Assessment discussions turn into grading discussions

Whenever I am invited to talk with a group of secondary teachers about assessment, the topic of grading almost always comes up, too.

This parallels my early struggles in using assessment for the purpose of providing feedback to inform future learning.  Over time, my core beliefs about grades were challenged and stretched.

At the classroom level, any discussion of assessment ultimately ends up in a discussion of grading. Not only are teachers responsible for evaluating a student’s level of knowledge or skill at one point in time through classroom assessments, they are also responsible for translating all of the information from assessments into an overall evaluation of a student’s performance over some fixed period of time (usually a quarter, trimester, or semester).This overall evaluation is in the form of some type of overall grade commonly referred to as an “omnibus grade.” Unfortunately, grades add a whole new layer of error to the assessment process.
Marzano, R. (2010). Formative Assessment & Standards-Based Grading (p. 15). Bloomington, IN: Marzano Research Laboratory.

What is the difference between standards-based grading (or reporting) and competency-based education?

11/11/2014: This post has been republished in an updated form at

Recently, there's been quite a bit of discussion here in Iowa about the idea of competency-based education.  At the same time, a core group of teachers and schools have started to implement a standards-based grading philosophy.  Every once in a while, I hear someone refer to standards-based grading and competency-based education as synonymous ideas.  While many of the ideas overlap, I thought it would be appropriate to briefly tease out both the similarities and differences of these two education terms.

What is standards-based grading? 

Standards-based grading "involves measuring students' proficiency on well-defined course objectives." (Tomlinson & McTighe, 2006).  (Note: Standards-based reporting involves reporting these course objectives rather than letter grades at the end of each grading/reporting period.)  The visual below compares traditional grading with standards-based grading practices.  

Traditional Grading System
Standards-Based Grading System
  1. Based on assessment methods (quizzes, tests, homework, projects, etc.).  One grade/entry is given per assessment.
  2. Assessments are based on a percentage system.  Criteria for success may be unclear.
  3. Use an uncertain mix of assessment, achievement, effort and behavior to determine the final grade.  May use late penalties and extra credit.
  4. Everything goes in the grade book - regardless of purpose.
  5. Include every score, regardless of when it was collected.  Assessments record the average - not the best - work.
  1. Based on learning goals and performance standards.  One grade/entry is given per learning goal.
  2. Standards are criterion or proficiency-based.  Criteria and targets are made available to students ahead of time.
  3. Measures achievement only OR separates achievement from effort/behavior.  No penalties or extra credit given.
  4. Selected assessments (tests, quizzes, projects, etc.) are used for grading purposes.
  5. Emphasize the most recent evidence of learning when grading.
Adapted from O’Connor K (2002).  How to Grade for Learning: Linking grades to standards (2nd ed.).  Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

What is competency-based education? 
"Under a competency-based education system, students advance to the next level based on their mastery of content rather than their age or seat time." (Iowa Department of Education)

Principles of competency-based education (from Guidelines for PK-12 Competency-based Pathways (pdf)):
A. Students Advance upon Mastery
  • Students advance to higher-level work upon demonstration of mastery of standards rather than according to age or seat time.
  • Students are evaluated on performance and application.
  • Students will master standards and earn credit or advance in content at their own pace.
  • They will work through some standards more rapidly while taking more time to ensure mastery on others.
B. Explicit and Measurable Learning Objectives that Empower Students
  • The relationship between student and teacher is fundamentally changed as students gain understanding of what working with standards requires and take ownership of learning and teachers provide the appropriate supports for learning.
  • The unit of learning becomes modular.
  • Learning expands beyond the classroom.
C. Assessment Is Meaningful and a Positive Learning Experience for Students
  • Schools embrace a strong emphasis on formative assessment as the unit of learning becomes modular.
  • Teachers collaborate to develop understanding of what is an adequate demonstration of proficiency.
  • Teachers assess skills or concepts in multiple contexts and multiple ways.
  • Attention is on student learning, not student grades.
  • Summative assessments are adaptive and timely.
  • Assessment rubrics are explicit in what students must be able to know and do to progress to the next level of study.
  • Examples of student work that demonstrate skills development throughout a learning continuum help students understand their own progress.
D. Rapid, Differentiated Support for Students Who Fall Behind or Become Disengaged
  • Educator capacity, and students’ own capacity to seek out help,will be enhanced by technology-enabled solutions that incorporate predictive analytic tools.
  • Pacing matters.  Although students will progress at their own speeds, students who are proceeding more slowly will need more help, and educators must provide high quality interventions. 
E.  Learning Outcomes Emphasize Application and Creation of Knowledge
  • Competencies will include the standards, concepts, and skills of the Iowa Core as well as the universal constructs (creativity, complex communication, collaboration, critical thinking, flexibility and adaptability, and productivity and accountability).
  • Lifelong learning skills are designed around students needs, life experiences, and the skills needed for them to be ready for college, career, and citizenry.
  • Expanded learning opportunities are created as opportunities for students to develop and apply skills as they are earning credit.
What are some ways in which standards-based grading and competency-based education are similar?

  • Both focus on student learnings specific standards based on a pre-determined rubric.  
  • Students take more ownership of their learning, because it (learning) is communicated rather than "Project 3" or "Worksheet 4-2."  
  • Using assessments in formative ways is the norm rather than exception.  
  • Learning outcomes could emphasize application and creation of knowledge in a classroom that uses a standards-based grading philosophy, but by definition this does not need to be in place.  
  • Similarly, experiences could be designed around students needs and life experiences in a standards-based grading classroom, but it is not necessarily the norm.

What are some ways in which standards-based grading and competency-based education are different?

  • In a competency-based system, students advance to higher level work and can earn credit at their own pace.  In a building, district or classroom using a standards-based grading philosophy, this is not necessarily the case.  Students are likely required to complete x number of hours of seat time in order to earn credit for the course.
  • Learning expands beyond the classroom.  This may or may not take place in a standards-based grading philosophy.  In a competency-based system, a student who learns a lot about wood working over the summer may earn credit when he or she returns to school the next year.  Similarly, students are encouraged to learn outside the classroom so that they can demonstrate competencies at their own, rapid rate.  
  • Teachers assess skills or concepts in multiple contexts and multiple ways.  This may or may not be the case in a standards-based grading classroom, however it is a non-negotiable in competency-based education.  
A standards-based grading (SBG) philosophy is similar, but not synonymous with the idea of competency-based education (CBE).  SBG is a way of thinking about grading and assessment that more clearly communicates with parents and students how well learners currently understand the course objectives/standards/competencies.  CBE is a system in which students move from one level of learning to the next based on their understanding of pre-determined competencies/standards/objectives without regard to seat time, days or hours.  A competency-based system may utilize a standards-based report card to communicate student learning, however the two educational terms are not, by definition, the same.  

Initiative fatigue

From Rick DuFour's AASA conference slides:

Leaders who push for fewer changes and push for them harder are more likely to have success than leaders who introduce so many changes that people become confused about what matters most (Pfeffer and Sutton, 2006, 174)) 
May it be true with me as well.

Iowa legislators learn about grading shift

February 1
A video of our students is shown to the House Education Committee in Des Moines as a lead-in to proposed state legislation on competency-based education.

February 8
(AM) While in Des Moines, one of our school administrators is approached by a state representative who serves on the House Education Committee.  She suggests a visit on Friday afternoon would be a great way to learn more about what she saw on the video.

(PM) Additional legislators express interest in visiting our high school.  School administrators, including myself, begin planning Friday's schedule.  A press release formally invites legislators, area educators and interested media representatives to an open house on Friday afternoon.

February 9
An area television station visit the district to begin capturing the story of the upcoming legislators' visit.  [Personal note: I can't recall the last time I was interviewed by a television reporter, let alone interviewed with less than an hours' notice!]

February 10
(AM) The television station broadcasts live from our high school and posts a short summary of the story, "New Grading System Catches Lawmakers' Attention."

(PM)  Several legislators and a handful of area educators participated in an open house, most of which was streamed live (archived video below).

Video streaming by Ustream

February 11
An area newspaper columnist shared her take-aways on the grading shift:
"Standards-based evaluation rewards learning more than the timing and rote processes of learning. To the students, it just makes more sense. Of course, that doesn’t answer every question about how competency-based systems might work — figuring out how to manage classrooms and staff when students are coming and going as they learn, not when the calendar dictates, will be no small task.  But after seeing the passion of those Solon kids, excited to be captains of their own learning, I am certain."

It was an outstanding week for the students and staff in our district to showcase the great things going on each and every day inside our buildings and an equally positive opportunity to spread the positive aspects of a standards-based grading philosophy to a wider audience.


2/18/12 Update:
February 16
The local newspaper ran an article as well, which included some of the responses from the student panel:
"You're in control of your grade," she said, summing up the feelings of some students.Other students said that instead of worrying over points for homework and worksheets, they felt the new system helped them understand the concepts in classes. 

4/21/12 Update:
~30 minute video capturing the day's events:

Standards-based grading videos

Update: January 10, 2014 (removed several inactive links/videos)

Additional videos created by classroom teachers describing their standards-based grading implementation are available here

Are you looking for some videos related to standards-based grading with a target audience of colleagues, administrators and/or parents?  Look no further!

The first two videos are via Xtranormal and the original authors are unknown to me.  The third and fourth videos were created here in Eastern Iowa.

Testimonials from several students at our high school (courtesy Shawn):

SBG Interviews from Shawn Cornally on Vimeo.

What is standards-based grading and how does it compare to traditional (assessments-based) grading? (This video is currently being viewed by various stakeholders as part of a district-wide shift to SBG).

Update: Added new video below (2/8/12)
What shifts are needed in my grading practices to embrace standards-based grading? (More information about this video is available here)

Update: Added video below (5/2/12)
Another teacher/student conversation about grading

Update: Added four videos from EL schools (6/15/12)

Do you have any videos to add to this list?  Feel free to share them in the comments.