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R.E.T.I.R.E. Traditional Grades & Get Started with Standards-Based Grading

Removing the unknown elements and getting to the heart of learning.

image:Teacher planting a seed.

The way in which student learning is reported with standards-based grades doesn’t look much like the reports from traditional grade cards where every nuance of school got stirred into the subjective grading pot. The inability to report student mastery and growth on specific standards can be a recipe for disaster if students enter the workforce or higher level education with holes in their understanding due to misrepresented grades that focus on compliance in lieu of learning. Standards-based grades allow all stakeholders to see a concise picture of student learning. So you find yourself asking, Where do I get started?

If a standards-based grading system isn’t occurring in your school, it’s probably been a topic of discussion at some point. Whether you’re choosing to implement this grading practice or the choice is being made for you, beginning the journey with a positive attitude can make all the difference. Our post, A Checklist for Implementing Standards-Based Grading, offered some great background information and thought provoking questions to get you in the right mindset. Now, it’s time to R.E.T.I.R.E. those traditional grades and get yourself and your students on the road to a learning system that makes sense.


There are a lot of opinions out there about standards-based grading, and it’s important to respect the differences that may arise. For those with a more traditional view of school and its practices, standards-based grading can seem like a rogue bandwagon. Once you decide to embrace this philosophy, it can be hard to comprehend how colleagues and parents can’t see the lasting benefits. Don’t push to reform everyone at once though. Focus on your students and let others see (or not see) the positive changes in their own time.


You have to be able to explain the reasoning and rationale behind moving to standards-based grading. In my own experience, students will come on board easily, and it’s a system that really makes sense to them. Students are given a clear set of expectations to work toward rather than an arbitrary point system to master. Others may not greet the new system with open arms, so it’s important to be prepared to pinpoint some highlights. ASCD’s Seven Reasons for Standards-Based Grading shares some great talking points that include how all learners benefit and come to find the importance of quality work.


As with anything new, it’s going to take some time to set up and make the adjustments to utilize this system. Feedback will come in the form of comments as opposed to the guessing game of why 5 points were deducted. Thoughtful time spent on feedback to help students find the path to mastery will create positive outcomes in student learning. Some students will need more or less time than typically allotted for mastery, so how you develop your learning framework will also be the focus of some daily schedule time tweaking.


As you prepare a standards-based gradebook, you’ll take a much closer look at the activities and assessments that were part of your past practice. This will offer a lot of insight on whether or not alignment to the standards was truly in place. Some old favorites may need to be refreshed or replaced to truly assess whether standards have been mastered. You may also find that many activities can be repetitive in terms of which standards are being assessed, and it’s time to revise your teaching toolkit. We’ve got the perfect organizers to help you get started with our Favorite Anytime Assessment Tools.


How you communicate and report student progress will be taking on a whole new look. Your district may employ an online gradebook that speaks to standards-based grades, or you may have to get creative with the current model. Weights, values, categories, and titles will all take on a new look. If the program allows, letters can be used to report the level of mastery (L=limited understanding, P=progressing toward mastery, M=mastery of standard) or numeric values can be assigned to denote the same levels (1=limited, 2= progressing, 3=mastery). Stakeholders will no longer see the points value for an assignment, but instead the mastery level of a standard. This will make conversations with parents and support personnel much easier and offer a clearer picture of students understanding.


Let the move to standards-based grading also be an opportunity to elevate your expectations when it comes to work quality. Rather than working toward an arbitrary set of points, students will begin to work toward the highest level of mastery attainable. Help them rise to the occasion as personalized feedback and clear learning goals allow them to make informed decisions on their educational journeys. The result will undoubtedly be higher levels of learning.

Out with the old and in with the new. As we R.E.T.I.R.E. our ideas of traditional grades, we embark on a learning adventure where students reap the benefits. The time and effort it takes to get a standards-based grading system up and rolling will all be worth it. It’s time to increase learning outcomes with a tangible gradebook picture of the learning process.

If you enjoyed the thoughts and ideas shared here, check out the trainings and tools (for teachers and for families) that we offer.

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