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Standards Based Grading,

A Checklist for Implementing Standards-Based Grading

Letter grades are meaningless as an all-encompassing tool for reporting what students know and are able to do. 

We are excited to introduce Nathan Schleicher, who has been doing some very impressive work, transitioning to standards based grading. He has some great thoughts and pointers for those of you who may have questions about or have started working on implementing an SBG classroom.

Letter grades are meaningless as an all-encompassing tool for reporting what students know and are able to do. There is little argument that grades vary dramatically from classroom to classroom; dozens of different factors go into determining the millions of grades assigned each year by millions of different teachers using thousands of different scales.

But what are grades really? What would it look like if grades actually did what they were originally intended to do, report student learning and growth? What would grades look like if they could be transferred from one classroom to another down the hall, or even a different school? The answer already exists; it would look like the number of standards-based grading programs that already exist in hundreds of schools across the nation. In this post, I will discuss eleven simple questions about grading and assessment practices which you can use to help determine your readiness for more closely aligning your grading practices to standards-based grading.

Despite years of training at a university and countless hours of practicum experience observing and teaching, the learning curve that I traveled as a new educator was long and steep. During my first four years teaching high school English, it seems that not a day went by that didn’t contain a number of lessons for both my students and for me. Even on weekends when no classes were held, I found myself frequently reflecting, sometimes dwelling, on events from the previous week. I recently watched a lecture from Charlotte Danielson1 in which she postulated that teaching is the single most difficult practice that civilization has ever invented. Yet, after four years, I was starting to become confident in my abilities as a teacher. I was fortunate to teach at Minot High School, Central Campus, a school devoted to improving teachers and student learning, and after attending the Annual Conference on Common Core Standards and Assessment in 2012, I decided my next feat as a teacher would be to tackle the issue of grading. More specifically, my goal was to implement standards-based grading practices in my classroom.

On the surface, it may seem that all teachers grade students based on the standards that they teach. But pause for a moment and ask yourself a few questions:

  • Are behavior and attendance issues separate from student grades in my class?
  • Am I familiar with the standards that my courses cover and have I unpacked those standards?
  • Do I regularly post and communicate learning targets for students?
  • Can I connect each assessment to specific learning targets?
  • Do I avoid grading practice worksheets, quizzes, and other formative assessments?
  • Do I avoid grading student work on which students can copy or cheat?
  • Can I assign grades reflective of learning rather than completion?
  • Is the purpose of grading in my class to communicate student ability rather than to reward student accomplishment?
  • Can students improve their grades in my classes by revising their work or retaking a test?
  • Are my assessments criterion-referenced or evidence-based, measuring a certain level of achievement rather than comparative to other student work?
  • Will other teachers and administrators support my efforts to adapt grading practices and still maintain school grading policies?

If you confidently answered yes to all of these questions, then give yourself a pat on the back; you are already following a number of the best practices in reporting learning. If you hesitate to answer yes, but you are willing to make some changes and give it a go, then you deserve a standing ovation. Congratulations on being an open-minded and reflective practitioner! Now, a few of these issues are non-negotiable. For instance, if your administration refuses to support your endeavor, it’s probably not a good idea to move forward with implementing standards-based grading and assessment in your classroom. But even if you can’t resolutely answer yes to every question, it doesn’t mean that you can’t make some improvements to your grading system. Reforming traditional grading is not an event; it is a process. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it may not be complete over the course of one year. But just because you can’t see the finish line, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start heading in that direction. It’s not an easy task to question one’s own practice. Especially when traditional grading practices are common to almost every classroom in the country and many have been in place for decades. But even small changes can make a big difference to the individuals you serve.

So the only question left is where to start? What changes need to be made? What does it look like when assessment not only accurately measures, but drives student learning? What is standards-based grading? There are three books that helped me reform my grading. First of all, your time is valuable and you don’t want to do a lot of work to make changes if they aren’t research based. If you want the research to prove the value of reforming your grade, try Formative Assessment & Standards-Based Grading by Robert Marzano2. It is the best and most current research available on using assessment and reporting to promote learning. If you’re ready to dive into applying standards-based grading practices in your classroom, I’d recommend Practical Solutions for Serious Problems in Standards-Based Grading by Thomas Guskey3. This will be your guidebook in making those everyday decisions about implementing new practices in reporting student learning. And if you are ready to make some changes, but you don’t feel comfortable completely revising your grading practices, Ken O’Connor has a fantastic book, A Repair Kit for Grading: Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades4. In this book, he argues for many of the best-practices that are supported in standards-based grading. And whether you are at the very beginning of the process, or have been working in a standards-based district for years, congratulations again for trying working to untangle one of the biggest messes challenges in education.

Additional Resources & Work Cited

  1. Assessing Teacher Effectiveness by Charlotte Danielson. Danielson Group. Indiana’s New Future: Navigating New Demands & New Directions.
  2. Formative Assessment & Standards-Based Grading by Robert Marzano
  3. Practical Solutions for Serious Problems in Standards-Based Grading by Thomas Guskey
  4. A Repair Kit for Grading: Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades by Ken O’Connor
  5. The Common Core: Clarifying Expectations for Teachers & Students by Align, Assess, Achieve


Nathan Schleicher grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. He attended the University of North Dakota, where his passion for rugby, British literature, and travel led him to the University of Leicester in England. There Nathan studied Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and the history of the English language. Nathan Schleicher student taught at Tartan High School under the supervision of two talented educators, Nancy Olson and Rachel Grayson. After graduating, he accepted a position teaching ninth grade English at Minot High School, Central Campus in Minot, North Dakota. Nathan Schleicher now lives with his loving wife in Fargo, North Dakota where he teaches at South High School. He attends North Dakota State University and is working toward a M.Ed. in Educational Leadership and a secondary administration credential.

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