Does Standards-Based Grading provide a more accurate picture of what a student has learned?


The purpose of grading is to identify how well students have achieved the learning objectives or goals established for a class or course of study. Recently, several school districts around the country have challenged traditional grading systems and have begun searching for alternatives to what they feel is an outdated grading system in their schools.

A growing movement around the state of Iowa over the past several years has been Standards-Based Grading (SBG). SBG is an educational philosophy which focuses on student learning by bringing more meaning to grades that are based on demonstrated understanding of specific standards. In Iowa, those standards can be found in the Iowa Core in which the final drafts were officially adopted in 2010.

Teacher’s are guided by these standards and work to ensure their students show proficiency in all standards to earn credit for their classes. Schools bringing SBG to their schools must be willing to challenge traditional thinking around grading practice. Some examples of how SBG challenges traditional grading practices include:

  • Doing away with percentage scores and instead developing levels of proficiency that students can show their learning, meet targets, and move up levels.
  • Giving credit for the most recent grade earned by the student, not an average of all attempts made by the student
  • Separating behaviors from academic scores in the report card:
    • No extra credit offered
    • Eliminating penalties for late work
    • Not grading homework

When schools commit to large change efforts like SBG, school leaders tend to organize teams of educators to begin learning. They attend conferences to hear grading experts present and learn with other schools who are sharing their SBG story. They scour through hundreds of standards-based grading books, articles, case studies, websites, etc. in an effort to piece together action plans on how to adopt the necessary changes to improve their practices.

Local school districts are also partnering with their local Area Education Agency (AEA) on SBG work. At Central Rivers AEA (CRAEA) we provide a number of supports to local school districts interested in beginning the standards based grading journey:

  • Our school improvement and content-area consultants collaborate with district leaders to align to standards, target assessment and instruction, as well as other services.
  • We provide courses for educators to take a deeper dive into standards, learn new strategies, work through curriculum, and other related offerings.
  • Our CRAEA Lead, Inspire, Innovate professional development series continues to create learning opportunities for educators taking SBG reform efforts in their districts.

In Iowa, we teach and learn in a standards-based state. Schools districts are taking the necessary steps to adapt as the Iowa Core continues to be released in various content areas. The strengths of SBG philosophy have been recognized by districts as providing more meaning to grades as they connect directly to the learning standards, better feedback opportunities for students, and even allowing more differentiation efforts in classrooms. Perhaps, most importantly, schools across the state feel that SBG is an effective avenue for teachers to establish specific grading criteria for making the grading process more equitable and focused on student learning.

Josh Johnson is a Regional Administrator with Central Rivers Area Education Agency. He can be reached at jjohnson@centralriversaea.org. Central Rivers AEA serves over 65,000 students in 18 counties of Iowa.