Standards-based Grading: BIG Shift #2 – A Mastery Mindset

In standards-based grading, teachers have a mastery mindset. In other words, classroom structures and routines are setup to maximize student learning, regardless of when they learn it.

In my experience as a K-12 student, and perhaps yours as well, each unit of study took several weeks or more and ended with some type of culminating assessment (test, project, essay, speech, etc.). The level of understanding I demonstrated at the end of the unit was written in ink. There was nothing I could do to change this static mark regardless of my future level of learning. Once the doors had been shut on the unit, few, if any, opportunities existed to remediate and/or show I had a deeper understanding.

Every educator I have worked with agrees that students learn at different rates and different paces. As such, in standards-based grading, the BIG shift is thinking about learning as dynamic rather than static within a reporting period. When students have demonstrated a higher level of understanding following some type of new learning activities, marks in the grade book or report card are revised according. Because our mindset is focused on mastery, we think of learning as documented in pencil during any given quarter, trimester or semester.

In an upcoming post, I will share the next BIG shift of standards-based grading: repurposing homework and checks for understanding as ungraded practice.

Standards-Based Grading: BIG Shift #1 – Reporting Learning Rather than Tasks

In standards-based grading, teachers communicate goals of learning rather than tasks. In other words, learning is communicated in relation to the course outcomes rather than the activities (homework, quiz, project, essay, etc.) demonstrating the learning outcomes.

For many years in education, this has been the default means of communication to students and parents:

However, 14 out of 16 points does not tell John or his parents the areas in which he has successfully learned the course outcomes and the areas in which John still needs to improve.

In standards-based grading, the BIG shift is seeing learning outcomes (often called “standards” in K-12 schools) reported in grade books and/or report cards.

In an upcoming post, I will share the next BIG shift of standards-based grading: a mastery learning mindset.

Standards-based grading: Lock-ins and lecture halls

(a.k.a. why schools choose to adopt educational practices such as grading that are often different from colleges/universities)

As we embarked in my previous high school upon making our grade book more reflective of what students are expected to learn, a question from parents (and sometimes students or teachers) often came up: “If colleges/universities are continuing to grade using points and percentages, why are we changing to standards-based grading?”

No doubt this is an important question and comes from a mindset of “I want to make sure my child will be prepared to succeed in college.”

Here’s the thing — there are a TON of ways the high school experience does not mimic colleges and universities.

Lecture halls

I graduated from a small private college in Iowa. The class sizes I experienced were anywhere from 4 students (secondary math methods) to around 75 students (an introduction to psychology course). However, some of my friends who attended larger institutions of higher learning shared with me they had classes with 100+ students! A little investigation confirmed introductory biology classes, for example, suggests it is the norm for some colleges/universities to teach over one hundred students in lecture halls designed to accommodate as many as 300 learners. In the spirit of “preparing our kids for college,” one line of thinking might suggest that we should significantly increase high school class size in the sciences as well as deliver content primarily in a lecture format. Well, inquire with pretty much ANY high school science teacher and they’ll tell you smaller class sizes are desirable in order to personalize learning. In other words, it would be silly to mimic the practice of higher education regarding class size.


In my undergraduate days, I lived on campus for all four years. Moving out of mom and dad’s basement into the dorms was an adjustment for me as I’m sure it is for many freshmen. In this “we must prepare our students for college” line of thinking, we might also begin having weekend-long lock ins at the high school or middle school level to assist in the transition towards residential college life. Again, I suggest talking with any high school teacher or principal about the reasons lock-ins do NOT regularly happen with 16, 17 and 18 year olds. In other words, it would be silly to mimic the practice of higher education in this regard as well.

In summary, the purpose of this brief essay was to point out high schools specifically CHOOSE to do things they know are developmentally appropriate and in line with quality educational practices. When it comes to grading, it is our moral imperative to better communicate students’ current levels of learning and provide students with multiple opportunities to demonstrate their understanding, a few of the major tenets of standards-based grading.

Considering standards-based Grading: Challenges for Secondary School Leaders

Rather than awarding points for a combination of worksheet completion, quiz performance, in-class participation, and essay writing, standards-based grading separates academics from nonprogress towards mastery of course or grade-level standards. Some secondary schools are moving towards standards-based grading (SBG) in an attempt to produce more consistent grading practices, however the empirical evidence resulting from this change is mixed. The purpose of this article is to describe principles of standards-based grading, empirical support of SBG, and several common challenges secondary school leaders may face when considering this philosophical shift. Future research recommendations include exploring the perspectives of college students who graduate from high schools using SBG to understand the longer-term successes and shortcomings of the grading system.

This peer-reviewed article was published in the Summer 2019 issue of the Journal of School Administration Research and Development.

Townsley, M. (2019). Considering standards-based grading: Challenges for school leaders. Journal of School Administration Research and Development, 4(1), 35-38

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


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

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.