Standards-Based Grading: Definition, Benefits & Comparison With Traditional Grading

Standards-Based Grading: Definition, Benefits & Comparison With Traditional Grading

In recent years, a growing number of schools have adopted a standards-based approach to grading. Rather than simply averaging a student's scores on tests and assignments, standards-based grading takes into account the specific skills and knowledge that a student has mastered.

This allows for a more accurate assessment of a student's progress and achievement. Based on the research of Knight & Cooper (2019), one of the greatest factors that influence student success, especially in the current online education format, is the quality and prompt feedback that their teachers share with students regarding their performance and academic grades.

In addition, standards-based grading can help to promote mastery learning, as students are more likely to focus on understanding the material if they know they will be assessed on their ability to apply it. As more schools move towards standards-based grading, it is important to understand the advantages and disadvantages of this approach.

In this guide, we will explain what is standards based grading, answer how the standards-based grading system is different from the traditional grading system, how it will benefit learners and the challenges parents, learners, and teachers face with the standards-based grading system.

Standards-Based Grading Table of Contents

  1. What is standards-based grading?
  2. Standards-Based Grading vs. Traditional Grading
  3. How does standards-based grading benefit students?
  4. How does standards-based grading benefit instruction?
  5. What are the challenges associated with standards-based grading?

What is standards-based grading?

Standards-based grading (SBG) is an educational system that focuses on the effectiveness of instruction and the mastery of skills or standards for a specific subject. It is an innovative approach to education that is often paired with a positive environment for learners who are actively engaged in learning.

In SBG, teachers can track the progress of each student and they can also help them in maximizing their potential as learners. According to Joe Feldman, founder of the Crescendo Education Group and the author of "Grading for Equity," standard-based grading allows students to understand which learning targets they have already mastered and which of the given standards still need to be improved. This is made possible because students are provided with a specific grade for a learning standard that they should master at the end of the term. Throughout the term, teachers track the progress of students in each learning standard and provide appropriate feedback that aims to improve mastery of skills.

The standards-based approach ensures that students can demonstrate mastery of skills at the end of the course. Because this approach relies on the attainment of standards and learning targets, educators must align learning materials, such as projects, performance tasks, and assignments to the standards and learning objectives that they want their students to master (Power School, 2021). This system uses standards-based scales that range from 1 to 4, which reflect the students' mastery of each learning standard. A score of 1 indicates that a student has a limited understanding of the concept taught in class. On the other hand, a score of 3 indicates that a student was able to master a learning standard, while a score of 4 shows that a student was able to go above and beyond the skill expected of them to master. This grading scale is illustrated in the chart below.

Teachers need to communicate with their students what each proficiency score means. In the case of younger students, teachers should explain to the students' parents what each score means and how they can help their children demonstrate mastery of learning standards expected of them for the subject.

standards-based grading scale


Standards-Based Grading vs. Traditional Grading

When it comes to standards-based grading vs. traditional grading, there are several differences to note. These include which assessments are graded, the criteria for evaluating performance, and the basis for a student’s final grade.

One of the major differences between the standards based grading vs traditional grading system is the type of assessments that are graded by teachers. The traditional grading system relies heavily on the grades that students get on each assessment method. These include quizzes, projects, and long tests. All assessments are graded and are recorded in the teacher's grade book. On the other hand, the standards based grading scale relies on the mastery of learning targets and performance standards. Only select assessments are graded and recorded.

In the traditional grading scale, students pass or fail each assessment based on a percentage system. For instance, a student who received a grade of 65% failed the assessment. On the other hand, in a standards based grading system, students pass or fail assessments based on criteria or rubrics that have been given to them ahead of time. This means that the students have understood the skills and competencies that are expected of them to master before the assessment period.

The comparison between traditional grading and standards based grading systems is shown in the illustration below.

Median Annual Wage for Kindergarten Teachers by Industry (as of May 2020)

IndustryMedian Annual Wage
Local Schools$59,300
Private Schools$47,250
Child Day Care Services$31,520
Source: BLS, 2021

The traditional grading system provides the students with a holistic view of their performance through a single letter or numerical grade. All assessment scores that have been graded and recorded are averaged and converted using a percentage system. In many instances, students are given assignments with extra credits to pull their grades higher. This poses a problem because the grades of the students no longer provide an accurate representation of how much they have learned from class. On the other hand, the standards-based grading system does not give extra credits to students. In this educational approach, the students are given multiple opportunities to practice the skills that they should master in class. Practice assignments, which are meant to accelerate learning and mastery of skills, are not graded. Instead, only the most recent assessments will be the basis of the student's final grade because these provide evidence of mastery of learning standards.

In an Insight: A Journal of Scholarly Teaching article, associate professor Michael Scarlett noted that "Providing both individual and group opportunities for reassessment represented another significant improvement afforded by standards-based grading. While not all students took advantage of opportunities to reassess... those who did benefit from the opportunity to review material and to demonstrate their understanding in different ways. In almost all cases, reassessment led to higher scores for students, and, because the higher, most recent score was used to determine the final grade, this final grade was a more accurate representation of the students’ level of understanding." This means that in standards-based grading, the final grades of students are based on their learned competencies only.

How does standards-based grading benefit students?

There are numerous benefits of standards based grading to students. This part of the article will present the advantages of a standards-based classroom for learners.

1. Students Become Intrinsically Motivated to Demonstrate Mastery of Competencies

Students become intrinsically motivated to learn in a standards-based learning approach. Because students do not worry about achieving a high grade at the end of the semester, they begin to focus on understanding each instructional material presented to them in class. They also learn to take ownership of their learning, which is shown in the way that they want to meet all learning standards set for them to achieve. According to Feldman (2019), students who are learning in a standards-based classroom are more engaged in their learning environment because they clearly understand the skills that they need to master in class. They also acquire the habit of assessing their competencies to ensure that their performance will meet the standards set by their teachers.

2. Students Are Provided with Appropriate Feedback that Will Improve their Skills

In a standards-based learning approach, teachers are expected to provide their students with quality feedback that will improve student learning. As opposed to the traditional grading system that only provides students with a single numerical or letter grade, the standards-based grading system requires teachers to provide their students with meaningful and appropriate feedback that will accelerate mastery of learning standards. The results of the research of Hany et al. (2016) stated that the majority of the teachers who participated in the study believe that standards-based grading allowed students to identify their areas of growth and to improve on their own competencies.

3. Students Can Track their Progress

In a standards-based grading approach, students understand the meaning of each score that they receive. Because there are rubrics that explain the meaning of each proficiency score, students can easily monitor which standards need to be improved further and which learning standards have already been met. Unlike in the traditional grading system where students receive a letter or numerical grade without any explanation, students and their parents understand why each score was given to them in a standards-based grading system (Power School, 2021). As such, students begin to monitor their progress and become accountable for their learning goals.

standards-based learning and mindset of excellence


How does standards-based grading benefit instruction?

We already know how using learning standards in class will benefit students. Now, we will discuss how a standards-based grading system will benefit instruction provided by teachers.

1. Instruction Becomes more Engaging and Meaningful

The activities presented in class should be aligned with the learning standards set to be achieved by the students. As such, teachers should provide the students with different engaging materials that will continuously capture the interest and enthusiasm of the students. Additionally, in standards-based classrooms, teachers have a keen understanding of how student mastery is demonstrated. They can easily identify if there are more students at a level 1 or 2 mastery than those in levels 4 or 5. In such instances, teachers can quickly adapt to the needs of the students to accelerate the demonstration of mastery of skills. For instance, differentiated learning activities can be provided so that students can be helped to reach the next proficiency level in class. This approach will make learning more engaging and interesting for the students.

In schools heavily reliant on online education, teachers can use standards-based learning to fine tune their SAMR modeling.

2. Quality Education Becomes a Standard

In a standard-based educational approach, students are required to meet the standards set in the curriculum. Heidi Diefes-Dux, a professor from Purdue University, stressed that students are taught that they are expected to submit assessments and perform with excellent quality before they can achieve proficiency in a specific standard. Similarly, teachers are expected to deliver quality instruction for their students to demonstrate mastery of learning standards. Both teachers and students should have a mindset of quality and proficiency to ensure that mastery and proficiency will be achieved.

3. Parents Better Understand the Meaning of Grades

In standards-based grading, parents are provided with an accurate and meaningful explanation of the meaning of their children's grades. Standards-based reporting reflects the progress of students in each learning standard, and parents begin to understand how their children have mastered their lessons by looking at each standard's proficiency scores. In the same way, by looking at proficiency scores, parents will understand which learning standard their children need help with. In this way, parents can help their children to become more proficient in a specific standard by providing additional activities at home.

What are the challenges associated with the standards-based grading system?

Shifting from a traditional grading approach to a standards-based grading approach does not happen overnight. Some challenges may be faced by teachers and students during this transition.

Resistance to Undergo Transition

One of the most difficult challenges in dealing with this transition is the possible resistance of teachers to shift from a grading system that they have already mastered to a new system that needs to be learned. According to Matt Townsley, author of the research article "Considering Standards-based Grading: Challenges for Secondary School Leaders," teachers might resist this transition because they need to unlearn the grading system that they have been accustomed to and learn about a new grading system that is more taxing and rigorous to implement.

Likewise, the research of Hany et al. (2016) shows that many teachers implementing the standard-based grading system still continued to use non-achievement factors in grading their students. Similarly, students might also resist transitioning from one grading system to another because they have been used to receiving a single holistic grade for a specific subject. To address this challenge, the school management should carefully explain to both teachers and students how they will benefit from the new grading system.

Time-Consuming Process

In a standards-based grading system, all lessons, activities, and assessments should be aligned with standards that students are set to achieve at the end of the grading period. This means that teachers need to create new instructional materials and assessment tools that will support the students' mastery of skills. This process may be time-consuming because most of the pre-prepared materials used by teachers need to be overhauled. Teachers will also be asked to create both formative and summative assessments. These will gauge how students can apply the lessons that they have learned to real-life settings. Additionally, they also need to create rubrics for each performance task to help students understand the meaning of each proficiency score that they will receive. To address this challenge, teachers should be given enough time to prepare materials that they will need before the start of the academic year. In this way, teachers can carefully align each instructional material with the standards that students are expected to master at the end of the term.

Source: Journal of Teaching and Education, 2016

The Promise of Standards-Based Grading

Standards-based grading is an educational system that focuses on the effectiveness of instruction and the mastery of skills or standards for a specific subject. This grading system allows students to understand which learning targets they have already mastered and which of the given standards still need to be improved. A standards-based grading system helps students to become intrinsically motivated to perform well academically and guides teachers to create engaging and meaningful lessons for the students. To address the challenges posed by this new grading system, educational leaders are encouraged to support their teachers in shifting from traditional education to alternative educational systems such as online colleges.


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