Standards-Based Grading in a Traditional Grading World

Posted: August 21, 2016 in Uncategorized
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The concept of standards-based grading makes so much sense to me. Grading based on mastery of standards would be a clear indication of what my students know and what they need to work on. As a special education teacher, showing progress on IEP goals and objectives is a huge part of my job. SBG would make it very easy to gather the data I need. That being said, I have no idea how to make this work in a district that uses a traditional grading system. How do I translate all this information into a final percent grade? Adam Lester, a high school English teacher at Batavia High School in Batavia, Illinois, wrote today’s guest post about his thoughts on SBG.

My name is Adam Lester, and I am in my 6th year teaching high school English, my 2nd year at Batavia High School in Batavia, Illinois. I teach Sophomore English and Sophomore Honors English. I also coach the sophomore football team at Batavia High School. I have previously taught Junior English, Junior Honors English, Senior English, and AP Language and Composition at Dundee-Crown High School in Carpentersville, Illinois. I am currently working on my Masters Degree in Educational Leadership. I’m a husband to my best friend, Sara, and a father to the cutest 7-month-old baby in the world, Lincoln.


“Mr. Lester, how many points is this worth?”

“Mr. Lester, is this for a grade?”

“Mr. Lester, what can I do for extra credit?”

“Mr. Lester, how will this affect my grade?”


If you are anything like I was, these questions are all too common. At the end of my first year of teaching, I was completely disenchanted with the way my school year ended. I felt as if I had no idea why students got the grades they did and what a grade in my class meant. For the most part, if students turned in all their work and weren’t late with major projects, they would get an A. It didn’t really matter how well they could analyze a character from The Great Gatsby or if they could write an essay about Death of a Salesman. I confused compliance for mastery. As long as students were “good students,” they did well in my class. At the end of the year, my department chair introduced me to the work of Alfie Kohn, Myron Dueck, Thomas Guskey, Lee Ann Jung, Rick Wormeli, and many others. My journey into Standards-Based Grading in the confines of a Traditional Grading setting had begun. Four years later, I’m still working on making grading more effective for my students and their learning.

So what does it look like in my classroom?

While I’m still in the process of transitioning to SBG principles and away from traditional grading, I do things very differently than I had in the past. Here are a few practices I use that break away from traditional grading:

  • Practice Work vs. Major Assignment: Practice work is solely for teacher and peer feedback. Major assignments are used to determine a student’s current level of mastery on a specific skill.

  • No penalty for late work: If a trend develops where a student is constantly late with work, I contact parents or schedule another intervention for executive functioning skills.

  • No averaging of grades: I look at the most recent evidence of student level of mastery as opposed to the average of their work over the course of the year. I tell students, “It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to get it, just that you get it by the end of the year.”

  • No percentage based grading: Everything in our class is based on a 4 point scale instead of the standard 0-100 scale which weighs failure as 60% of outcomes and success as 40% of outcomes.

  • No grades for homework: All major assignments are done in class within one class period, or they are longer process pieces like essays or projects. In order to get the most accurate assessment of a student’s skills, I want to assess them on what they do after they have practiced the skill many times and have had an opportunity to incorporate teacher and peer feedback.

  • Redos/Retakes for all major assignments: If students want to go back and rework a major assignment because they believe they can do better, I allow it as many times as they want. Students have to come to me with a plan for their relearning, a schedule on when the relearning will be done, evidence of their relearning, and the revised work with a reflection on why it is better than their original attempt This places the responsibility of relearning squarely on the students and all I have to do is read the new work.

So does it actually work?

At the end of the year, I asked a few students how the grading system affected their learning and if they wished other teachers would adopt similar policies. Here are a few responses:

  • “The traditional grading system has held me back from truly learning any subject I have ever taken. In English 2 this year I wasn’t afraid to make a mistake while I was trying to understand an idea, my grade determined how much I had grown and what I learned from my mistakes” – AZ

  • “I liked this system because even if I messed up in the beginning on an assignment but I improved in the end, my grade reflected the improvement” – AL

  • “I really feel like the “do it if you want but if you don’t your loss” ideal is very nice and helps us make good decisions about our own learning and I like the grading system and the fact that we really didn’t need to stress about our grade. We just had to focus on learning.” – MB

What’s Next?

If you are thinking about making a shift towards more SBG practices in your classroom,  there are so many resources available to you. I’d recommend starting with Ken O’Connor’s A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grading, Rick Wormeli’s “Redos and Retakes Done Right,” and Thomas Guskey’s “The Case Against Percentage Grades.” All of their work challenges traditional practices that we use because it’s the norm, and gives practical changes to make right away. The best professional learning I get when it comes to grading is Wednesday nights during the school year at 8 pm CST on Twitter. The Twitter chat #SBLChat always gives me great ideas on how to grade effectively and improves my teaching. If you have comments or questions about anything, reach out to me in the comments below or on Twitter @CoachLesterBHS.

  1. lisakmcleod says:

    Thanks Adam for sharing your knowledge of SBG and what that looks like in your classroom. I can’t wait to explore all the links that you shared. So much great information here!


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