Standards-Based Grading

Okay, Mark over at Eightfalls has got me thinking about using standards-based grading in at least one of my classes next semester. Other good references come from Mr. Cornally at Think Thank Thunk.

Basically, standards-based grading (SBG) is based around the idea that there are several “standards” students should be able to achieve by the end of class. The problems on quizzes, etc. are matched to at least one standard. If the student successfully answers the question, they get an indication that they have provided evidence of meeting the standard. If the student does not successfully answer the question, they can study the topic and be reassessed later.

The teacher’s gradebook looks very different. Rather than having a lot of percentages, the gradebook contains a copy of each standard, a record of every opportunity a student had an opportunity to demonstrate knowledge of that standard, and a record of the student’s success at that opportunity. If a student consistently demonstrates knowledge of a standard, then they will be eligible for a higher grade. I would imagine that there would be standards that correspond to each grade.

I see this system as having many, many advantages of the percentage-based grading system:

  1. It provides useful feedback. A “B-” on a quiz says very little about what a student knows (or doesn’t). Not meeting the “Able to use the definition of linear independence in basic proofs” standard says a lot about what the student does not understand.
  2. It seems like the percentage-based system encourages students to accumulate (meaningless) points, whereas it seems SBG would keep the focus on learning.
  3. Expectations would be very clear to students.

Here are potential problems:

  1. Is everything that a student should learn able to be written as a discrete standard? I suppose the answer is “yes” if you allow for fuzzy standards like “Writes clearly” or “Thinks creatively.” However, this is more difficult for students to directly use to improve. The percentage-based model allows for me to grade for these fuzzy standards on the fly, but the students never really know that they are supposed to “Think creatively.” So I think this point might be grading-system neutral—I just need to be a better teacher and clearly communicate my expectations.
  2. As JamiDanielle writes, it could be that SBG actually puts more emphasis on grades. Of course, the research suggests that this is a bad practice. For instance, see this video (again, thanks to JamiDanielle):

    So the concern is that the students will move from grade-grubbers to standards-grubbers, and the result being that they are still more concerned with how they are doing than what they are doing.

  3. I suppose that I should mention that switching to SBG would be more work for me, but that is a bad reason not to do it. I am a professional, so this is not a concern.

So I am juggling three things right now: SBG, cooperative learning, and de-emphasizing grades. There is tension among the three:

  1. (My understanding of) SBG seems to be at odds with cooperative learning because it seems to focus on individual assessment. This is probably easy to modify, though.
  2. (My understanding of) SBG might be at odds with de-emphasizing grades for the reasons stated above.
  3. Cooperative learning might be at odds with de-emphasizing grades due to the fact that many cooperative learning techniques seem to revolve around using grades to motivate the group; for instance, I have bonus points on exams last semester if every group member got above a certain score. I am hoping to learn more about this at the workshop on cooperative learning next week).

Of course, I think that these problems can be solved with a little creativity. For instance, I could set-up an SGB-type system in my private gradebook while keeping the exact “standards” private from the students. This requires a balancing act—I need to communicate what they are expected to know, but keep them from thinking of the knowledge as a bunch of discrete things to be accumulated. Perhaps I would write a comment like “Please study how to determine if a subset is a subspace and be re-evaluated.” This would have the same functional effect, the student would still know his/her deficiency, but it might avoid the idea “I must accumulate the Subspace Standard.

On the other hand, it seems like it would be useful for the students to know in advance what they will be expected to learn. I would appreciate your thoughts on this.

7 Responses to “Standards-Based Grading”

  1. Jason Says:

    You’re citing some good blogs there. I’m always really happy when a higher ed prof takes the time to really think about teaching, like Rhett Allain or Adam Glesser.

    Hopefully I can provide some clarifications (or obfuscations)?
    Potential probs
    1. Yeah, that’s really hard regardless. There’s an interesting debate whether creativity can even be assessed but regardless, if you’re planning to do it, you should have a clear idea of what it should look like. Define it and communicate it to your students. Otherwise you’re just making stuff up as you go. That’s bad. In general, I would argue against directly assessing anything you don’t directly teach. That is, if you’re teaching your students different creativity techniques and you’re assessing use and output, fine. But if you’re just throwing in “creativity” because you think it’s important, that’s not fine, because you’re just assessing how a kid is rather than what they’ve learned. YMMV in higher ed though where there’s more emphasis on sorting (feel free to disagree).

    2. Certainly but that seems to be more implementation specific rather than trad v sbg. Certainly some teachers have been successful in removing the emphasis on grades in a trad system and those same teachers would probably be successful at it in an sb system. What I’m saying is that will depend on you and the university you’re in more than anything.

    3. Everyone I’ve talked to has said it’s more work up front but less once you get going. That is, a lot of work defining expectations and such but it’s a lot faster to give feedback on papers rather than tallying up points.

    Co-operative learning:

    I would vehemently object to including group grades into an individual score. I think we’ve all been in a situation where we’re either doing all the work or skating by. It distorts the individual record of learning. So yes, good assessment theory does emphasize individual scores over group scores. However, SBG systems commonly have non-academic scores (like creativity, group work, participation, etc) that are assessed separately. These can be reported out but not included in the grade or folded back into a final grade depending on your personal/school philosophy.

    If you’re linking to Drive, then you already know that points aren’t motivation.

    I’ve subscribed to your blog and am interested in hearing about your progress.

    • bretbenesh Says:

      Hi Jason,

      I have seen your name pop up several times in blogs these past couple of days. It is nice to meet you.

      1. I agree with you that you should not assess what you do not teach, and “creativity” was a bad example. But I am wary that any discipline is merely the sum of its parts (no matter how finely you make your standards). Basically, I am probably just expressing the same concern that everybody does when they try to create standards for a course. The difference between SBG and traditional grading here is that traditional grading allows you to sweep these issues under the rug, whereas SBG forces you to think about it (which is better).

      2. I should have stated that my expectations to reduce the students’ focus on grades is probably best described as quixotic. But I am looking for something that I would consider close to ideal that I could advocate for widespread implementation (it might be SBG, it might not).

      3. I will add that I find it much more enjoyable to give feedback rather than merely tally points. That matters, too.

      As for cooperative learning: there are methods that limit the amount one can coast off of others’ work; I hope to learn more about this next week. I am not ready to jettison the cooperative learning because the research suggests that it is immensely helpful in getting students to learn more (it also helps that I do not buy in to the idea that learning is an individual activity).

      So we’ll see how this sorts itself out. I hope to know more about how I hope to implement the three ideas after next week’s cooperative learning workshop.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Mark Olson Says:

    What a smart move … trying it in one class to start – this sounds like experience to me. Good Luck with that … and would be really interested to hear how things work out.

    “students will move from grade-grubbers to standards-grubbers” – LOVE IT! This had me a thinking … where does this come from? Well … we tell our kids and our students to be grade/standards-grubbers. Wanna be a doctor … you need GOOD GRADES. See those people driving those cars and living in those houses – it can all be yours with GOOD GRADES. You are grounded for getting BAD GRADES. You are off to this college because of YOUR GRADES. I would be obsessed too! Oh wait … I was 😛

    Could this be A root of the problem – the fact that we have created a NEED for grades and students who want to fulfill this NEED for getting GOOD GRADES.

    As I share how I used criteria based grading in Sweden, it should be noted that there is also a cultural element at play. It should be noted that Swedish students never sees a grade of any form until year EIGHT! It has been my experience over the past 4 years that Swedish students tend to me more focused on learning the material – they have eight years experience!

    One more little comment … sorry so long and disjoint … great post btw!

    Rather than changing the grade book or re-formuating the essential questions to change the students’ perception of what a grade means to them, I tend to focus on trying to find ways to suppress the GRADE NEED for the learning Math NEED (and this is not always easy). In a society where the grade is a learned NEED … we as Math educators sometimes are left with a mission not so far removed from impossible.

    Good Luck with the upcoming academic year!

    //Mark 8∞

    • bretbenesh Says:

      Hi Mark,

      I think that it might be smart to try it out in one class, but I am thinking more and more about doing a complete transition next semester. That probably would not be smart, but I am considering it anyway.

      As far as grade-grubbing/standards-grubbing, I think that you are basically correct: students are grade grubbers because they are rational, and we have developed a system where it is rational to get the highest grade possible by any means necessary. The system teaches that grades lead to success, whereas it seems to me that the message should be “learning leads to success.”

      I would welcome any advice on switching the students from a grade focus to a math focus.

      PS—I am jealous that you have students who went eight years before experiencing grades. That would be nice.

  3. Jason Buell Says:

    Oh I’d never say jettison cooperative learning. I’m a big believer in it as well. I just disagree with the “use points to motivate the group” idea. The motivation should come from understanding that I alone can’t solve this problem and together we’ll get farther than I would by myself. Or the motivation should come from building a community and everyone wants everyone else to succeed.

    I’m really interested in what you learn at the institute. Our district did this Kagan cooperative learning thing which I kind of hated. It was more like structured turn taking so I really want to hear another side.

    • bretbenesh Says:

      Hi Jason,

      I’m with you on not using points. However, at this point, that is mostly the only tool in my toolbox. Hopefully I will learn better methods next week.

      I am sorry to hear that Kagan’s cooperative learning was not great. I do not know a lot about it. The workshop next week is by Roger and David Nelson of the University of Minnesota. I will be sure to post about it.

      • bretbenesh Says:


        Okay, so I said that I was with you on not using points. However, I am not sure if I truly understood what I was writing. I think that your comment shook something loose in my head, and I am now devising new ways of going about things without resorting to points.

        Thanks for doing that.

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