A comprehensive list of scholarly articles related to standards-based grading. This resource is updated as new articles and studies are published.
What does the research say about standards-based grading?
A research primer [printer-friendly pdf]
Authors: Matt Townsley and Tom Buckmiller, Ph.D.
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 http://josotl.indiana.edu/article/view/3264
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 http://www.jstor.org/stable/1085338
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 https://repository.library.northeastern.edu/files/neu:1127
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 http://www.marzanoevaluation.com/files/Instructional_Strategies_Report_9_2_09.pdf
Matthis, T. L. (2010). Motivational punishment: Beaten by carrots and sticks. EHS Today. Retrieved from http://ehstoday.com/safety/news/motivational-punishment-beaten-carrots-sticks-1120.
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 http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/feb08/vol65/num05/Effective-Grading-Practices.aspx
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.
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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Static URL: http://tinyurl.com/top10sbg
Agree or disagree with the following statement?
Students learn at different rates and different paces.
As an educational deeply entrenched in thinking through effective grading practices, I have asked the statement above to 1,000+ teachers and administrators. To date, not a single practitioner has argued with the premise students (and adults!) learn at different rates. Yet, in secondary schools across the country, students are penalized for learning slower than their peers: