Standards-based Grading Systems and Equity

  • April 2, 2023
  • Blog

standards-based grading and equity

“He is a C student.”

“She’s bad at math.”

“These students are failing.”

Traditional grading systems rank students and turn grades into labels. When we label students, we try to apply a system of sticks and carrots to motivate students. Does it work? Infrequently, perhaps. But even when it does, it is imperfect. Most importantly, for most it fails and reinforces inequitable systems in schools and marginalizes learners that need the most support.

For those that struggle with certain concepts and ideas, these traditional grading systems are damaging. Labels can destroy a learner’s motivation. An “F” makes a student feel like a failure. Failure that often feels permanent and insurmountable, not motivating.

Focus on Student Learning

Standards-based grading systems that do not simply translate a B into a 3, but accurately capture student learning across concepts and skills, promote equity and fairness in schools. They help students, teachers, and parents focus on growth. Rightfully, learning becomes a process. Stages of this learning process are no longer labels: they are fluid and constantly changing snapshots of what a student knows and what a student has to learn.

If your school or district is wrapping up the 2022-23 school year with a renewed commitment to equity, improving your grading systems will be the center of your work. Read on to find out 6 best practices to help improve your standards-based grading systems.

Six Best Practices to Help Improve Standards-based Grading Systems

Practice 1: Lay Out, Revise, and Communicate the Vision

Setting a vision for your school or district requires excellent leadership. Transitioning systems means a new mindset and goal orientation for all of your district: administrators, teachers, students, and parents. Establish and define this goal with the participation of all of your district’s leadership. Some leaders will need convincing. Having an outside consultant can help with this process, but at the very least you will need to reference experts in education to support buy-in first among all the leaders.

Once you have this buy-in from your school and district-level leadership, create a communication plan that involves everyone–teachers, parents, community–and provide multiple opportunities to learn and ask questions. Then, continue to communicate, reiterate, check in and repeat.  This is an ongoing, year overr year process that takes persistence and consistency.  It is far too easy for people to slip back into old habits, real change needs leaders who continue to push forward.

Practice 2: Keep it Manageable

When establishing a vision for your district’s standards-based grading system, do not overemphasize specificity and overlook how achievable this new system will be. Do not design a report card that becomes a double-sided 11 x 17 piece of paper. People will feel overwhelmed. For teachers, suddenly a massive new workload will have been introduced. For parents, it will be a lot to take in.

Specificity is desirable, but make sure your new system will be manageable. Group standards together into clusters.  Even small steps to implement more accurate and equitable grading practices will be valuable. Keep things manageable and meaningful.

Practice 3: Prepare Your Assessments

The assessments teachers use to grade students are essential to the process of a valid standards-based grading system. Your district will need to take a full inventory and examine all the assessments that are in use in your classrooms:

  • Find or design guides that align the assessments in use with standards.
  • Review these assessments alongside teachers. This ensures that all stakeholders talk with one another about standards in meaningful ways.
  • Make sure that third-party benchmark or interim assessments for district-level goal setting are not used for grading purposes*.

This practice in particular is ongoing work that will constantly evolve as your district adopts new curricula, updates common assessments, and supports teachers in professional learning to understand and apply standards to describe student learning.

*This bullet point refers to assessment solutions that provide teachers with handy standards-based reports and information about student learning that may be used in your schools for school improvement efforts. Although it may be clear at the leadership level that these assessment results should not be used for grading, teachers may rely on this information if the other assessments they use in the classroom are not standards-aligned or the information from these assessments is not readily available to interpret to support standards-based grading.

Practice 4: Provide Tools

Standards-based grading is exponentially more complex than grading systems of old. To manage this complexity, teachers need tools to manage assessment data and accurately understand student learning across standards.

Take this example:

An average teacher has about 25 students. If for each of those students she is supposed to keep 5 grades for math, 6 for reading, 3 for social studies, and 4 for science, she will be reporting on at least 18 specific things. If she will have at least 1 data point on each of these things, she would have to manage 450 data points. This would be if she only assessed each student once for each standard. In practice, she would want multiple data points for each standard. If she would like 4 data points for each standard, she would have to manage 1,800 data points!

A paper grade book is not up to the task. Configuring a spreadsheet or electronic grade book for this work is a huge workload. If you want teachers to implement standards-based grading, and you want some minimal degree of evidence for where the grades came from, teachers need tools that are helpful and manageable. This is core to our work here at Forefront Education. You can check out our own tool when you explore a free demo today.

Practice 5: It is About Learning

Standards-based grading systems help everyone focus on student learning. For this reason, teachers need to provide multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate their understanding. If a student is unable to demonstrate that understanding on the first attempt, provide for additional attempts. If our interest is reporting about a student’s grasp of concepts and facility with skills, then, we need to allow them to show what they know.

It can become difficult for teachers to manage multiple assessments and records of student’s learning (see the example in practice 4 above). Alongside this practice, teachers will need to keep the opportunities for students to demonstrate what they learned manageable and achievable. Semesters do not last forever. A line will need to be drawn. And if you do not have data for a student? Give the student a “not assessed” descriptor, rather than punishing him/her for not being able or willing to demonstrate their learning.

Practice 6: Report Out Recent Performance

Old grading paradigms used averaging techniques and weighted averages that gave more importance to some types of assignments and less importance to others. When it comes to demonstrating understanding and reporting that aligns with that ability to demonstrate understanding, these old weighing systems make little sense.

Newer evidence of learning is more valid and should be considered most when considering what to put onto report cards. When districts attempt to make the shift to standards-based grading with software built on traditional grading systems, that mismatch is enough of a barrier to make a full shift impossible. Teachers need guidance, but they also need tools to ensure that everyone is supported in making this shift practically.


Standards-based grading is not about bigger report cards. It is a mindset shift that puts student learning and efforts to accurately describe it at the center of your district. This shift is about closing equity gaps and improving the performance of students everywhere. It is about increasing student engagement and graduation rates. It is about supporting growth mindsets and student success.

Because student learning is complex and fluid and structural changes are slow and difficult to make, making the shift to standards-based grading is a multi-year process that involves everyone in the system: teachers, principals and other leaders, parents, and students. Nonetheless, working toward a vision for standards-based grading systems in your district will improve equity and dismantle systems that are destructive and marginalize struggling students.

Want to read more? 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.

About us and this blog

Our team and tools help schools implement standards-based grading, streamline assessment systems, and use meaningful data to drive decision-making.

Interested in Learning More?

Download our free Educator's Guide to Standards-Based Grading to access a roadmap to improve standards-based grading systems in your schools.

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