Last spring my husband got this article in his in-box: I Switched to Standards-Based Grading: Why I’m Loving It. As he read it, he got really excited about the concept. His words: “Man, I wish I could do this in my classroom.” Making this switch requires quite a shift in thinking and certainly needs support from school administration. In reviewing this article, I’d say the shift is worth considering.

The author, “Captain Awesome,” is a seventh grade English teacher who works with refugee and immigrant students. As a new teacher at a school that uses standards-based grading, she chose to highlight five benefits that she had already experienced within her first year: Standards-based grading values progress, reduces stress, reduces grading time, makes differentiation and acceleration easier, and makes planning more purposeful.

In considering the idea that standards-based grading places a high value on student progress, I appreciate her point that assignments and assessments given early in the semester should not be weighted equally with those given at the end of the semester. As students learn and progress through the school year, their growth should be marked and graded. Even if you’re not inclined to use a standards-based grading system, perhaps reconsidering the progression of your students’ work in the grading process could be valuable.

When it comes to stress levels with school work, I have two daughters on opposite ends of the spectrum. After my sophomore has studied for a quiz or test, she worries that she hasn’t studied enough; my seventh grader doesn’t worry about studying until after the test and she realizes sadly that she should have prepared better. In both of these cases in our household, we as parents always stress that the important thing is that they should walk away from the assessment having a sense that they’ve learned what they should have. The idea promoted with standards-based grading that students are seeking mastery of concepts (rather than a good grade) provides practical support for true learning. As a former teacher, the challenge I see in this process is the guidance and supervision needed with the allowance for repeat-and-practice until mastery is achieved. I could see a teacher’s need for a strong record-keeping structure in place for this to work well. But perhaps the payoff of individual students showing their understanding is well worth the extra effort. Also, the opportunities to celebrate achievement and success are so rewarding when students recognize that they’ve truly learned a concept!

As the author laid out some of her teaching strategies, it’s clear that she has built in quite a bit of time for students to work during class while she spends one-on-one time with each of them. As teachers, we know from experience that part of true learning comes from personal connection. When you as a teacher can crouch down next to a desk or bend shoulder-to-shoulder over an assignment with a student, that relational connection can go a long way toward growth and learning. With a focus on specific standards for each student, teachers can give more personal attention to individual needs, rather than feeling the weight and pressure of grading a stack of papers. Strong classroom management strategies are a big need here, though: working one-on-one with students during class does require that the teacher has a good handle on how the rest of the students are occupied.

Clear understanding of the varying needs for differentiation and acceleration is quite a value-add with standards-based grading. As you teach through various units, you can gauge your expectations for each student based on what they’ve already achieved. As the year goes on, you will have a better idea of what your students can actually achieve within each unit because you’ve seen how they’ve met standards in the past. On the other hand, as you plan, you’ll also be able to recognize that some students whose experience or previous knowledge has pushed them ahead in other units of study may need more time or attention with the current unit.

The final benefit mentioned in this article is that planning is so much more purposeful. In my past, the phrase “teaching to the test” had such a negative connotation. And I get it. Looking at the assessment at the end of a unit and teaching only what students need to know to get the correct answers really isn’t a good strategy. But in a sense, standards-based instruction does that–just at a deeper, more valuable level. The teacher looks at the end goal (achievement of particular standards) and creates an instruction plan based on getting students to that goal. The focus of this article is on the more individualized approach of this kind of instruction, which is certainly where many challenges arise for teachers. But I can also see value in unit planning based on standards alignment (This is what I need to teach. Now, what strategies will help me accomplish this?) rather than on textbook-based planning (Here’s the chapter text and a list of activity ideas).

As I work with administrators and teachers from all over the world who are seeking to align their curriculum with state standards, it can often feel to them like they’re trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Standards expectations are demanding, and with good reason. But perhaps working backwards in our planning, looking at standards achievement as our end goal, and moving forward with a strategic plan that’s more closely based on that achievement would make a lot of sense and would strengthen our instructional efforts.

If you’ve worked with standards-based grading, tell us about your strategies! We would love to hear about how your planning and teaching has changed and grown because of this method. Send us your thoughts and ideas here.

As a Curriculum Trak support specialist, Becki enjoys guiding and helping school administrators and teachers as they work closely with their curriculum in an effort to further their school’s vision for education. Having been a product of faith-based education herself, as well as building a career around teaching and supporting teachers and students, she loves using her own experience as an educator in a way that can encourage so many other educators.