Last year, I had the pleasure of partnering with my friend and colleague in a Marzano Research professional development workshop around effective assessment and standards based grading. Our district has been using a flawed version of standards based grading for almost a decade now. I say flawed because we’ve essentially approximated the process by tacking grading descriptors onto traditional, points-based grading systems. That’s not really what standards-based grading is all about.

As I learned in the workshop, standards based grading really requires a paradigm shift from the systems most teachers know. Today, I’d like to introduce standards-based grading. Please note that this is an incredibly brief overview. I highly urge you to pursue some professional development around this concept.

The Paradigm Shift

I grew up in a pretty typical American points-based bell curve system. It makes sense to me. But when we’re talking about standards based learning, we’re not talking about a system that pits students against each other in competition. We’re talking about equitable access to skills and knowledge for all students. All teachers are accountable for teaching the skills and content identified by the standards. While we may have our work cut out for us in terms of students who haven’t been adequately prepared before they reached us, we are still responsible for doing everything we can to get our students to the grade-level standard or beyond.

The standard is the standard is the standard.

What is Standards-Based Assessment?

It sounds simple, but the idea behind standards-based assessment is that you are measuring students against a standard, nothing more. When assessing students, you strip away everything extra. Think about the typical writing assignment in a points-based system. There’s a point value for content, mechanics/grammar, organization, etc. Chances are, there are also points for formatting the paper correctly (title, intro, body, conclusion, works cited, font, text size, margin size, etc.).

On a standards-based assessment, the grade is not determined in any way by those extra things. You’re reporting a student’s progress on a previously identified standard and nothing more. You can go ahead and make those formatting elements an expectation, but they can’t factor into the actual grade. You can also assess multiple standards with the same assignment—as long as you grade each separately.

To make the process of standards-based assessment easier, Marzano and company came up with proficiency scales. These are different from rubrics in that they’re growth-based. A student can enter a proficiency scale at any point of proficiency (thus the importance of pre-assessment), and they have clear criteria for how to move up the scale toward or beyond the standard. Proficiency scales are nothing new—they’ve been circulating in different forms for many years—but they are misunderstood and underused. They take a little practice to write (entire Marzano workshops focus on this!), but they are amazing tools once you figure them out. Here’s one I created for my AP Language and Composition class:

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Here it is as a PDF for your convenience: trt-argumentation-proficiency-scale-blog-freebie

Now, to bring it full-circle: the final reason my district’s system was flawed is the impracticality of how we were asked to determine grades. We assigned grades using standards-based terms like unsatisfactory, partially proficient, proficient, and advanced. Then, we were asked to look holistically at a student’s summative assessments and determine where that student fell overall, then convert that to a traditional letter grade of A, B, C, D, or F for the transcript. While we could include formative assessments during the quarter for progress grades, they couldn’t count toward the final grade (rendering homework a waste of time for the grade-motivated student). This essentially became a cumbersome task of subjective pin-the-grade-on-the-student in which there was little consistency or understanding on the part of the teacher, student, and parent. In my trainings, the facilitators suggested using a scale of 0-4 to represent the different levels of standard achievement, with three representing the standard. You’ll see this in the proficiency scale I posted. Students and their parents better understand how grades are determined, and my overall assessments of students’ performance are more objective.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • It’s important to really focus on key standards (I call them priority standards; I’ve also heard power standards). By choosing 15 or so of the biggest standards to hit during the year, you’ll end up covering many of the others naturally. Depth over breadth!
  • You have to train your students to understand the grading system, as well. Once they get it, they love it! The focus is on their learning—not on their deficiencies.
  • This is an amazing model to facilitate a growth mindset. I like to have my students self-assess at the beginning and end of a unit or lesson using the proficiency scales (more on that later).
  • There is a huge bank of Common Core proficiency scales available already on the Marzano website. You just have to make a free account to access them.

You can purchase my AP Language and Composition proficiency scale pack at my Teachers Pay Teachers store. It includes scales for synthesis, rhetorical analysis, and argumentation (the freebie linked above). Enjoy!

I am in no way affiliated with Marzano Research—I’m just a big fan of this approach! I did not receive any form of compensation or acknowledgement for this post.

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