In an era of common core and standardized testing, the mention of “standards” has become polarizing. Some people believe that running standardized tests is the only sure way to measure, incentivize and improve American education and ensure continued world education leadership. Others feel that this promotes “teaching to the test” and limits the ability of educators to teach anything other than what will be included on the standardized tests.

No matter where you stand on the common core issue, it’s hard to ignore the fact that standards themselves are essential in education. Standards set the criteria for the successful demonstration of the understanding of a concept or skill. They provide a concise description of everything that a student should be able to do before moving on to the next level of education. They provide a benchmark for the minimum level of proficiency that an individual can leave the education system.

Standards-based grading involves the evaluation of each student’s understanding of related standards. A key aspect of standards-based grading is feedback. Feedback does not indicate a score, percentage, or average. Instead, the feedback provides information about how well the student met the expectations of performance for the specific standard. A final grade can also be determined, but greater focus is placed on the demonstration of skills than in traditional evaluation.

Compared to traditional evaluation, standards-based grading:

  1. Give meaning to grades — Letter grades can mean little for many teachers. Teachers do not have a clear point of reference for success, making grades relative and dependent on each specific group of students. With standards-based grading, students are compared to a standard that all can reach. This prevents evaluations from being artificially ranked into a bell curve where some students must be called failures, and only a few are allowed to succeed. Letter or number grades are based on the achieving or surpassing the expectations of the course’s standards.
  2. Prevent assessment of the wrong things — Students are often evaluated based on criteria that have nothing to do with skills or knowledge such as work ethic or participation. Students are punished or rewarded by well-meaning teachers who wish to prepare them for the “real world.” The challenge is how drastically inconsistent grading becomes and how little final marks reflect student learning. With standards-based grading, homework and in-class participation are used as methods for practicing skills, rather than as assessments themselves. Students are told which standards they will be practicing when participating or completing homework, allowing some to opt out if they already have a significant mastery of the standard.
  3. Help teachers adjust instruction — It is easier to see exactly where students are struggling with standards-based grading. This allows teachers to modify future lesson plans and further reinforce standards where students are underperforming. This also provides more opportunities for personalized education as each student can focus on the standards that they have not yet met or pursue enrichment when desired.
  4. Demonstrate Clear Success Criteria — Students are given examples of work that demonstrates proficiency in the standards. This gives students a model to look to when completing their work and even allows them to self-assess their work. This can help to prevent behavior such as copying homework or monopolizing a classroom discussion to receive participation marks.

Standards-based grading provides an effective method for teachers to assess the standards that federal and state governments have worked hard to create. It provides an easy benchmark to judge whether or not students are ready for the challenges that they will face in the job market or higher education. Standards-based grading may be the path to truly personalized education, giving teachers the power to help every student achieve their full potential.