. Elementary teachers tend to see grading as a formative process rather than an end state. They are more likely to give students multiple opportunities to evidence academic mastery and use homework as a means to learn about students’ progress rather than score it for completion.
(emphasis, mine)
Link, L. (2018). Teachers’ perceptions of grading practices: How preservice training makes a difference. Journal of Research in Education, 28(1). Available at

Leaders of Professional Development: Moving towards a process rather than event

[Note to readers: This column is part of an ongoing series for Iowa ASCD’s The Source e-newsletter.]

Leaders of Professional Development: Moving towards a process rather than event

What does it mean to be a curriculum lead?  This is the fourth column in a series for Iowa administrators, teacher leaders and anyone else interested in enhancing curriculum leadership.  So far, we’ve discussed the work of curriculum, instruction, and assessment; data analysis; and processes.  This week, we’ll be taking a closer look at what it means to be a leader of professional development.  Future columns will consider the remaining facets of curriculum leadership: relationship building, performance, operations, and change.

According to the functions of our work, “Curriculum leads model, expect, monitor, and evaluate continuous learning of all students and staff members.”  Modeling matters!  Central office administrators ought to be modeling curriculum leadership with principals through frequent and collaborative classroom walkthroughs.  Principals and instructional coaches, too, should carve out time to model curriculum leadership by being in classrooms and providing feedback to teachers.  Most importantly, these walkthroughs should inform upcoming professional learning.  In my experience as a district administrator, a team of principals, teacher leaders, and central office personnel visited classrooms at least twice per year.  The most impactful observations were purposefully scheduled one month prior to a full day of professional learning, for the purpose of influencing the details of the professional development day.  Similarly, PLC or data team leaders might visit colleague’s classrooms a week prior to an upcoming common formative assessment, in order to better understand the different pedagogical approaches taking place across a grade level or content area.

Our role as curriculum leaders is also to monitor and evaluate the impact of professional learning.  As I travel the state visiting with current and future school leaders, I often hear about professional learning as an event rather than a process.  Events look something like this: Group of staff attend Mr. Big-Name-Speaker at regional workshop or district brings in Ms. Book-Author to do a workshop for all teachers.  Following the professional learning event, those with positional authority do not articulate any expectations or timeline.  In other words, it’s up to individual teacher discretion to determine the next steps and impact, if any, the professional learning time will have on students in the classroom.  Furthermore, with such a scattering of professional learning, teachers may be wondering where they should be prioritizing their time in order to work towards district goals.  Meanwhile, the district has invested taxpayer funds and staff have depleted their limited time away from students which may or may not yield any long-term improvement.  As such, curriculum leaders owe it to our colleagues to assist in identifying at least one new learning/behavior resulting from professional learning opportunities, and provide ongoing support for this new idea to enhance student success.  In buildings and districts with a strong vision for professional learning as a process, every opportunity for new staff learning is carefully planned, building upon the previous learning opportunity, student learning needs, and district goals.  A quick and efficient approach might be sending a professional learning follow-up survey soliciting participant perspectives such as their biggest take away, lingering questions, and suggestions for needed implementation supports.  When a leadership team summarizes this feedback, sends it to staff, and carefully plans the next professional learning supports using this information, not only will teachers appreciate their voices being heard, but also see curriculum leaders making plans to connect new learning with previous learning.

In closing, curriculum leaders who value improving professional learning in a school district invest their time to ensure it is a process rather than event.  This function requires leaders visit classrooms and systemically follow-up on each staff professional learning opportunity in order to purposefully model and monitor continuous improvement.

Resources to further learning as a leader of professional development:

  • The Principal as Curriculum Leader, 4th edition, by Allan A. Glatthorn, Jerry M. Jailall, and Julie K. Jailall (2017, Corwin)
  • Evaluating Professional Development, by Thomas R. Guskey (2000, Corwin)
  • Professional Development That Sticks: How do I create meaningful learning experiences for educators?, by Fred Ende (2016, ASCD).

Leaders of Processes: Making Every Professional Learning Opportunity Count

[Note to readers: This column was published in a September 2018 edition of Iowa ASCD’s The Source e-newsletter.]

Leaders of Processes: Making Every Professional Learning Opportunity Count

Last school year, I challenged readers to join Iowa ASCD by digging deeper into what it means to be a curriculum lead.  According to our organization, the functions of our work as a curriculum lead include being leaders of…

  • Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment
  • Data Analysis
  • Processes
  • Professional Development
  • Relationship Building
  • Performance
  • Operations, and
  • Change

In the first column, I posed some key questions and shared my own experiences related to being a leader of curriculum, instruction and assessment.  Curriculum leads are constantly painting the picture of a shared vision for the integration of curriculum, instruction, and assessment, all the while trying to keep up with changing state standards and assessments (ready or not, here we come, Iowa Statewide Assessment of Student Progress!)  In the second column, we considered how curriculum leads “assure all educators’ ability to use data to inform, implement, monitor, and evaluate results-based decisions” through tools such as innovation configuration maps.

The curriculum leadership journey continues in 2018-19!  This week, we’ll be taking a closer look at what it means to be a leader of processes.  “Curriculum leads establish and monitor common practices and procedures to assure alignment and achievement of initiatives and plans with district and building goals.”  Perhaps the most tangible example of this function in action is the teaming structure of a building or district.  Whether data teams, collaborative learning teams or achievement teams are the structure of choice, the common goal is to create a community of adult learners who are focused on ensuring students learn at high levels.  Curriculum leaders can and should play a key role in these teaming structures.  Rather than merely requiring agendas and minutes from each team, curriculum leads might map out differentiated deliverables throughout an academic year.  For example, elementary teams could share a summary of the data used to identify students in need of reading intervention on a monthly basis.  A secondary science team working through the Next Generation Science Standards likely has a list of revised units and assessments which would serve as evidence of collaboration time well utilized.

Moving beyond “pockets of excellence” should be a common talking point for curriculum leads embracing their role as leaders of processes.  Dr. Thomas Guskey (2000) suggests school leaders consider five critical levels of evaluation: participants’ reactions, participants’ learning, organization support and change, participants use of new knowledge and skills, and student learning outcomes.  While professional learning alone that directly affects students learning may be viewed as the holy grail because it is often a costly and time-consuming process to isolate and track down the necessary information, this does not mean schools should give up evaluating professional learning efforts all together.  As a leader of processes, curriculum leaders take the time to plan desired student learning outcomes and then work backwards to identify adult knowledge/skills to be acquired, organizational supports, and related learning activities.  Following each professional learning opportunity, participant reactions and levels of learning might be captured through a tool such as Google Forms or SurveyMonkey.  In addition, classroom observations should be scheduled to note the degree to which participants are applying newly acquired skills.  For example, at my former school district, principals and instructional coaches scheduled classroom observations to follow-up on a multiple year reading-in-the-content area initiative.  Using information from these observations and participant reactions captured via Google Forms, we were able to plan future professional learning opportunities that targeted areas of fine tuning.

In closing, curriculum leaders who value improving processes in a school district invest their time in structures to ensure each professional learning opportunity counts.  This function requires a leaders to think of change as a process rather than an event, such that each professional learning opportunity builds on the previous one, using multiple sources of data in the planning process.

Resources to further learning as leader of processes:

  • Evaluating Professional Development, by Thomas R. Guskey (2000, Corwin)
  • The Data Teams Experience: A Guide for Effective Meetings, by Angela Peery (2014, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
  • Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities (3rd Edition), by Richard DuFour, Rebecca DuFour, Robert Eaker, Thomas Many, and Mike Mattos (2016, Solution Tree)

End of an era and beginning of a new one

For the past fourteen years, I have worked in the Solon Community School District (Solon, Iowa).  When I interviewed for a teaching position in 2004, I had no idea Solon would be such a wonderful place to work. During that interview, I found out the high school building was only a few years old and principal at the time told me there were occasional “Taco Tuesdays” in the staff lounge, so it sounded like a good place to land a job! Beginning with my first months as a teacher, and later as a district administrator, I am grateful for the way Solon staff allowed me to ask lots of questions and learn from making (many) mistakes. Solon is a tremendous place with high expectations for adults and students. I feel blessed beyond measure to have called the Solon Community School District my professional home for so long.  Many, but not all, of the ideas on this blog were somehow related to my professional experiences and thoughts in Solon.

Beginning in August 2018, I will transition to a tenure-track assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Northern Iowa.  In this position, I will teach aspiring principals, central office administrators and superintendents.  Our mission is to develop and nurture reflective leaders of learning, service, and change in schools who positively impact students.  After finishing a doctorate degree last year, I had no idea an opportunity in higher education would present itself so soon, and one that will allow my family relocate to a familiar part of the state while our three boys are (hopefully) too young to remember it. Mentoring and teaching future school leaders is a professional chapter I have been looking forward to for a few years.

While I will begin writing more regularly in peer-reviewed journals as part of my new responsibilities, I hope to communicate even more frequently on this blog, too.

Standards-Based Grading and College/University Admissions (Summary)

Two articles were published in the February 2018 issue of School Administrator (AASA) describing university admissions office perspectives on standards-based grading (SBG).  The full e-edition is available online and brief summary of each article is below.

High school students experiencing SBG receive a fair shot at higher education admissions

The authors interviewed admissions folks at several Midwestern universities with the purpose of determining if high school students experiencing standards-based grading receive a fair shot in the university admissions process.  Three key findings emerged.

  1. Letter grades and transcripts based on standards are acceptable, if not preferable, by admissions folks, with a few caveats.
  2. When universities receive profiles/transcripts from schools with alternative grading/reporting systems, these students receive equal consideration.
  3. Due to limited personnel in the admissions office, grades and standardized tests are the most trusted measures.

Buckmiller, T., & Peters, R. (2018). Getting a fair shot?. School Administrator, 75(2), 22-25. [Available online]

University admissions offices are aware of SBG and preparing to adapt, as needed.

Voices from university admissions administrators across the country share their experiences with class rank, standards-based grading, and alternative reporting measures.  For example, Paul Seegert, director of admissions at the University of Washington, says he does not believe students currently applying under a standards-based are at a disadvantage in the admissions process.  If/when high school transcripts change, the general consensus shared is that admissions offices will need to be better prepared.  However, the “fact that college admissions offices will have to make some adjustments should not deter high schools from pursuing meaningful reforms in the way they teach and evaluate students” (p. 29).

Riede, P. (2018). Making the call inside admissions offices. School Administrator, 75(2), 26-29.