From points to standards.

Why do I use points to report grades?  I have been questioning this throughout my first years as a teacher and I think it may have to do with a couple of factors…

1. It is how I was ‘graded’ growing up – I’m used to it, I get it.
2. It’s what everybody else is doing, socially acceptable, even how grading software is set up
3. It reports something about a student’s performance.

I am not totally against using points…it is a way of reporting something.  However there is miscommunication between teachers, students, and parents about what that something is.  We all carry our own ‘grade baggage’.  Ask ten people what a 80/100 means and you will likely hear ten different answers.  We all have different ideas about what a grade means and this baggage causes confusion when trying to communicate what a student has learned and may even prevent us from moving a student forward. That being said…here are a few reasons as to why I want change my grading system to better reflect a student’s understanding using STANDARDS BASED GRADING.

REASON 1: Feedback relative to a standard is more meaningful than a point percentage

A typical assessment (say Unit 1 Test) assesses what students know relative to multiple learning goals.  Students are traditionally given a final score on this assessment as a ratio (EX. 80/100 points).  Typically I’ve recorded this in the grade book as:   Unit 1 Test: 80/100

What does this tell the student?  the parent?  Their baggage helps them make a decision as to if this is acceptable or not, but the ratio tells them nothing about what the student actually knows. Student A could get questions 1-4 wrong, and Student B could get questions 7-10 wrong and both could end up with the same score (80/100) even though they may understand different things.  A simple ratio is not very informative.

What if we could isolate certain understandings from the assessment and give students multiple scores for the same assessment…giving them specific direction as to where they need to improve?  This would be informative.  In fact we could even enter each score separately into the gradebook so students and parents could see exactly where improvement needs to occur. See example below. – online SBG software)

Standards are listed at the top of the gradebook, and students are given a proficiency ranking relative to each standard (0-4 with color coding for easy viewing).  This allows students to easily see where they need to improve.  After each assessment of the same standard, the ranking for that student is updated to communicate the most recent learning.  Students are always updating what they know…shouldn’t we update our measurement/report of what they know and be specific about it?

REASON 2: The focus of the class should be on what is being learned, not point collecting

We’ve all had students who are ‘grade grubbers’.  They are masterful at collecting points to ‘pad’ their grade and will argue at length over a single point.  This is actually good and bad.  It’s good that students care about their studies, it’s bad that the argument is over a point.  The argument should be over demonstrated learning!  A teacher should be able to point out specifically why a student did or did not demonstrate understanding and give them guidance on how to improve (and the chance to improve).  The focus of everything that is done in a class should be about the learning.  Kelly O’Shea (a physics teacher using SBG from Delaware visit her blog) said it best:

“Standards based grading is great for grade grubbers.  They can grub understanding instead of points.”

Students who care about their academic achievement will do what is necessary to succeed.  If we ask them to discuss understanding with us instead of points, they will do it!  Students are quite adept at working in any grading system…they do it everyday from class to class.  We can change the discussion.

REASON 3:  Eliminating averages and zeros (on the 100-pt. scale) gives grades more credibility

It doesn’t matter when a student shows learning, as long as they have shown it.

This classic image asks: Who would you rather have pack your parachute? …the student who ‘gets it’ by the end or the student who is inconsistent but has a solid average?

In a traditional system, these students would probably receive a grade based on the average of all of their scores.  Would student 3’s average reflect her true understanding?  I don’t think so.  We want grades to reflect what a student knows and can do, not tell us how long it took her to learn it.  A low grade or zero earned at the beginning of a unit shouldn’t count against a student if they have improved to full proficiency by the end of a unit.

In fact, zeroes on a 100 pt. can distort what the grade is supposed to communicate (understanding!).  Check out the gradebook below.

Does Marg deserve a ‘D’?  Does Kay deserve a ‘C’? We need to be careful about how low marks can negatively affect a student’s grade and miscommunicate what he or she knows.  Kay showed consistent improvement, but arbitrarily averaging her scores gives her a lower grade.  Marg mastered the content and aced every assessment, but because she was absent she is reported to have failed.  This is not right.  Check out the other students to see if you think they received a fair grade.


There are more reasons as to why I want to move from points to standards, but I won’t discuss them all.  Overall I think it will contribute to greater student learning and a more ‘laid back’ approach to learning.  Each assessment won’t be so high stakes because students will have clearer feedback and the opportunity to make improvements.  I will post more as I venture into the SBG territory over the summer and into next year.

For more info, check out the links below:

Rick Wormeli is a SBG guru:

Other excellent blog sources on SBG are below (there are many more out there!)  Thanks to all of you who share your work!

Think Thank Thunk – Shawn Cornally
 Action-Reaction – Frank Nochese
 Always Formative – Jason Buell
Physics! Blog! – Kelly O’Shea
SuperFly Physics – Andy Rundquist


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