Top 5 pitfalls to avoid in a standards-based grading system shift

Are you thinking about making the shift to standards-based grading in your building or district?  Based upon hundreds of phone calls, consultations, workshops and emails, here’s a list of five pitfalls I have observed that school leaders should avoid.

  1. Use exceeds as a descriptor in the grade book at the secondary level.
    Nothing frustrates Sally and her parents more than realizing the teacher taught the class how to learn the concept in class, but in order to get the highest mark in the grade book, Sally must come up with some type of application or knowledge beyond what was taught on the assessment.  Instead, consider removing “exceeds” and replacing it with “understands the standards” for the top indicator.
  2. Fail to communicate the standards-based grading shift.
    Traditional grading has been around for over one hundred years, so there’s reason to believe a shift to something new or different will require communicating a solid rationale and plan, repeated multiple times in multiple mediums.  Of McRel’s twenty-one leadership responsibilities, communication is one that takes a hit during second order change (and yes, standards-based grading is likely a second order change for many teachers, parents and students in your district).  Tell ’em. Tell ’em what you told ’em. And tell ’em again.
  3. Do not report practice in the online grade book at the secondary level.
    We know that reporting academics separate from work habits is a cornerstone of standards-based grading/reporting.  At the secondary level, the standards (rather than quiz and test numbers) are often reported through an online grade book , leaving little, if any room to document work habits.  Whether it’s retrofitting a grade book designed for traditional grading practices, or using a grade book more in tune with standards-based grading practices, it only makes sense to continue reporting levels of homework completion to parents, despite these assignments not counting towards the final academic grade calculation.
  4. Forget to tell stakeholders what is staying the same during the shift in grading practices.
    If your middle school is switching to a standards-based report card, be sure to let parents know you will continue to host parent-teacher conferences twice per year.  If your high school is shifting to a standards-based grade book, parents will want to know final course grades are still reported on the transcript, and that grade point average will be communicated with university admissions offices.  In addition to communicating what’s changing, don’t forget to let them know what will remain the same.
  5. Inconsistent implementation
    During the first year of standards-based grading implementation, we surveyed parents and students to find out their perception of this change.  Frustrated Roger = Frustrated Roger’s mom and dad, and one of the biggest sources of this angst was inconsistent implementation.  While we had an agreed upon purpose of grading and board-approved grading guidelines, we relied on (often inconsistent) institutional knowledge rather than a documented tight and loose implementation guide for our teachers to operationalize the tenets of SBG.  Somewhere between “every teacher for his/her own” and a lockstep approach is usually a good place to land.  Ensuring teachers are supported to implement agreed upon standards-based grading non-negotiables, will help students and parents adapt more quickly to the change, because they’re seeing it in multiple courses and/or grade levels.

What other pitfalls would you add to this list?

Recommended reading:

Frankin, A., Buckmiller, T., & Kruse, J. (2016). Vocal and vehement: Understanding parents’ aversion to standards-based grading. International Journal of Social Science Studies, 4(11), 19-29. [Available online]

Peters, R., Kruse, J., Buckmiller, T., & Townsley, M. (2017) “It’s just not fair!” Making sense of secondary students’ resistance to a standards-based grading initiative in the midwestern United States. American Secondary Education, 45(3), 9-28.

Peters, R. & Buckmiller, T. (2014). Our grades were broken: Overcoming barriers and challenges to implementing standards-based grading. Journal of Educational Leadership in Action2(2), [Available online]

Swan, G.M., Guskey, T.R., & Jung, L.A. (2014). Parents and teachers’ perceptions of standards-based and traditional report cards. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 26(3), 289-299.

Urich, L.J. (2012). Implementation of standards-based grading at the middle school level (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from

6 thoughts on “Top 5 pitfalls to avoid in a standards-based grading system shift

  1. Great list Matt. We will be reviewing our SBG/Competency Based decisions at the district level this week and will be using your article as a talking point! Thanks!

  2. Excellent information, Matt- thank you!


  3. The fact that the leading proponents of standards-based grading are reporting on the pitfalls of the system is telling. It seems to me that if the approach had been well researched and piloted in the first place, that these “pitfalls” might have been minimized or avoided altogether.There is still no empirical evidence to show that standards-based grading produces overall higher student achievement than percentage-based grading.

    • Hi Karen,
      Thank for taking the time to read and respond. You bring up a good point about any grading system being “well researched.” Susan Brookhart, Thomas Guskey and colleagues wrote an article reviewing the past century of grading research ( One of their take-aways of the traditional grading system is as follows, “This review shows that over the past 100 years, teacher-assigned grades have been maligned by researchers and pyschometricians alike as subjective and unreliable measures of student academic achievement” (p. 833). In other words, the literature does not paint a pretty picture when describing traditional grading practices. I would love to read any empirical evidence you might be able to share suggesting our traditional, percentage-based grading system is highly effective. The aforementioned December 2016 article in Review of Educational Research which considered over fifty empirical studies suggests otherwise.


  4. To add to Matt’s reply to Kate…. my perspective is that the “pitfalls” Matt speaks about are related to how to present, share and implement with all stakeholders— not pitfalls of standards-based grading itself.
    In our district we have Standards based gradebooks. Teachers and students have found that knowing students’ individual achievement related to the multiple standards associated with an assessment, more clearly identifies areas of success and challenge (and how to identify next steps in learning) than any overall % mark. What does that 75% mean anyways? That the student knows 75% of the curriculum and that his/ her understanding is the same across standards? Or…..?

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