• The E3 Group

Say goodbye to straight A’s – say hello to standards based grading.

If you’ve had parent-teacher conferences recently you probably heard about ‘standards based learning’. If not, you might consider asking about the grading component of the new approach to learning. River Forest D90 is racing toward implementation of Standards Based Grading (SBG) beginning fall 2020, Oak Park D97 is talking about it and OPRF High School hasn’t expanded on whether “investigating alternative grading systems” means adopting SBG or not. Here we try and untangle the new grading system from the old (2010) common core standards, the two parts of one whole new standards based learning approach.

Standards Based Grading (SBG) is a proficiency-based grading system administrators are considering to replace the familiar 0-100 and A to F grading system. The SBG system typically uses a 1-4 scale. A score of 1 indicates students have little understanding of a concept or are far from mastery. A score of 2 is better and 3 indicates a student has met the ‘target’. A 4 indicates an ability level exceeding the target. It will be up to administrators to determine if and how to extrapolate percentage or letter grades from the 1-4 scale.

Already common to elementary grading systems, the 1-4 scale is finding its way into middle and high schools. Proponents of SBG point to an ability to more clearly track development and identify where students need improvement. Opponents point to difficult teacher and family implementation, challenges accounting for non-achievement factors such as effort, homework and behavior and discontinuity with number/letter grading systems. The rigor of this seemingly narrow assessment system becomes apparent when you consider the targets.

The individual targets are Illinois Learning Standards, a re-named version of the Common Core Standards (CCS) developed in 2009 and released in 2010. With measures of national student achievement floundering, key influencers set out to establish a rigorous list of benchmarks for what students should know and be able to do by grade level. Roughly four Billion dollars in federal grants were used as incentive for States to adopt the standards which are K-12 benchmarks. How to reach the standards through curriculum and instruction are still decisions left to individual school districts.

Teachers apply the 1-4 SBG scale to individual standards. An example of just one English Language Arts (ELA) standard for first graders is below.

Example 1st Grade ELA Standard: Phonics and Word Recognition: Know the spelling-sound correspondences for common consonant digraphs (two letters that represent one sound).

There are roughly 80 more ELA standards for first graders; math and science have their own set of standards. It’s commonplace for schools and teachers to prioritize teaching certain standards and to adjust the time spent teaching certain standards in order to best serve students. Teaching every standard with similar rigor is uncommon if not impossible. Districts offering half-day kindergarten despite full-day standards is one example of systemic challenges to implementation standards based learning.

There is very little research investigating achievement effects of CCS implementation after ten years of adoption. Although national student achievement has been flat to declining since implementation, it’s difficult to empirically connect poor national performance to CCS when districts have the final say in curriculum and instruction used to hit these targets. Of the 46 States that originally adopted Common Core Standards nearly half have repealed, withdrawn or revised the standards.

It’s important to know implementing SBG is not inexorably linked to implementing common core or other learning standards. The standards were adopted by the State of Illinois in 2010, long before talk of changing the grading system. With the standards coming under increasing fire, one might wonder why now is the time.

Find more useful resources on standards based grading and common core standards below.

Surveys of Teachers' Grading Practices and Perceptions. Chapter 4 in What We Know About Grading, by J.H. McMillan 2019.

‘Standards-Based’ The Glossary of Education Reform

Thinking of Tossing Out the A-B-C Grading System? Think Again. Education Week 2016

Seven Reasons for Standards-Based Grading. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2008

Nearly a decade later, did the Common Core work? New research offers clues. Chalkbeat 2019


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