Grading Principles in Pandemic-Era Learning: Recommendations and Implications for Secondary School Leaders

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded in K-12 education, school leaders quickly pivoted from prioritizing continuous instruction and technology access to the output: grades. In response to these unprecedented times, secondary schools utilized “do no harm” grading methods, such as freezing previous grades and replacing letter grades with pass-fail. The purpose of this essay was to describe grading principles that secondary school leaders should consider during future pandemic era learning and to suggest implications based upon previous literature.

This peer-reviewed article was published in the 2020 “School Leadership During a Global Pandemic” special issue of the Journal of School Administration Research and Development.

Townsley, M. (2020). Grading principles in pandemic-era learning: Recommendations and implications for secondary school leaders. Journal of School Administration Research and Development, 5(S1), 8-14. [Available online]

3 Big Shifts for Standards-Based Grades

“My students spent two weeks on this project, so it should be worth a lot of points.”

“If Sammy had to take the test a second time, he must not have studied. He does not deserve full credit on a second attempt.”

“In the real world, there are no second chances.”

“Students won’t do the homework if we don’t grade it.”

These are phrases we have likely heard—or said—when discussing student grades. Such beliefs about grades as compensation have been the unquestioned norm for students, parents, and educators for well over a century. In more recent years, educators have begun emphasizing learning over earning when grading student work. This was Megan’s experience throughout her time as a secondary special education and English/language arts teacher. In her fledgling years, she viewed grades as compensation for hard work and high achievement. However, she eventually transitioned to a standards-based grading system that better communicated student learning. Standards-based grade books encompass three big shifts.

To read the rest of this ASCD Express article I co-authored with Megan Knight, click here.

Townsley, M., & Knight, M. (2020). Three big shifts for standards-based grades. ASCD Express, 16(2). Retrieved from

Losing As and Fs: What works for schools implementing standards-based grading?

Learning goals such as the Common Core State Standards are helping educational leaders to better understand the critical role assessment and grading plays in the teaching and learning process. In response to the growing body of empirical research on the topic of accurate grading practices, a number of schools are moving away from letter grades and adopting standards-based grading which separately report learning goals from work habits. The purpose of this essay is to document what works when K-12 schools implement standards-based grading through a deep dive into related literature and to suggest areas for future consideration. With this improvement to educational systems on the horizon, K-12 teachers and administrators in the early stages of redesigning their grading practices will benefit from understanding the successes and struggles of early adopters in order to successfully reform grading in their own context.

This peer-reviewed article was published in the Summer 2020 issue of Educational Considerations.

Townsley M., & Buckmiller T. (2020). Losing As and Fs: What works for schools implementing standards-based grading? Educational Considerations, 46(1). [Available online]

Rural high school principals and the challenge of standards-based grading

The purpose of this study was to better understand how principals in rural schools are thinking about assessment and grading practices and if they anticipate implementing policy changes in the near future that may require increased support. Principals of schools in rural areas often face challenges that are significantly different from those of their urban and suburban counterparts. The researchers used a mixed-method survey to better understand if progressive grading policies were a part of the vision for principals of rural high schools, if they possessed conceptual underpinnings of such practices, and if they believed they had the capacity within their districts to lead teachers toward more effective grading policies. A high frequency of high school principals in rural schools said standards-based grading (SBG) was a part of their 5-year vision. These principals also showed relatively high mean scores of standards-based assessment literacy, and moderately high percentages believed they have the resources and capacity to support SBG. The researchers thus conclude that there is a high likelihood that many rural high schools will be implementing some form of SBG within the next 5 years.

This peer-reviewed article was published in the Spring 2020 issue of Theory and Practice in Rural Education

Buckmiller, T., Townsley, M., & Cooper, R. (2020). Rural high school principals and the challenge of standards-based grading.  Theory and Practice in Rural Education, 10(1), 92-102. [Available online]

Making change stick: A case study of one high school’s journey towards standards-based grading

The purpose of this study was to explain the experiences of high school teachers and administrators in the midst of transitioning to standards-based grading practices. The researchers used a single case study methodology to investigate how teachers and administrators described their school’s implementation successes and challenges. Data triangulation occurred through analyzing semi-structured interviews, meeting agendas, handbooks, and relevant documents provided by study participants. Using Kotter’s eight steps for leading organizational change as a framework, we recommend school leaders blow off the cobwebs and get started, understand staff needs and provide teacher support, and be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

This peer-reviewed article was published in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of the Journal of Educational Leadership in Action.

Townsley, M., & Knight, M. (2020). Making change stick: A case study of one high school’s journey towards standards-based grading. Journal of Educational Leadership in Action, 6(3). [Available online]

Standards-based Grading Implementation Pitfalls to Avoid in Secondary Math

A growing number of Iowa schools are striving to improve communication of student learning by implementing standards-based or standards- referenced grading. Building upon the challenges identified by the earliest adopting secondary schools (Peters & Buckmiller, 2014), one recently published study suggests there may be a “second wave” of Iowa high schools considering standards-based grading (Townsley, Buckmiller, & Cooper, 2019).

A number of articles document effective secondary school implementation of standards- based grading within disciplines such as music (Duker, Gawboy, Hughes, & Shaffer, 2015; St. Pierre & Wuttke, 2017), English/Language Arts (Miller, 2013), science (Noschese, 2011; Wilcox, 2011), and family/consumer sciences (Shippy, Washer, & Perrin, 2013). Secondary math teachers using standards-based grading in their classrooms would similarly be well served to understand the experiences of their content colleagues who have gone before them.

The purpose of this paper is to suggest several common pitfalls to avoid when implementing standards-based grading in a secondary math classroom.

This article was published in the 2019-20 issue of the Iowa Council of Teachers of Mathematics Journal. For the full article, click here to view a PDF, beginning on page 11.

Townsley, M. (2020). Standards-based grading implementation pitfalls to avoid in secondary math. Iowa Council of Teachers of Mathematics Journal, 43, 11-15.

Standards-based grading: Big shift #3: Repurposing homework and checks for understanding as ungraded practice

In standards-based grading, teachers repurpose homework and checks for understanding as ungraded practice. In other words, students should be provided opportunities to make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and the information resulting from these assessments should be used by teachers to inform their instruction.

When I was in middle school, I distinctly remember my math teachers explaining how many points each daily homework assignment was worth and the inherent value of completing each on in a timely manner. It didn’t take too long to figure out that points were the currency of the classroom, and if it meant finding a partner on the bus ride to school for a little extra “assistance” (a.k.a. “copying”), that time often paid off. At the same time, the daily classroom grind often involved learning a new concept such as ratios, attempting problems 1-5 in class with the expectation of completing 6-20 on my own time before the next day. Assuming the purpose of these daily assignments was to practice, expecting perfection on these 14 problems prior to receiving feedback just didn’t seem right. Yet, each day the number of problems I answered correctly was recorded by the teacher in the grade book, which ultimately influenced my end-of-quarter grade.

In standards-based grading, the BIG shift is repurposing homework, mid-unit quizzes, rough drafts of essays, and other assignments designed to check for understanding (rather than summarize learning at the end of the instructional process) as ungraded practice.

One change for teachers using standards-based grading is to move away from reporting points on every single assignment (regardless of its purpose) towards more utilizing narrative feedback during the instructional process. In the example below, students are asked to indicate their perceived level of understanding in pencil for each standard assessed immediately following the completion of a mid-unit math quiz (note the question numbers intended to align with each standard, i.e. 1 & 3 for 5.MD.5) and my feedback to the learner in red which they receive the next day.

This post is the third and final in a series highlighting three big shifts in implementing standards-based grading. See below for the previous two.

  1. Standards-based grading big shift #1: Reporting learning rather than tasks
  2. Standards-based grading big shift #2: A mastery mindset

To learn more about all three of these big shifts, including detailed implementation criteria, pitfalls to avoid, and self-assessment continuums for teachers and collaborative teams, see the book Making Grades Matter: Standards-based Grading in a Secondary PLC at Work, available from Solution Tree Press.

Show me the numbers! Standards-based grading quantitative research

The following is a list of some, but likely not all, dissertations and journal articles investigating standards-based grading using quantitative methods. The summaries were copied and pasted from within the published abstract unless noted otherwise.

While there was an increase in all grading areas, two showed a significant difference—the Physical Science course content average (p = 0.024) and ix the Biology EOCT scores (p = 0.0876). These gains suggest that standards-based grading can have a positive impact on the academic performance of African American students. Secondly, this study examined the correlation between the course content averages and the EOCT scores for both the traditional and standards-based grading system; for both Physical Science and Biology, there was a stronger correlation between these two scores for the standards-based grading system.

Bradburd-Bailey, M. (2011). A preliminary investigation into the effect of standards-based grading on the academic performance of african-american students. (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. (3511593). [Available online]

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.

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 (CSAP). (Doctoral dissertation).  Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses (3397087).

From the article, as the abstract was a bit vague communicating results:  “The results of this study provide evidence that a standards-based grading system, as opposed to a traditional-based grading system, is more closely aligned with the results of the Scholastic Math Inventory standardized test” (p. 12).

Lehman, E., DeJong, D., & Baron, M. (2018). Investigating the relationship of standards-based gradesvs. traditional-based grades to results of the scholastic math inventory at the middle school level. Educational Leadership Review of Doctoral Research, 6, 1-16. [Available online]

This study focused on how student learning was impacted when secondary math, science, and language arts teachers use standards-based grading practices in their classrooms. Student learning was measured by term grades and end-of-level SAGE test scores. Results show students who attended a classroom with standards-based grades earned higher GPAs, performed better on the end-of-level test, and had more learning growth over the course of the school year, than their peers who participated in traditional grading classrooms.

Poll, T. R. (2019). Standards-based grading: A correlational study between grades and end-of-level test scores (Doctoral dissertation). Available through ProQuest Dissertations and Theses (13428322). [Available online]

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.

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

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. Standards-based grading strategies require careful planning, dedication, and follow through. It is not an endeavor to be entered into lightly, but rather, the appropriate amount of time, resources, and preparation can provide students the chance to truly learn content at a mastery level.

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

The Second Wave of Standards-Based Grading in Iowa’s Secondary Schools

[Note to readers: This column was recently published in Iowa ASCD’s The Source e-newsletter. My co-authors were Dr. Tom Buckmiller and Dr. Robyn Cooper, both associate professors of education at Drake University]

The Second Wave of Standards-Based Grading in Iowa’s Secondary Schools

In 2013, the first Iowa standards-based grading conference was held in Cedar Rapids.  At that time, only a handful of secondary schools were seriously thinking about standards-based grading (SBG). While Iowa has been a nationwide leader in competency-based education, it should also be noted our interest in standards-based grading practices continues to grow as well. Fast forward to 2020 and the landscape of grading practices in Iowa continues to evolve.  During the past seven years, nearly every notable grading author, speaker, and consultant has visited Iowa, often on multiple occasions, invited directly by schools or via AEAs and other professional organizations. Educators at these early adopting SBG schools attest this work, while important and necessary, has also been challenging.  

On the heels of the first wave (early adopters) of SBG, other secondary school leaders are no doubt weighing the odds of a successful implementation process.  Our research aimed to identify the probability of a second wave of SBG implementation and the perceived barriers the Iowa high school leaders anticipate. We believe the results of this study could assist high school and other secondary building leaders forecast challenges and barriers if they are considering making changes to update their grading and assessment philosophies.

We reached out to all Iowa high school principals not currently implementing SBG in January 2018.  When asked about the likelihood of implementing some form of SBG in the near future and the anticipated barriers, several themes emerged. The first theme was that SBG is indeed in their vision in the next five years.  Nearly 80% of the high school principals who responded indicated SBG was “a part” or “a strong part” of their vision for the next five years. This finding aligned with the attention SBG appears to be given across the state at various conferences and professional learning days.  Knowing SBG is on school leaders’ radar is a good start, however we were also interested in potential barriers.

One of the barriers high school principals identified when thinking about implementing SBG in the next five years was time.  Nearly 20% of those who responded indicated their need to educate their local communities about this significant shift.  Principals also anticipated a significant amount of time would be needed to work with their teachers to both understand and implement SBG.  Similarly, principals anticipated their teachers would need dollops of professional learning to simultaneously understand and implement standards-based grading.  

After an in-depth analysis of principals’ comments, we suggest several potential implications.  For example, schools are advised to “go slow to go fast.” The themes from this study corresponded with our professional experiences and those anecdotally documented by various media outlets: inconsistent and accelerated SBG implementation is an often cited concern.  Schools leaders are advised to keep in mind that adult learning, organizational growth, and community development takes time. In addition, just-in-time, personalized professional learning will be needed to support teachers with varying grading, assessment and pedagogical backgrounds.  

Although SBG is highly defensible with a growing research and literature base, encouraging this shift in practice for teachers who have used traditional grading methods is no easy task.  Both teacher and administrator preparation programs will play an important role in educating future educators of effective grading and assessment practices over time to break up some long-held beliefs.  Furthermore, AEAs and professional organizations such as Iowa ASCD will continue to play an important role in supporting schools in their standards-based grading journeys. For example, Heartland AEA is currently offering “SBL Framework Fridays” once per month to support school teams taking their next steps towards standards-based or standards-referenced grading/reporting.  

Our research suggests a second wave of SBG may be on the horizon in Iowa; however, previous literature suggests secondary principals may lack the instructional leadership capacity to lead, manage, and sustain a change, which so clearly disrupts the way stakeholders think about school.  Finally, additional insight is needed to discern the type of professional learning teachers of various career stages and content areas find meaningful as they strive to carry out more effective grading practices in their classroom.

The next step in supporting the next wave of schools is understanding how many Iowa secondary schools are indeed implementing standards-based grading, a data collection Matt Townsley will soon be summarizing and sharing across the state.  Similar to the collaborative teacher work so many schools are implementing with professional learning communities, data teams, and authentic intellectual work, it makes sense for schools to collaborate and support as they take their next steps implementing effective grading practices.  As the old mantra goes, together we are better, this will indeed be the case for Iowa’s secondary schools banding together for the sake of more transparent communication of student learning.  

Note: This article summarizes a manuscript originally published in the December 2019 issue of NASSP Bulletin

Townsley, M., Buckmiller, T., & Cooper, R. (2019). Anticipating a second wave of standards-based grading implementation and understanding the potential barriers: Perceptions of high school principals. NASSP Bulletin, 103(4), 281-299.

Top 5 standards-based grading articles (2019)

In the past, I curated and recommended lists of standards-based grading books and articles for practitioners and fellow researchers to read. A bulleted list of links to these lists is below.

A year has passed, therefore it was once again time to sift through the research and commentary from the past twelve months. Without further ado, I present to you the top five (5) articles written in the area of standards-based grading practices (in alphabetical order by lead author’s last name).

  1. Battistone, W., Buckmiller, T., & Peters, R. (2019). Assessing assessment literacy: Are new teachers prepared to assume jobs in school districts engaging in grading and assessment reform efforts? Studies in Educational Evaluation, 62, 10-17

    As school leaders embark upon grading shifts, they may question whether or not new teachers are prepared to engage in this type of work. This study suggests teacher education training on assessment is inconsistent at best with several corresponding implications for educators.
  2. Feldman, J. (2019). Beyond standards-based grading: Why equity must be part of grading reform. Kappan, 100(8), 52-55. [Available online]

    Joe Feldman lays out a clear argument for traditional grading as a means of perpetuating inequity. Beyond the typical psychometric, social, and logical arguments for standards-based grading, Feldman incorporates a number of helpful examples of how institutional grading bias can and should be overcome in order to create a more equitable learning environment for all students.
  3. Knight, M. & Cooper, R. (2019). Taking on a new grading system: The interconnected effects of standards-based grading on teaching, learning, assessment, and student behavior. NASSP Bulletin, 103(1), 65-92.

    One often overlooked reason for implementing standards-based grading is how it benefits teachers’ instructional practices. Teachers interviewed in this study report a number of benefits including a more coherent focus in their teaching, and a sense of more purposeful instruction that is more conducive to student needs while enhancing student growth mind-set and ownership.
  4. Guskey, T. R. & Link, L. (2019). The forgotten element of instructional leadership: Grading. Educational Leadership, 76(6).  [Available online]

    Many school leaders may not consider shifts in grading because they lack training on effective grading practices and/or teacher evaluation systems do not often prioritize grading. The authors suggest school leaders study effective grading policies and practices, promote teacher collaboration focused on grading, and clarify the purpose of grading throughout the school. I highly recommend all school leaders take the time to read this article in 2020.
  5. Townsley, M., Buckmiller, T., & Cooper, R. (2019). Anticipating a second wave of standards-based grading implementation and understanding the potential barriers: Perceptions of high school principals. NASSP Bulletin, 103(4), 281-299.

    Full disclosure: This was one of several articles I authored or co-authored on grading in 2019, but it was my favorite one, so I could not leave it off the list!
    Our research followed up on a study from 2014 to identify the challenges secondary school leaders experience when changing the currency of the classroom from points to learning. The results indicated that the game is changing and a new wave of SBG implementation is on the horizon.

What articles would you add to this list from 2019?