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.

Standards-based grading: Motivating students to complete homework/practice without points

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

Q: When homework is no longer completed for points or a grade in a standards-based grading environment, I could see some students reluctant to submit homework assignments. Do you have any advice on convincing students that homework is still a required, essential part even if they aren’t getting a score for it? What about those kids who just don’t turn in their work?

A: Let’s be honest for a moment – there’s no silver bullet for motivating kids to do homework! When we think about the traditional grading paradigm, students do not often value practice/homework, even when it is worth points. Evidence of this theory includes students across the country in high schools with traditional grading who do not turn in their homework assignments and students who turn in copied homework assignments.

Here is my biggest piece of advice, which comes from personal experience: In traditional grading, when a student does not turn in an assignment, we give them a zero, but do not talk with them about it. We assume they’re going to “learn” from the zero. Instead, I tried something different in my later years as a high school teacher.  It went something like this…

Class, the purpose of homework in this class is practice.  Although homework is not worth any points, it is still very important.  The purpose of homework is practice!  Just like you practice for a small group speech contest, vocal music solo or volleyball game, practicing is important in math class.  Turn to your neighbor and share with them two reasons you believe practicing in math class is important and one reason why you might be tempted to not complete homework in this class….Okay, who can share with me a summary of their partner discussion?  How many of you talked about the importance of practice in doing well on tests?….

Then, when a student (inevitably) decides to not turn in an assignment a few days later, have a good ole fashioned one-on-one, sit down conversation with him/her.

Why did you decide not to do this assignment?


How well do you think you’ll do on the next assessment?

I’ve found this to be a relationship building exercise and gives me a better idea how I can help the student. Sometimes students are going through tough times at home. Other times, they’re lost conceptually and don’t want to admit it.

This is not a cure-all type of solution, but one that I and other educators using standards-based grading practices have found to be helpful.  In what ways have you motivated students to complete homework when it is worth zero points?  Leave your ideas in the comments below.


Doctoral program: 24 month update

Nearly two years ago, I embarked on a third graduate program.  Recently, I defended my dissertation proposal.  This is a big time milestone!  If you’re not familiar with the process of a doctoral program, the dissertation proposal is a draft of the first three chapters reviewed by the committee in which they give a doctoral student the “green light” to continue.  Chapter one is an overview of the study.  Chapter two is a literature review covering related studies and describing how the dissertation fills a “gap” in the literature.  Chapter three is the methodology or to rephrase it, who, what, when and why the researcher plans to collect and analyze data in order to answer each carefully crafted research question.

What is next?

  1. Upon receiving approval from the university’s institutional research board (think: government-required committee ensuring research on human subjects is completed with the appropriate precautions and participant consent) within the next month, I will begin collecting data this summer.
  2. Write chapter 4 (results)!  This will involve a lot of tables with very little original thinking.
  3. Write chapter 5 (discussion and recommendations)!  My committee chair suggested this could be the hardest chapter to write outside of the literature review, because it involves making a lot of connections between the results and previous studies.
  4. Defend the dissertation.  This a final time for the committee to ask questions following significant review of all five chapters.
  5. Complete a few more classes (noted below) and walk across the stage in Spring 2017 to be hooded!


All of this aligns with the ambitious timeline I described in the 18 months update.

Help from a few friends

None of this could be possible without the support of two critical friends in the program, Bipul and Steve, who have provided feedback encouragement along the way.  I also owe a big thank you to Mrs. T. for allowing me to spend 3-4 hours per week holed up in the local library at night working on dissertation drafts.  Completing a doctoral program while working full-time has proven to be a much more challenging task than the first two graduate programs, but with help from a few friends, it has been doable.

Look for another update in a semester or two!

What does the research say about standards-based grading?

What does the research say about standards-based grading?

A research primer [printer-friendly pdf]

Authors: Matt Townsley and Tom Buckmiller, Ph.D.

Kindergarten by kfergos, on Flickr

One hundred years, No research to support.

Traditional grading practices have been used for over one hundred years, and to date, there have been no meaningful research reports to support it (Marzano, 2000). In an era of data-driven decision making, that’s critical to note. Most teachers have not received adequate training in reliable and valid assessment methods in their teacher preparation and often default to the way they saw their teachers grade when they were in school. As a result, grading practices may vary widely from teacher to teacher (Reeves, 2004) based on style, preference, and opinions and without a research-driven rationale (Cox, 2011; Guskey & Bailey, 2001; Zoeckler, 2007). Contributing to this irregularity is the fact that many schools lack a specific, unified grading policy for teachers (O’Connor, 2009). Parents of students today were also graded using traditional methods (we all were) and thus this wildly inconsistent way of communicating achievement and growth of students has been entrenched and accepted in the way we think about schooling.

The absence of research supporting traditional grading practices is concerning. As schools continue to adopt a standards-based approach to teaching, learning, and assessment, it is critical to understand the research literature on the topic. The purpose of this primer is to provide an overview of the research literature on the topic of standards-based grading.

Why change grading practices?

There are two fundamental reasons why traditional grading practices ought to be re-assessed. First, the Common Core has helped make learning targets more rigorous, consistent, and transparent. The focus has been to create fewer standards but challenge students to think deeper and work towards more meaningful applications. Previous iterations of school curricula have focused on far-reaching and low-level rote learning (memorizing facts). Thus traditional grading practices were perhaps a more appropriate way to measure how a student is doing in school back then. But today grading experts (Guskey, 2014; Marzano, 2000; O’Connor, 2009; Reeves, 2008) agree teachers should update their grading practices to better align with the realities of how and what students are learning in schools.

Second, Every Student Succeeds (formerly No Child Left Behind) has changed the way school leaders and teachers operate. These educational laws mandate that schools may no longer simply fail students who don’t learn, and move on (Vatterott, 2015). Instead, all students must be proficient. School leaders must now ensure their system’s purpose is to develop talent rather than merely sort it (Guskey, 2011). Thus, higher scrutiny and accountability over the measurement of student achievement has demanded grades be more reflective of learning. No Child Left Behind initiatives have exposed that traditional grading practices may no longer be an effective way of measuring student progress in the classroom because they do not equate or correlate with performance on standardized tests (Vatterott, 2015).

What is standards-based grading?

Studies show standards-based teaching practices correlate to higher academic achievement (Craig, 2011; Schoen, Cebulla, Finn, & Fi, 2003). Therefore, it is critical that teachers also link assessments and reporting to the standards (Guskey, 2001). Beatty (2013) suggests standards-based grading (SBG) is based upon three principles. First, grades must have meaning. Indicators, marks and/or letters should provide students and parents with information related to their strengths and weaknesses, separating out non-academic behaviors. Second, classroom-grading systems must incorporate multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate their understanding based on feedback. The final principle of standards-based grading is separating academic indicators from extraneous factors such as homework completion and extra credit.

Principle 1: Grades should have meaning

Grades should provide meaningful feedback to students, document their progress, and help teachers make decisions about what instruction a student needs next (Wormeli, 2006). Traditional grades and report cards are muddied and misleading when they combine both academic factors and non-academic factors into a single grade. Non-academic behaviors are important and merit their own reporting mechanism because they matter in college and in a career. These behaviors include factors such as punctuality, work ethic, attendance, participation, and ability to meet deadline. But when these behaviors are combined with academic information (does my child know how to do algebra?) to form a single grade, learners and their parents can be deceived by a false and inaccurate calculation. Vatterott (2015) gives these examples:

A student can compensate for low understanding of the content and standards by maintaining perfect attendance, turning in assignments on time, and behaving appropriately in class. A different student may understand content and standards perfectly well but receive a low grade because he or she is late to class, fails to turn in assignments on time or acts inappropriately (p. 63-54).

A grading system shouldn’t allow a student to mask their level of content understanding with their attendance, their effort level or other peripheral issues (Scriffiny, 2008). These are separate issues and should be reported separately. Instead, a grading system should be based upon clear learning targets, a practice in which Marzano (2003) supported because students perform up to 20 percent higher compared to instruction without clear targets.

Principle 2: Multiple opportunities to demonstrate learning based on feedback

Wormeli (2011) proposed allowing “redos” and retakes, a practice often ignored in traditional grading. He argued retakes are necessary in order for the grade to truly capture student growth at the time of reporting rather than a single moment in the past. According to Marzano and Heflebower (2011), if the purpose of a grade is to report mastery, then educators must look for evidence of learning over time with multiple opportunities for updates.

Standards-based grading is a logical extension of this idea, and allows teachers to provide clearer and more effective feedback when compared to traditional letter grades. Haystead and Marzano (2009) conducted a comprehensive review of studies on classroom instructional strategies, concluding the use of scoring scales and tracking student progress over time towards a learning goal yielded a 34 percentage point gain. When students were provided additional time and feedback for the purpose of learning the intended standards, strong evidence indicated a positive correlation between added instructional time and achievement (see Brown & Saks, 1986 for seminal work).

Principle 3: Putting homework and extra credit in its proper place

Although assigning high grades as rewards can sometimes motivate students (Guskey & Bailey, 2001; Marzano, 2000), assigning low grades as punishment does not encourage students to do better (Dueck, 2014; Guskey, 2000; Guskey & Bailey, 2001; Marzano, 2000; O’Connor, 2009, 2011; Wormeli, 2006).  Furthermore, grades used as external incentives can sometimes lead to decreased motivation (Guskey, 2011), diminished performance, addictive behaviors, or cheating (Matthis, 2010).

In a meta-analysis of the research on homework, Cooper, Robinson and Patall (2006) described a connection between homework and student learning lasting through the unit test, but not any longer. The limited nexus between homework and more long-term indicators suggests the predictability of student learning is better measured with more formal measures such as tests, essays and other classroom assessments. Furthermore, educational assessment experts recommend all formative work (that is, intended for practice) should not be included in the final grade (Stiggins, Frisbie & Griswold, 1989)

Extra credit is problematic in that the students who would benefit the most from completing it are often not the ones taking advantage of it (Harrison, Meister & LeFevre, 2011; Moore, 2005). More succinctly, awarding extra credit in classrooms has the potential to artificially widen the gap between students performing well and those who are struggling.

We can do better

In the past century, everything from modern medicine to personal computing has evolved and improved; yet our educational system’s grading practices have remained the same, despite a lack of supporting evidence. A standards-based system of assessment seems to be a significant and defensible improvement over traditional grading practices. The logical alignment of a standards based approach with Common Core standards, the advocacy by a growing number of respected educational leaders and researchers, and the positive results experienced by many of its early adopters signals that SBG is positioned to gain traction in more schools (Peters & Buckmiller, 2014). While studying standards-based pilot programs in Kentucky, Guskey, Jung, and Swan (2011) found teachers and families nearly unanimous in their agreement that standards-based reports provided better and clearer information. Thus, the power of SBG lies in the opportunity for a more nuanced and focused conversation between parents and teachers about where students are strong, where they are weak, and how each can help the student (Spencer, 2012). With supporting literature and a growing body of research validating SBG, stakeholders can rest assured that our most important resource, our students, will benefit from this shift.


Beatty, I. D. (2013). Standards-based grading in introductory university physics. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 13(2), 1-22. Retrieved from

Brown, B. W. & Saks, D. H. (1986). Measuring the effects of instructional time on student learning: Evidence from the beginning teacher evaluation study. American Journal of Education, 94(4), 480-500. Retrieved from

Cooper, H., Robinson, J. C., & Patall, E. A. (2006). Does homework improve academic achievement? A synthesis of research, 1987–2003. Review of Educational Research, 76(1), 1–62. doi: 10.3102/00346543076001001

Cox, K. B. (2011). Putting classroom grading on the table: A reform in progress. American Secondary Education, 40(1), 67-87.

Craig T. A. (2011). Effects of standards-based report cards on student learning. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from

Dueck, M. (2014). Grading smarter, not harder: Assessment strategies that motivate kids and help them learn. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Guskey, T. R. (2000). Grading policies that work against standards…And how to fix them. NASSP Bulletin, 84(620), 20–29. doi:10.1177/019263650008462003

Guskey, T. R., & Bailey, J. M. (2001). Developing grading and reporting systems for student learning. Lexington, KY: Corwin.

Guskey, T. R., Swan, G. M. & Jung, L. A. (2011). Grades that mean something: Kentucky develops standards-based report cards. Kappan, 93(2), 52-57.

Guskey, T. R. (2011). Five obstacles to grading reform. Educational Leadership, 69(3),16-21.

Guskey, T. R. (2014). On your mark: Challenging the conventions of grading and reporting. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Harrison, M. A., Meister, D. G., & LeFevre, A. J. (2011). Which students complete extra-credit work? College Student Journal, 45(3), 550-555.

Haystead, M. W., & Marzano, R. J. (2009). Meta-analytic synthesis of studies conducted at Marzano Research Laboratory on instructional strategies. Englewood, CO: Marzano Research Laboratory. Retrieved from

Matthis, T. L. (2010). Motivational punishment: Beaten by carrots and sticks. EHS Today. Retrieved from

Marzano, R. (2000). Transforming classroom grading. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Marzano (2003) What Works in Schools: Translating Research into Action. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

O’Connor, K. (2009). How to grade for learning, K-12 (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Marzano, R. J., & Heflebower, T. (2011). Grades that show what students know. Educational Leadership, 69(3), 34-39.

Moore, R. (2005). Who does extra-credit work in introductory science courses? Journal of College Science Teaching, 34(7), 12-15.

Peters, R. & Buckmiller, T. (2015). Our grades were broken: Overcoming barriers and challenges to implementing standards based grading. Journal of Educational Leadership in Action, 4.

Reeves, D. (2004). Making standards work: How to implement standards-based   assessments in the classroom, school, and district. Englewood, CO: Advanced Learning Press.

Reeves, D. B. (2008). Effective grading practices. Educational Leadership, 65(5), 85-87. Retrieved from

Scriffiny, P. L. (2008). Seven reasons for standards-based grading. Educational Leadership, 66(2), 70-74.

Schoen, H.L., Cebulla, K.J., Finn, K.F., and Fi, C. (2003). Teacher variables that relate to student achievement when using a standards-based curriculum. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 34(3), 228-259.

Stiggins, R. J., Frisbie, D. A. & Griswold, P. A. (1989). Inside high school grading practices: Building a research agenda. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 8(2), 5-14. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-3992.1989.tb00315.

Spencer, K. (2012). Standards-based grading. Education Digest, 78(3).

Vatterott, C. (2015). Rethinking grading. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wormeli, R. (2006). Fair isn’t always equal: Assessing grading in the differentiated classroom. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Wormeli, R. (2011). Redos and retakes done right. Educational Leadership, 69(3), 22-26.

Zoeckler, L. G. (2007). Moral aspects of grading: A study of high school English teachers’ perceptions. American Secondary Education, 35(2), 83-102.

Image credit: Kindergarten” (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by kfergos 


Top 10 Standards-Based Grading Books

I received some positive feedback from the Top 10 Standards-Based Grading Articles list, so I thought it might be helpful to share a similar list of books¹.

  1. O’Connor, K. (2009). How to grade for learning, K-12 (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
    Ken O’Connor has written a number of books and articles geared toward practitioners.  How to Grading for Learning was helpful for me to think through several components of grading I needed to change in my own classroom.  These components include “basing grades on standards” and “emphasizing most recent information.”  There’s a reason the grade doctor’s books are so popular!
  2. Guskey, T.R. (2015). On your mark: Challenging the conventions of grading and reporting. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
    No top ten list of standards-based grading books would be complete without at least one written by Dr. Tom Guskey.  On Your Mark is a comprehensive piece written for an audience who needs to understand why grading practices need to change.  I envision these chapters as meaningful content for book study teams in schools across the country.
  3. Wormeli, R. (2006). Fair isn’t always equal: Assessing and grading in the differentiated classroom. Portland, OR: Stenhouse.
    Rick Wormeli is an author and former middle school practitioner.  This book tackles concepts such as redos and retakes, the role of homework in the final grade and setting up grade books that reflect student learning.  I often categorize Wormeli’s work as less standardized than Marzano and more practical than Guskey.
  4. Jung, L. & Guskey, T.R. (2012). Grading exceptional and struggling learners. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
    Not sure what the role of ELL and special education students is within a standards-based grading context?  When are accommodations appropriate?  When should modifications be made to the standards themselves?  This book has some answers!
  5. Guskey, T. R., & Jung, L.A. (2013). Answers to essential questions about standards, assessments, grading, & reporting. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
    If educators are looking for a book in the form of frequently asked questions, this is it.  Beyond theory and outside of day-to-day classroom practice, Guskey and Jung lay out responses to questions teachers, administrators, parents and school board members may have about non-traditional grading practices.  
  6. Brookhart, S. M. (2013). Grading and group work. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
    Group work is still a valuable part of standards-based grading classrooms!  Susan Brookhart helps readers understand the difference between learning in collaborative groups and assessing group work.  Any teacher or school moving towards standards-based grading would benefit from understanding these ideas early on in the process.
  7. Reeves, D. (2010). Elements of grading: A guide to effective practice. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
    I have always appreciated Dr. Doug Reeves as a speaker and author.  This book is no exception.  Reeves blends together research, logic and examples from schools to help readers think through toxic grading practices and their solutions.  Keep an eye out for the second edition of this book!
  8. Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2007). Checking for understanding: Formative assessment techniques for your classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
    Fisher and Frey’s book holds a special place in my heart, because the day I had the initial “I’d like to try out standards-based grading in my classroom” discussion with my high school principal, he handed me this book as a resource.  I believe grading and assessment practices need to go hand in hand.  This book provides more than enough practical tips and strategies for a classroom teacher to try out in a school year.
  9. Marzano, R. J. (2010). Formative Assessment & Standards-Based Grading. Bloomington, IN: Marzano Research Laboratory.
    It would have been hard to create a top ten standards-based grading books without including this Marzano text.  Of all of the books I’ve read the past ten years, this was the most highly anticipated one, however I cannot recommend all of the ideas presented for across-the-board use.  Marzano uses a formulaic way of creating tiered assessments that, while easily scalable across multiple classrooms and buildings, appears to go against my beliefs about authentic and meaningful classroom assessment.
  10. Heflebower, T., Hoegh, J.K., & Warrick, P. (2014). A school leader’s guide to standards-based grading. Bloomington, IN: Marzano Research Laboratory.
    See previous comments about the Marzano book on formative assessment and standards-based grading.  It would also be hard to create a list without including this book, because it is the only book I know of focused on school leaders.  Enjoy!

What books would you add to this list? 

¹All of the books on this list are focused on effective grading practices with or without a strong “standards-based” grading title.

Top 10 standards-based grading articles

UPDATE: For articles published in 2016 or later, see this list.

Every once in a while, I receive an email from an educator or parent interested in standards-based grading (SBG) and he/she asks for an introductory reading list.  I typically attach several of my favorites and then link to an ongoing list of articles curated during the past several years for further reading. Earlier this week, a professional acquaintance suggested I share a top ten standards-based grading articles list. Challenge accepted!

Without further ado, here is my top ten standards-based grading articles¹.

  1. Scriffiny, P.L. (2008). Seven reasons for standards-based grading. Educational Leadership, 66(2), 70-74 [Available online]
    Patricia Scriffiny is a math teacher who mixes in the “why” of standards-based grading with a few of her own classroom examples.  Any school or department considering the shift to SBG could use this article as a conversation starter.
  2. Peters, R. & Buckmiller, T. (2014). Our grades were broken: Overcoming barriers and challenges to implementing standards-based grading. Journal of Educational Leadership in Action, 2(2). [Available online]
    Two Drake University researchers interviewed a number of building and district administrators in order to describe the ups and downs of implementing SBG systemwide.  Barriers in the process included: student information and grading systems, parents/community members, the tradition of grading and fear of the unknown, and the implementation dip.  I’ll let you read the rest!
  3. Winger, T. (2005). Grading to communicate. Educational Leadership, 63(3), 61-65. [Available online]
    In the summer workshops I’ve facilitated, Winger’s article is almost always a hit.  Tony is a practicing educator who mixes in thought provoking questions with his own classroom reality.  Questions such as “do grades interfere with learning?” and “do grades provide accurate feedback?” are bound to stir up some heated conversations amongst educators at all grade levels.
  4. Erickson, J.A. (2011). A call to action: Transforming grading practices. Principal Leadership, 12(1), 42-46. [pdf]
    Jeffrey Erickson is a practicing school administrator who writes about his experiences changing grading practices in a suburban high school. While his ideas don’t quite meet my personal idea of standards-based grading (e.g. homework still counts towards a small percentage of the final grade), I believe his ideas are on the right track and worth sharing with others.
  5. Clymer, J.B., & Wiliam, D. (2006). Improving the way we grade science. Educational Leadership, 64(4), 36-42. [Available online]
    Looking for a practical view into a standards-based grading classroom?  This is it!  Eighth grade science teacher Jacqueline Clymer shares a sample grade book and a summary of student reaction to standards-based grading in the classroom.  The obvious target audience is science teachers who want to “see” SBG in action.
  6. Jung, L., & Guskey, T.R. (2011). Fair & accurate grading for exceptional learners. Principal Leadership, 12(3), 32-37. [pdf]
    Hold on…what about students with special needs?!  University of Kentucky researchers LeeAnn Jung and Thomas Guskey team up to communicate, “standards-based grading is the most accurate method to assess students’ abilities.”  Students with IEPs and English language learners may need modifications or accommodations and this article describes how to fairly do so in a standards-based grading setting.
  7. Iamarino, D. (2014). The benefits of standards-based grading: A critical evaluation of modern grading practices. Current Issues in Education, 17(2). [Available online]
    In this peer-reviewed article, the author examines the literature to evaluate various grading practices before concluding “modern grading practices are rife
    with complexity and contradiction. They are remnants of archaic conventions, and hybrids of newer methodologies not yet tried by time and application” (p. 9).  I wouldn’t recommend this piece as a first read, but rather for educators with a more philosophical or theoretical bend.
  8. Wormeli, R. (2011). Redos and retakes done right. Educational Leadership, 69(3), 22-26.
    Reassessments are one of the most hotly contested aspects of standards-based grading from the perspective of teachers and parents.  Wormeli’s article describes compelling reasons reassessments make sense while providing teachers a list of practical strategies to try out in their classrooms.
  9. Guskey, T.R. (2013). The case against percentage grades. Educational Leadership, 71(1), 68-72.
    This article alone is worth the price of purchasing the September 2013 issue of Educational Leadership.  Dr. Guskey briefly describes the history of grading and goes on to differentiate percentage grades from percentage correct.  Not sure why a 4 or 5 point scale is more accurate and appropriate when compared to a 100 point scale?  This is your go-to source.
  10. Vatterott, C. (2011). Making homework central to learning. Educational Leadership, 69(3), 60-64.
    Any meaningful conversation about grading practices involves the purpose of homework.  Dr. Cathy Vatterott is often coined “The Homework Lady.” This article provides schools a framework to consider in order to unify educators around the purpose and emphasis of homework within standards-based grading.

What articles would you add to this list?

¹Articles must describe the why and/or how of effective grading practices, and priority was given to articles available publicly online.

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A few steps to move beyond initiative fatigue

PK-12 education is funded as a social service, yet we’re expected to produce Cadillac-like results.

Think about that for a moment.  When a primary breadwinner loses his/her job in the United States, unemployment is a benefit intended to assist, but not fully replace, the financial needs of the household.  Social security was never intended to serve as an individual’s sole retirement.  City parks are available for families without their own green space to enjoy.  All of these social services were created to supplement, not supplant.

It should not be a surprise state departments of education, school boards and local administrative cabinets frequently add to the list of school initiatives in order to meet the public’s growing expectations.  Yet, time and financial resources often remain stagnant.

“The Law of Initiative Fatigue states that when the number of initiatives increases while time, resources, and emotional energy are constant, then each new initiative—no matter how well conceived or well intentioned—will receive fewer minutes, dollars, and ounces of emotional energy than its predecessors.” (Reeves, 2010, p. 27)

As an exercise, write down the list of initiatives and programs started in your local school building or district during the past five years.  Next, write down a list of initiatives and programs discontinued during the past five years due to careful evaluation.²  Which list was longer?

Odds are the tally of new initiatives and programs is at least double the length when compared to the discontinued list.

“…Teachers who had 80 or more hours of professional development in inquiry-based science during the previous year were significantly more likely to use this type of science instruction than teachers who had experienced fewer hours…The three studies of professional development lasting 14 or fewer hours showed no effects on student learning, whereas other studies of programs offering more than 14 hours of sustained teacher learning opportunities showed significant positive effects. The largest effects were found for programs offering between 30 and 100 hours spread out over 6–12 months.”
(Darling-Hammond & Richardson, 2009, p. 49)

The number of initiatives continues to grow and as the aforementioned research synthesis describes, more effective professional learning requires a commitment over multiple days.  Where will schools find the time? Why does it seem like schools are always starting something new?


Original image used from under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license



  • school systems have more on their plate than ever before, and
  • effective professional learning requires a long-term commitment, and
  • the Law of Initiative Fatigue suggests time, resources, and emotional energy are constant…

…what are some next possible steps?

An Initiative Management Framework¹

Rather than thinking only about the new initiatives to start for the upcoming semester or school year, I would like to encourage school leaders to consider a framework based upon the Iowa Professional Development Model and some of Doug Reeves’ work.  Here are the steps, followed by a more detailed description of each one.

  1. Establish a professional development leadership team.
  2. Curate an initiative inventory.
  3. Conduct an initiative audit.
  4. Commit to monitoring no more than six initiatives, at least annually.

Step 1: Establish a professional development leadership team.

The Iowa Professional Development Model Technical Guide describes several purposes of this leadership team:

  • To help organize and support various professional development functions
  • To engage in participative decision making – a democratic decision making process for keeping teachers involved and informed.
  • To help principals sustain a focus on instruction and keep professional development functions going.
  • ‰To distribute leadership and responsibility up and down the organization.

This team should involve teachers and administrators.  When leadership teams already exit, I have found it helpful to create a visual describing how various teams or committees across the district should interact and be related to each other.

administrator and teacher leadership team involvement

sample visual illustrating teacher and administrator involvement on leadership teams


Our “district leadership team” serves as our primary professional development leadership team.  This team is comprised of at least two teachers from each building as well as building and district administrators.  The primary purpose of meeting four to six times per year for is to plan and monitor our district-wide professional learning activities.  For the past several years, we’ve annually re-evaluated a multiple year outline of where we see ourselves going to keep our eyes and minds simultaneously focused on short and long-term outcomes.  As the central office administrator overseeing this team, I often come to the meetings with professional learning outcomes and/or a skeleton written in pencil.  I’ve found it is more efficient for teachers we’re pulling out of their classrooms to critique my plans than start from scratch during the meeting.  The team is asked to evaluate and revise my initial plan against our collective vision and the practical needs of their classroom colleagues.  Sometimes, the team rubber stamps my ideas, however we’ve also started over a time or two after throwing out my first draft entirely.  I believe our teachers on this committee feel empowered as a result of this process.  Our final plans are created and vetted by multiple brains and that’s a good thing.

Hold on…”but we already have leadership teams in our school!!”  Now is the time to ask a few questions:

  1. How often do these teams meet and for what purpose?
  2. What influence do these teams have on the planning and monitoring or professional learning activities?
  3. Has this team ever conducted an initiative inventory and audit?

Step 2: Curate an initiative inventory

This step in the framework is important to get right.

  1. A group of administrators lists the initiatives started during the past five years.
  2. Ask a group of teachers (on the PD leadership team or a focus group) to list the initiatives started during the past five years.
  3. Compare lists for the purpose of agreeing on a common initiative inventory.

The first two components of this step can be completed synchronously or asynchronously, however I believe it is important individual teachers and administrators create their lists separately, so that an honest assessment takes place.  In my experience, administrators tend to create shorter lists than teachers.  Particularly in schools with frequent or recent staff and/or administrator turnover, step three can be an interesting conversation, because it can help teachers and administrators clarify what they both agree are expectations at the moment.  That is, until the next step of the process!

Step 3: Conduct an initiative audit

Now that the professional development leadership team has an agreed upon list of the initiatives started during the past five years, it is time to narrow the list to a more manageable list of six or fewer priorities (Reeves).  At this point in the process, the team may need some additional information about each initiative such as how it should be presented to the staff and how it should be monitored over time.  This may significantly differ from previous practice due to limited resource constraints!

For each initiative listed on the inventory…

  1. List the number of hours of teacher professional learning time allocated for theory, demonstration, practice and collaboration (Iowa Professional Development Model).
  2. Identify monitoring/implementation data (teacher perceptions from surveys, walkthroughs, teacher artifacts, etc.)
  3. Create a hypothetical year-long goal (i.e. “100% of teachers will create a project-based unit this year”)
  4. Identify monitoring criteria, a.k.a. evidence of successful goal completion.
  5. Consider the number of hours needed to implement the goal.

The final part of this step is for teachers and administrators to create a prioritized list of initiatives based on 4 & 5.  It is important to point out administrators should have the final authority to utilize the prioritized lists to narrow down a final tally of no more than six (6) initiatives.  This final “plan on page” must have the stamp of approval from the appropriate personnel who delegate limited financial and time resources throughout the building or district.

2011 Solon District Goals (1)

sample list of district priorities


Step 4: Commit to monitoring no more than six initiatives, at least annually

One of the best ways I can think of to promote transparency and build trust in a school is via publicly monitoring (and following through with) a small number of building or district priorities.  Some initiatives may take multiple years.  What does the administration expect of its staff during the year?  Communicate it!  Check up on it!  Celebrate it!

sample initiative monitoring form

sample initiative monitoring form



The purpose of this initiative management framework is to help schools consider one way to clearly communicate and support their most important priorities.  The steps are relatively straight forward. I’d love to receive your feedback if you use all or part of it in your local context.

  • What are the biggest barriers you see in implementing this framework?
  • If an outsider walked into your school/district today, how confident are you teachers would be able to recite the goals/priorities for the year?


¹I acknowledge this framework is not something entirely new or original.  My hope is that at least one school or district will consider the ideas presented in this framework for the purpose of reducing the number of concurrent initiatives/programs.  I strongly believe appropriate and meaningful teacher involvement throughout the process is essential to understanding all perspectives within an educational system.

²Reeves, 2006