Top 10 Grading Articles (2020)

As another year comes to a close, it is once again time to sift through the research and commentary from the past twelve months. In case you missed it, 2020 has been filled with media headlines describing flexibility in grading practices due to emergency remote learning for many K-12 schools in the spring and increasing course failure rates due to the ongoing pandemic in the fall. In response to these events, several journals and periodicals published special issues in order to support educators during such unprecedented times. Without further ado, I present to you what I believe are the top ten (10) articles from 2020 written about grading (in alphabetical order by lead author’s last name).

  1. Brookhart, S. M., Guskey, T. R., McTighe, J., & Wiliam, D. (2020). Eight essential principles for improving grading. Educational Leadership, 78(1). Online exclusive. [Available online]

    Four experts share their thoughts exploring the place of grading as an important component of comprehensive and balanced district assessment systems. The eight principles described in this article are worth considering for schools interested in changing their grading practices today, next week, next month or next year.
  2. Feldman, J. (2020). Taking the stress out of grading. Educational Leadership, 78(1), 14-20. [Available online]

    Educators everywhere could use less stress in their lives right now. Joe Feldman suggests how shifting away from these traditional and stress-inducing grading practices can bolster equity.
  3. Guskey, T. R. (2020). Breaking up the grade. Educational Leadership, 78(1), 40-46. [Available online]

    Thomas Guskey discusses the inadequacy of a single grade and the advantages of reporting multiple grades. In this article, he describes how providing multiple grades that reflect product, progress, and process criteria can be done without requiring more work.
  4. Guskey, T., Townsley, M., & Buckmiller, T. (2020). The impact of standards-based learning: Tracking high school students’ transition to the university. NASSP Bulletin, 104(4), 257-269.

    In this study, we sought to determine if the implementation of standards-based learning in high schools affects students’ transition to learning in university courses. The results revealed no detrimental effects and the most frequently mentioned transition difficulties related to social issues and time management.
  5. Jung, L. (2020). Does this count? Educational Leadership, 78(1), 34-38.

    Nearly every educator has heard the question, “Does this count?” as it relates to students’ motivation to complete assignments. Lee Ann Jung posits that educators can fix gaming-for-grades school cultures by changing our understanding of formative classroom work.
  6. Link, L. J. (2020). Effective grading practices: Creating a culture of achievement. Principal Leadership, 21(2). [Available online]

    In this article written for school leaders, Laura Link shares four enablers frequently used to implement successful grading reform. Perhaps most importantly, she argues that school leaders must make cultural changes that include effective grading practices.
  7. Schimmer, T. (2020). Quality over counting: Mindsets of grading reform. ASCD Express, 16(2). [Available online]

    I plan to share this write-up by Tom Schimmer more widely in the upcoming year. He describes mindsets such as “quality over counting” and “standards over tasks” that I believe resonate with classroom teachers who have many years of points and percentages experience.
  8. 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]

    In this essay, I offer three grading principles schools should consider in the era of hybrid, remote, and quarantine-induced learning. I believe the current pandemic-era of learning provides school leaders with an opportunity to reclaim the purpose of grades to communicate student learning, whether the “new norm” is here to stay or schools eventually return to primarily face-to-face instruction in the years to come.
  9. 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]

    I almost left this article off the list, because “Townsley” has been noted a few times already! Yet, this study co-authored with Dr. Megan Knight was unique in that it explained the experiences of high school teachers and administrators in the midst of transitioning to standards-based grading practices. 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.
  10. Venables, D. R. (2020). Five inconvenient truths about how we grade. Educational Leadership, 78(1), Online exclusive. [Available online]

    Venables describes the “monsters” that often drive our grading practices such as grading everything that moves and grading what students did rather than what they learned. He argues a more formative mindset towards assessment is needed in order to slay these grading monsters.

What grading articles from 2020 would you add to this list?

Also, see my previous “top” articles lists:

How should schools grade during a pandemic?

In Spring 2020, the New York Times and Washington Post, among other newspapers, published stories about schools adapting their grading policies in lieu of a sudden shift to emergency remote learning. More close to home, the Quad City Times ran a similar story describing Bettendorf school board deliberations around third quarter grades. In response to these unprecedented times, schools utilized “do no harm” grading methods, such as freezing the previous grades, replacing letter grades with pass-fail and providing students’ choice among the aforementioned methods. Colleges and universities were in a similar position during the spring and continue to adapt this fall, according to one Harvard administrator who said, “This is not a normal semester.”

Fast forward to the current academic year and Iowa K-12 schools are currently implementing a variety of instructional delivery models, providing 100 percent remote options for families and quickly moving students in and out of quarantine-induced learning environments. Any sense of “normalcy” beyond our current pandemic-era of learning appears to be months or perhaps years away. For over 100 years, researchers and practitioners have documented educators’ use of grades and concluded that when a “hodgepodge” of factors go into determining a letter grade, the output, frequently in the form of a letter grade, does not adequately communicate what a student has actually learned or is able to do. Rather than serving multiple functions (i.e., points for participation, progress and proficiency), grades ought to serve a single purpose: communicating students’ current levels of learning. In this column, I offer three grading principles focused on communicating learning that school leaders should consider during pandemic-era learning.


**For the rest of this article entitled, “Perspectives: How should Iowa schools grade during a pandemic?” which was written for the University of Northern Iowa College of Education, click here.

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