The Argument for Standards-based Grading and Assessment

By PrinciPal Connection posted 02-20-2014 14:12


Some educators have been advocating for other educators to look seriously at assessment and evaluation for several years, but in many school systems there has not been much movement in the direction of standards-based assessment and grading.  In those school systems where they have moved in this direction, there has been progress in holding students accountable for their learning as well as teachers and administrators.  As the common core is being implemented, this is a good time to move into a standards-based assessment and grading model.  Several keys to doing this successfully with as little stress on teachers as possible include:

  • Significant hands-on training in assessment that will include data collection and analysis
  • A commitment to work with parents and community members to understand what is being done differently and why it must be part of the change
  • The use of a PLC approach to the subject so all teachers can learn together and support each other in the process
  • A commitment to development of common assessments as part of the curriculum mapping process to ensure the memorializing of the agreements reached regarding what is important to teach and assess
  • Holding students accountable for participating in this process and their own learning

These suggestions will be discussed in the remainder of the article.


Significant hands-on training in assessment that will include data collection and analysis

In school systems where this transition has been rocky, the main reason is the lack of training in those areas that are not familiar to the teachers.  Many school systems use publisher tests to assess student progress.  There are two significant issues with that.  First, most of those assessments are designed for the creation of an aggregate score to be given on the assessment.  Second, many of the items may not be easily mapped to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)

Traditionally teachers have assigned an aggregate score for every assessment they administered, they and parents as well as students are used to seeing a percentage grade for the assessment.  In a standards-based environment, what matters is how teach student performed with regard to each standard being assessed.  An aggregate score really gives little information about what the student knows and doesn’t know.

In a standards-based world, items that do not map to a standard should not be included in the assessment process.  Why, you may ask?  We must remember our goal in assessing, to determine what student learning has taken place as a result of our instruction.  When we plan, especially when using an Understanding by Design (UBD) approach, we first look at what we want student to know and be able to do, we then look at what evidence we will accept that the students have in fact, learned those things.  Teachers need to be shown how to do this, and also coached through the implementation phase to ensure they are really assessing differently.

Teachers also need to be more in tune with their formative assessment strategies, so that they are able to track what they observe during class and use that as a tool to add to the assessment puzzle.  In a standards-based environment, those types of informal assessments can be a huge help when looking for support for the grades being given.  Many teachers need support to know what to look for and how to track the data for grading purposes.


A commitment to work with parents and community members to understand what is being done differently and why it must be part of the change

It is important to remember that parents and other adults (including us) were educated in a world where A, B, C, D, or F was the grade given.  As a result, we feel we understand what that means.  A change to a standards-based approach stretches the thinking of everyone until they have become accustomed to the new grades.  In reality there has often been little relationship between those grades and the amount and quality of learning that occurred.  An “A” meant something different from school to school and state to state.  There has never been a common definition of what that grade means.  We need to be sure not to make that same mistake again so grades communicate learning, not a bunch of other things the teacher or school values.  Please don’t think those other things are not important, they are, but they should not impact the grade earned.  That should be strictly determined by evidence that the student has learned and to what degree.

It is often helpful to have a committee to serve as the oversight for this change, on that committee I would think it helpful to include one to three parents depending on the range of grades your school system serves or the size of the system.  It can be helpful when it comes to parent training or information sharing is a parent was involved in the discussions and can advocate for what has been decided.  It is important to dens newsletters to the parents and to have parent meetings to explain the reasons for the changes and explain to parents what they will see that is different and how to understand the new system.


The use of a PLC approach to the subject so all teachers can learn together and support each other in the process

The PLC, professional learning community, has been in use for over a decade in some schools after Rick Dufour advocated for it.  It is a necessary approach to get everyone working together to solve the same problem.  It infers that there needs to be a set of books or articles that all the teachers in a school or district read and discuss as part of the training to set the common language and approach that is going to be used and create a foundation for all to share.  The idea of working together and learning together is a critical one to help the changes become ingrained in the school culture.  The PLC model is one that allows for the use of the coaching aspect in the training, and does so in a manner that is reasonably anonymous for the teachers in that it is not obvious who is struggling with implementation, because there are systems in place to support the through the process..


A commitment to development of common assessments as part of the curriculum mapping process to ensure the memorializing of the agreements reached regarding what is important to teach and assess

A key component to moving to a standards-based environment includes the use of a set of pre-developed common assessments that will be used by everyone in the grade or department who teaches the unit or course.  This is critical so that when a new teacher is hired and asked to teach a course they haven’t taught in the past, they teach the course as designed, not by picking and choosing what they think is important.  This also give a substance to the curriculum in that Algebra is Algebra, it isn’t my Algebra or your Algebra. But the school’s Algebra.  This allows everyone the academic freedom to teach in their preferred style, but does not allow them to decide what to teach.  As a result what students learn should not vary from teacher to teacher.  This is especially important in an Elementary School model, where students are often regrouped each year, and the receiving teacher often experiences frustration because the experiences can be so significant the teacher must spend considerable time getting everyone on the same page.


Holding students accountable for participating in this process and their own learning

Many students have learned how to “play the game” and get the grades they want whether they have really learned the content or not.  Most teachers have included compliance areas into their grading model so students turning in homework whether or not they have learned what the teacher intended or not, because they turned it in.  They did what the teacher wanted so they got points.

In a standards-based world, academic growth is the only thing that is used in determining academic grades, the compliance issues are recorded as a separate grade.  A common approach is two grades, the academic and one labeled work habits or essential leaner traits. This then allows teachers, parents, and students to focus on the root causes of their successes and failures rather than having everything lumped together and creating a combination grade that tells us little.

I have been an advocate for many years of creating accountability for student learning that involves the student in the process, this environment is one that facilitates student involvement in their own learning and monitoring of that learning.  Schools using this approach often move toward student led conferences, where portfolios that demonstrate the learning that has occurred are used and discussed by the student for both the parent and the teacher.


This is a huge undertaking, one that requires tremendous support for the teachers as they go through the process, but one that is long overdue.  We as educators can no longer be satisfied with not really knowing which students have met our academic expectations, and which we need to provide more help to.  This should be a step in that direction, one that will be painful for some, I have been fortunate to participate in the creation and implementation of standards-based report cards for three school systems, and while there have been many similarities; there have also been significant differences in their experiences.  A key issue in most has been what gets reported to colleges or to selective enrollment high schools, where they have not moved toward this model as yet themselves.

The accountability movements both nationally and in many states also cries out for this type of change where student academic growth is measured in ways other than via high states testing.  To begin moving in this direction should go a long way toward showing the public, the media, and the politicians that we are holding ourselves accountable and taking responsibility for communicating student progress with some certainty rather than grades that tell nobody anything.

If you have questions or wish to discuss this topic further, please contact me at or


Barnett Berry, Carolann Wade and Paula Trantham.   “Using Data, Changing Teaching." Educational Leadership.  December 2008/January 2009 | Volume 66 | Number 4 Pages 80

London, Harold. “Do our Grading Systems Contribute to Dumbing Down?” NASSP Bulletin May 1996.

London, Harold. “A Systemic Approach to Assessment and Evaluation” Principal Matters – Spring 2008

London, Harold “To Grade or Not to Grade: That is the Question” AWSA Update February 21, 2012

Mathews, Jay. “A to F Scale Gets Poor Marks but Is Likely to Stay Universal Use Limits Change, Experts Say”. Washington Post: October 18, 2005.

Salend, Spencer. “Creating Student Friendly Tests” Educational Leadership Volume 68 No. 3 November 2011. Pages 52 – 56.

Schworm, Peter.   “Getting Good Grades is As Easy As S-M-P (That’s A-B-C to Most of You”. Boston Globe: February 16, 2006.

Scriffney, Patricia. “Seven Reasons for Standards-based Grading”. Educational Leadership Volume 66 No. 2 October 2008.     Pages 70 – 74.

Wilson, Dylan. “Changing Classroom Practice”. Educational Leadership Volume 65 No. 4 December 2007. Pages 36 – 42

About Dr. Harold London

Dr. London served as a principal and central office administrator for 19 years and a teacher for 14 years, with experience at all levels from K – 12.  As a high school principal for 10 years, a middle school principal for 3 years and an elementary school principal for 5 years, there is an apparent understanding of the entire spectrum of child development and teacher qualities that are appropriate for the developmental stage of students.  In 14 years in the classroom this same diversity of experience exists with five years teaching high school, seven teaching middle level, and two years teaching mathematics to elementary students.

Dr. London received his EdD in Educational Leadership from Northern Illinois University in 1998 having written his dissertation – “An Analysis of Hearing Officer Decisions in Cases of Tenured Teacher Dismissal in Illinois from 1986 – 1995”.  He received his MA in Teaching Mathematics from Northeastern Illinois University in 1975 and BS in Economics from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1969.

In addition, he has worked as both an adjunct professor and long term clinical faculty at DePaul University since 1999, in the Educational Leadership Department and currently in the Department of Teacher Education teaching at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. He teaches classes, supervises student teachers and administrative interns, and serves as a faculty liaison in DePaul’s Link initiative and Catholic Schools Partnership.  He is a certified Conflict Resolution Education in Teacher Education (CRETE) trainer and the site coordinator for CRETE at DePaul University.

He has been involved in K – 12 school and district accreditation working with NCA CASI and AdvancED  for over 25 years as a visitation team member, team chair, and State Director for NCA CASI in Wisconsin for 5 years.  He is currently a member of the NCATE Board of Examiners and has been involved in accrediting teacher education programs since 2007.

He has authored more than 25 articles published in education journals, a transition survey instrument for NSSE, numerous articles for Developing the Effective Principal, and a math workbook series.  He has presented at National Association of Secondary School Principals, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, and NCA CASI national conferences; Illinois Principals Association, Association of Wisconsin School Administrators, and Wisconsin Association of School Boards conferences at the state level.  He has served as a consultant to schools and school districts throughout the Midwest in both the public and private arenas. 

He has been an active participant in professional organizations having served as:

  • the Illinois Coordinator for NASSP and Illinois Principals Association Executive Board member,
  • a member of the governing board of the Wisconsin Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development,
  • a member of the Academic Advisory Board forTaking Sides: Clashing Views on Educational Issues,
  • a member of the program committee for the AACTE annual meeting
  • governing board member and president of the governing board for West 40 ISC,
  • Golden Apple Foundation Selection Committee member for 16 years and chair of the selection committee for two years.
  • DePaul University site coordinator for Conflict Resolution in Teacher Education (CRETE)

Contact Information:
Cellphone 847-306-0093
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