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Assessment Opinion

What’s in a Grade?

By Stu Silberman — June 26, 2014 5 min read
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The following post is from David Cook of the Kentucky Department of Education.

By all accounts, Susan would appear to be a good student. She completes all assigned homework and class work and scores good grades. However, she hasn’t mastered the content. In that sense she has failed, despite what her grade says.

That’s because in many grading structures, this student knows that most of her grade rests on the work that she produces. Collecting points is the key and while standards are assessed as part of their grade, little weight is placed on that assessment in calculating the grade. See the grading chart below:


Pts Earned/Pts Possible






















UNIT Assessment



Average in class



In this scenario, the system measured a student’s compliance to complete assignments. The problem is that in this system the student completed all assignments and yet received a failing grade on the unit assessment.

Dr. Thomas Guskey , a recognized leader in the study of grading systems states: “With traditional approaches to grading that combine everything into a single symbol, a student may ace the Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) exams in calculus, for instance, but get a C in the subject because he didn’t do the homework. Another student also may get a C by turning in all the homework and being compliant with teacher requests without learning the subject and doing poorly on tests.” 1

What grading system does your school use?

One of the primary goals of our education system is ensuring that all students demonstrate mastery of the core academic standards. With that goal, it would seem that whatever grading system is employed should place the largest weight on mastery of standards.

Today, many schools and school districts are shifting to a grading system where up to 90 percent of the summative grade is based on the assessment of standards. In this environment, the learning objectives or standards for each lesson or unit are the central focus. Students learn the objectives and then are given assessments that include several standards. The teacher then grades those assessments and when a student hasn’t shown mastery of a particular standard, the student does additional learning on the standard and then takes a re-assessment of only the standards they hadn’t mastered previously. The second assessment is a different assessment than the first. The student is normally allowed to repeat this process as long as the class has not moved on to the next unit. The teacher then records a “final” grade based on where the student is at the end of the unit. All class work is intended to better prepare the student for the unit assessment, not to collect points.

Dr. Guskey refers to this kind of system as Standards Based Grading (SBG) and he says there are four steps in developing a standards-based grading system:

1. Identify the major learning goals or standards that students will be expected to achieve at each grade level or in each course of study,

2. Establish performance indicators for the learning goals or standards,

3. Determine graduated levels of performance (benchmarks) for assessing each goal or standard,

4. Develop reporting forms that communicate teachers’ judgments of students’ learning progress and culminating achievement in relation to the learning goals or standards. 2

The beauty of this system is that it allows for families to better monitor their student’s progress towards mastery of the standards. The family can see at any point in time which standards the student is struggling with and which they have mastered. In this environment the way a student is held accountable would look more like this:

Learning Objective

Level of mastery (on a 4 point scale)

Write an alternative ending to a story

2 - Progress towards mastery

Identify the elements of a story

4 - Mastery

Compare and contrast two stories

3 - Partial Mastery

Standard 3 Assessment

3 - Partial Mastery

The ultimate goal of this system is to provide a student with the opportunity to reach mastery on all objectives and the unit assessment through the previously described processes of remediation and re-assessment.

A high school social studies teacher who has effectively implemented SBG said, “SBG does a much better job of letting the student, family and teacher know of the level of mastery of the standards. It’s also important to note that mastery is also not perfection and a student doesn’t have to be perfect to show mastery. While standards based grading purposefully doesn’t use percentages, our mastery level equates to an 86 percent. That means that if there are 10 questions on the test for a standard, a student can miss one, and still demonstrate mastery of that standard. It does require a teacher to change the way they think about grading and it eliminates the concept of the curve.”

Other benefits of SBG include:

1) In an SBG environment, grades have real meaning: they measure the level to which the student has met or not met a standard or objective,

2) Homework, when assigned, is part of the process for learning the standards. It is not graded,

3) SBG reduces meaningless paperwork for teachers and students,

4) SBG better helps teachers adjust instruction by giving the teacher a much greater set of information needed to adjust instruction and identify specific standards or objectives that need additional support,

5) SBG allows students to be responsible for their learning. When they have not mastered a concept, they can remediate and reassess until they have learned it,

6) SBG is a starting point for other innovative strategies by causing teachers to reexamine their curriculum, how they formatively assess students and intervention strategies they use.

As with any system implemented in a school, there are challenges to ensuring success:

· Any reporting system must be effectively communicated to all stakeholders, particularly families so that they understand the way student progress is being reported and the value that is being placed on learning the standards as opposed to completing tasks,

· Teachers must modify the way they provide instruction to align with a system that places most of the weight on mastery of standards,

· Administrators must support teachers in making sure they have the resources and professional learning opportunities to make the shift to these kinds of grading systems.

The bottom line is, schools are spending a great deal of effort in changing curriculums, instructional strategies and assessments. Shouldn’t our grading systems also value the mastery of standards to ensure all students reach the goal of proficiency and college/career-readiness?

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