Standards-Based Grading During a Pandemic

standards-based grading

The challenges teachers face right now cause unwelcome distractions from the initiatives and projects that were underway before COVID-19. There are so many things that have suddenly stolen our attention and usurped priorities. Nonetheless, initiatives such as fully implementing standards-based grading persist and will continue to persist long after students return to classrooms everywhere. In fact, the importance of standards-based grading to promote equity and student success are perhaps more critical than ever. The six ideas discussed below were first elaborated before COVID, but continue to be pertinent when considering the impact of the pandemic on education and increasing discussions around educational equity.

Lay Out the Vision

Standards-based grading seeks to report about learning in ways that are specific, timely, and reflect student performance. Task completion may seem like a good gauge for monitoring student progress when teaching remotely, but standards-based grading suggests that teachers focus on the quality of the work. Teachers need to recognize that not every assignment can be completed in these challenging times. It is important to value and evaluate the performance of those assignments that can get completed, rather than measuring the ability of students to complete everything that gets assigned.

Keep it Manageable

People feel overwhelmed when a report card that used to fit neatly into an envelope suddenly grows to a double-sided 11 x 17 piece of paper. For parents, it is a lot to take in. For teachers, suddenly a hefty new workload has been introduced. This alone can be a barrier in achieving the full potential of standards-aligned reporting. Clearly specificity in our reporting is desirable, but even small steps in that direction are meaningful. Rather than adding 12 new grades for a subject, can the ideas be bundled into 3 – 5 big ideas?

For the 2020-21 school year, keeping grading manageable is even more important than ever. Given the challenges of these times, perhaps now is a good time to consider scaling back to focus on the most essential standards rather than obligate grading everything on your standards-based report card.

Prepare Your Assessments

Now is probably not the time to call a new assessment writing committee together. Nevertheless, the alignment of assessments to your standards-based report card remains important. If schools shifted to digital assessments, have those assessments been aligned with standards? Are those alignments accessible to everyone? As shifts are made in the tools that you use, continue efforts to sustain your standards-based grading initiative.

Provide Tools

Teachers need tools for managing assessment data. This is as true during this time as it was before the year 2020. Teachers are retooling and re-engineering instruction now more than ever. Include in those toolboxes a solution to manage standards-aligned assessment results to lift weight off teachers’ shoulders and provide consistency across classrooms.

Standards-based grading is exponentially more complex than grading systems of old. Back in the day, I had one page for all my math grades. With standards-based grading I would probably need anywhere from 5 to 12 pages just for math.  Old-school grade books and spreadsheets are inadequate. If you want teachers to implement standards-based grading, and you want some minimal degree of evidence for where the grades came from, teachers must be provided with tools that are helpful and manageable. You can check out our own solution to manage assessment data when you explore a free demo today.

It is About Learning

Given the challenges that we face, providing multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate understanding is perhaps more important than ever. Now is the time to allow for additional revisions, corrections, refinements, and second chances. We are all learning. This is a time when students have more distractions, suffering, and anxiety than ever. Giving a student a zero for a missing assignment is never a good idea. (Feldman, 2020, Reeves, 201, Guskey, 2004) Right now, the practice feels particularly unjust. Allow your students to demonstrate their learning as well as they can and provide meaningful feedback. These strategies will promote growth mindsets. Now is the most important time ever to not punish students with failing grades due to missing assignments.

Report Out Recent Performance

Old grading paradigms used averaging techniques and often weighted averages. These systems gave more importance to some types of assignments and less importance to others. Saying that formative assessments count for 40% of a grade and summative assessments account for 60% might seem like it is a step in the right direction, but it is not standards-based grading. These weighing systems do not align with the ability for students to demonstrate understanding.

Newer evidence of learning is more valid and should be considered most when considering what to put onto report cards. In the “40% formative” example above, these assessments might include assessments that served to inform instruction before the content was even introduced. If a student demonstrates a key misunderstanding on an assessment, and then a teacher uses that information in a truly formative way (Popham, 2008, Wiliam, 2014) and the student demonstrates understanding on a later assessment, why should the “formative” assessment be included in the grade? Teachers need to evaluate the performance of students as it evolves. They should consider student performance and report on performance relative to learning expectations. This is fair, just, and equitable.

It is impossible for districts to fully shift to standards-based grading when they use software built on traditional grading systems. Teachers need guidance, encouragement, and time, but they also need tools to support this shift in a practical way.

It is Not About Bigger Report Cards

Standards-based grading is about closing equity gaps and improving the performance of students everywhere. (Feldman, 2019) It is about increasing student engagement and graduation rates. It is about supporting growth mindsets and student success. Because the shift to standards-based grading is a multi-year process, it also involves everyone in the system: teachers, principals and other leaders, parents, and students. Undoubtedly, your district began the shift before the pandemic (or postponed the shift due to the pandemic) and will need to continue to support all of those involved in the process through this very challenging school year. Making this complex shift includes everyone and depends on leadership providing vision, time, and tools even in the midst of a global health crisis.

Want to read more? Check out this related article on my own mindset shift to standards-based grading; read more from the foremost standards-based grading experts–Joe Feldman, Thomas Guskey, and Robert Marzano; or check out the School Leader’s Guide to Standards-Based Grading.


If you found the information in this article informative, download our infographic 6 Best Practices for Standards-Based Grading for a quick, visual reminder of these six recommendations.