Standards-Based Grading: Concept & System

Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

Standards-based grading is an evaluation approach that measures student accomplishment and capability, in regard to clearly-defined objectives. This lesson will define and describe this approach.

What is Standards-based Grading?

''A C? Why did I get a C on this assignment?''

''Well, I felt you only gave it an average level of attention -- you deserved a C''

'''But that's not fair! You know that I know this stuff!''

''Perhaps, but until you start showing some effort in this classroom, you'll continue to receive average marks.''

When we (teachers) grade an assignment, we tend to apply a wide array of factors. Do we feel that the student is really trying? Did they use an approach that seems valid to us? Is the answer the one we were looking for? Is the standard of professionalism up to par?

One source of confusion for students is that they don't know what aspects of the assignment they're really being graded on, and ''playing the game'' seems to work better for them than actually mastering the material.

Standards-based grading (SBG) is an approach to student evaluation that measures and reports a student's progress toward competence in clearly-defined performance areas. It differs from traditional grading systems, in that instead of providing an overall grade, such as an A or B or C, SBG will provide competency ratings, as they are connected to specific performance objectives.

Traditional Grading vs. the SBG Method

In the traditional grading system, a teacher may look at an essay submitted by a student and begin asking herself some basic questions. How many typographical or grammatical errors occurred? What is the basic outline and structure of the paper? Is the paper on theme -- did it really address the purpose of the assignment? Is the content effective, and effectively presented? Is the work neat? After her review of the paper, the teacher might assign points in her mind, add them up, and give the student a 72% for the paper. She would then write the percentage, the grade (perhaps a C or C-), and some marks on the paper, indicating where the student went wrong. Finally, the grade would be recorded in the book.

Using the SBG system, the teacher would have presented a set of objectives that the paper was assigned to achieve. Perhaps she wanted the students to be able to produce error-free text, structure an essay using a five-paragraph model, effectively utilize three examples per main point, and present a persuasive argument for some topic. This set of objectives would be presented as part of the assignment, and the students would know that the purpose of the paper is to display their competencies in those specific areas. The grades would reflect specific competency achievements, based on those objectives. For example,

Error-free text: Proficient (3). There were a few mistakes, but you did a really good job of creating clean text.

Five-paragraph model: Proficient (3). Your use of the five-paragraph model works. You have the right idea. You might try to balance out the lengths of the paragraphs, giving each section of the paper the weight it deserves.

Three examples per point: Not Quite Proficient (2). Two of your main points did not offer any examples. Since examples are how we are expanding our points, it is important that you include three examples for each main point.

Persuasive argument: Advanced (4). Even with your missing examples, your persuasive argument was fantastic! You have shown that you can present a point with a high level of effectiveness. Congratulations!

Something that is very important about SBG approaches is that they focus on where the student is now. The proficiency levels show where the student knowledge and competency levels have landed--not where they started. This means it is not a system of averages. A student can't destroy their overall grade by doing badly early in the year, nor can a student 'play the system' by getting busy work done but demonstrating no knowledge of the fundamental concepts.

Numeric Standard for the SBG System

Numeric systems are used to show progress toward SBG goals and objectives. Typically, a grading range between 1 and 4 is used, with each number reflecting a level of competency. All students technically begin a class at a 1 (they have not yet shown any competency toward the objective) and should progress their way toward a 4 throughout the year. Generally:

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