The challenge of grading

Tips for moving towards a Standards-Based approach to grading

Darcie Flansburg offers advice for transitioning from traditional high-school grading to less subjective, standards-based assessment.

The traditional approach to grading

As we approach the end of a grading period, I always ask my department to go through each student’s gradebook and ask themselves “does this grade accurately reflect this student’s knowledge of the subject matter?” It’s a question that every teacher should consider, but it’s not always easy to gauge.

When I think back to pursuing my teaching credential, I realize that I was never taught how to grade. My mentor teacher, a tough and straightforward woman who gave me plenty of opportunity in her classes, never actually explained how grades work. She would ask me what assignments I wanted to put in the gradebook and how much they should be worth, but the meaning behind the grades was never discussed or explained. Most teachers end up grading assignments based on an archaic system that they were raised on. Grades mainly acted as a form of communication between the teacher and institution, and from teacher to teacher, as students progress through school. The traditional grading system consists of assignments with arbitrary numbers attached to them. We grade the way our teachers graded us. This number-based system is biased and doesn’t consistently measure what really matters in the classroom – have our students mastered the academic standards? Are they ready to progress to the next level?


Standards-based grading is a controversial topic in education, largely because there is little agreement about how it should be implemented. Standards-based grading is a system of assessing and reporting student progress with regards to their ability to master the academic standards. Standards-based grading is not standardization. Many educators think that standards-based practices are more complicated to implement, but in my experience, this approach has streamlined and simplified my classroom instruction and grading practices. The hardest part of its implementation involves a shift in mindset followed by dedicated practice.

Standards-based and standards-referenced

During the 12 years that I have been teaching high school language arts, I have worked in a “standards-based” classroom. Every school that I have worked at said they were standards-based, but based on my research, none of them have implemented standards-based practices. In actuality they are standards-referenced schools; they conduct standardized testing and focus on instructional strategies that are standards-based, but they have not actually transitioned to a true standards-based approach. So – what do true standards-based practices look like? How can departments, schools, or individual teachers begin implementing them? A true standards-based system requires a systematic paradigm shift, but there are some things that we can do in the interim that will benefit our students and make our grades far more accurate.

Making a start

This paradigm shift can be daunting, but there are small things that teachers and institutions can do to assure that student grades reflect their mastery of the academic standards. Tom Schimmer’s book Grading from the Inside Out offers beginning steps to finding a “Grading True North” for a department or school. The shift starts with an examination of teacher grading practices.

Schimmer suggests that once a department or school develops a standards-based mindset, it should allow teachers to make small changes to their classes such as repurposing homework or discussing reassessment procedures. Policy change is not necessary at first, unless there are some practices that are clearly unnecessary.

Ideas for early implementation

Here are some easy things to consider for your own classroom in order to progress towards being truly standards-based:

  1. Each category in your gradebook should match the standard strands of your academic standards.
  2. Every assignment should be attached to one standard, and graded to show mastery of that standard alone.
  3. If you are grading a large project, test, or essay which may assess multiple standards, put the task into your gradebook as multiple assignments, each assessing a different standard.
  4. Use a single-point rubric to provide guidelines for the assignment and to grade the assignment.
  5. Assign homework so that students can practice skills. Assessment of outcomes will be formative with any grading used to provide feedback to students to help them eventually master the standard. Homework outcomes can be recorded in the gradebook as a marker, but is weighted as practice (0%) and does not affect the overall grade.

Teachers may need time to try out these practices and see what they think works best. The process needs to include creating a vision, communicating that vision, and empowering others to act within that vision. Ultimately the goal should be to create a “grading system that increases the accuracy of what teachers ultimately report and leaves students feeling optimistic about their potential success” (Schimmer, 198). The specifics may vary from classroom to classroom, but it is important that the grading system be both accurate and give student confidence in their ability to learn the material and be successful.

Towards that paradigm shift

At my previous school I had been working toward a paradigm shift for some time. As the department head I was able to start by having my teachers read Schimmer’s book and discuss their own grading practices in their classrooms. This was the start of something monumental for many of them. Some pushed back and questioned, but the more we discussed and the more they looked at their own practices, the closer we came to creating a “Grading True North” as a department. By the end of the semester, we were able to come to a consensus on a grading policy that was both accurate, instilled confidence in our students, and useful for the teachers themselves.



Darcie Flansburg has a Master’s of Education in Instructional Leadership and currently teaches high school ELA at the American International School of Guangzhou.




FEATURE IMAGE:  by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

Support images:   by Headway & Van Tay Media on Unsplash