Standards-based grading empowers physical educators and enhances their teaching practices

[Note to readers: This column was recently published in Iowa ASCD’s The Source e-newsletter. My co-author was Dr. Scott McNamara, assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Northern Iowa]

Too often, educators intermingle attitude, effort, and achievement in their grading practices (Brookhart et al., 2016). This can especially be true of physical educators in that they often have to consider atypical factors, compared to other educators, when determining students’ grades such as effort and dressing out (Borghouts et al., 2017). Thinking back to our own middle and high school physical education (PE) experiences, merely stretching out, running the warm-up, and participating in whatever sports unit was the flavor of the month may have earned a passing grade. Rather than viewing PE class as a rite of passage and earning an easy grade, physical educators and their school administrators should consider a different approach to assessment and grading.

Physical educators have not often been trained to grade students based upon standards and to boot, PE is the only subject area that has specific standards related to three distinct learning domains: (a) psychomotor, (b) cognitive, and (c) affective (SHAPE America, 2016). In response to a call for more meaningful grading procedures, some schools have begun transitioning to standards-based grading (SBG) practices to better align assessment, standards, and grades communicated to parents and students (Townsley, 2018). Two key SBG principles include reporting standards in the grade book rather than assessment modality and emphasizing the most recent evidence rather than averaging multiple attempts within a reporting period.  While an increasing number of Iowa secondary schools are implementing or planning to implement standards-based grading, practitioners in the field told us there was a need to better understand the SBG successes and challenges specific to PE.  

Prior to COVID-19, we worked alongside all four K-12 PE teachers and two of their three administrators in an Iowa school district as they started to implement SBG within a PE setting.  While we recently reported the formal results of this investigation in a more formal report (Townsley & McNamara, 2021), the purpose of this article is to share the results with a broader audience. The results of this study are especially important for physical educators who may feel their content area is often marginalized. In addition, school administrators should be aware of this unique journey in order to understand the need to provide additional guidance to this group of educators.

Building the plane as we fly it

These forward-thinking educators shared with us their desire to learn about SBG absent of any known and readily available PE-specific professional development opportunities. Rather, they depended upon more content-neutral resources and informal networking to support their knowledge and models for moving forward with SBG.  In addition, teachers appeared to have a surface-level understanding of the SHAPE PE standards embraced by Iowa’s Department of Education.  Utilizing and applying the standards at each grade level was perceived to be subjective without professional development to better understand the intent of the standards.  Furthermore, PE teachers expressed a strong desire to utilize exemplar rubrics developed by experts rather than creating their own.  Despite these challenges, participants strongly expressed that SBG is the right shift for them and their students.

SBG provides a roadmap to empower teachers and students 

The physical educators we interviewed conveyed that SBG is a helpful practice in their planning, teaching, and assessing.  For example, to more frequently monitor student learning of the standards, PE teachers implemented more small groups, rather than large group assessments during class, sometimes creating self-assessment opportunities for students.  Still others checked for understanding with students on an individual basis, such as asking them to do as many pull-ups or push-ups as they could at that point in time. Rather than documenting in the gradebook how many students participated as they had often done in the past, SBG was beginning to individualize the assessment experience for teachers.  

Citing factors such as increased motivation to participate in class and the stories of students practicing skills at home, teachers believed the perceptions towards the value and relevance of PE were on the rise.  One teacher told us that it was “really cool to see that the kids were actually…taking it home, working on…homework, and then coming back and being proficient.” For a course that is sometimes viewed as an “easy A” for students, standard-based grading empowered teachers and students to feel as if they were on the same level as other disciplines in the school.

Additional SBG supports are needed for physical educators

The findings from our study suggest that through applying SBG to a PE setting, physical educators are better able to teach to the standards, communicate the learning taking place, and provide more motivation to students.  While easier said than done, clear grading criteria can assist physical educators in determining more meaningful grades based upon what students can do and can communicate learning more efficiently to parents and students.  Professional organizations from around the state may help physical educators increase their understanding of the SHAPE standards.  In addition, physical educators who have successfully implemented SBG should strive to share their practices and artifacts widely in support of this promising practice.  


Borghouts, L. B., Slingerland, M., & Haerens, L. (2017). Assessment quality and practices in secondary PE in the Netherlands. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 22(5), 473-489.

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.

Townsley, M. (2018). Mastery-minded grading in secondary schools. School Administrator, 75(2), 16-21.

Townsley, M., & McNamara, S. (2021). “I thought I was supposed to get an A in PE!” Successes and challenges of teachers and administrators implementing standards-based grading in physical education. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 70.

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