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  • Writer's pictureJames Kerr

Questioning Grading

Updated: Nov 23, 2019

Students and parents alike place intense value on grades. An ill-structured problem that I wrestle with is if the grading system that I employ is appropriately recording student mastery of learning objectives. For the most part, my grading system includes many standard bearers that have been locked into the annals of pedagogical preparation: quizzes, tests, labs, and special projects. Each of these grades are tied to state required content standards. Not unlike Edwin Land’s daughter, Jennifer, I have a question to ask that does not have an easy answer: Why have I not adopted a standards based grading system? Even a summer away from the classroom has not provided a new perspective or a relief from this nagging question. After twenty-five years of teaching, I am reconsidering my grading structure. So, utilizing the questioning sequence that I have learned this summer, I will list some of the associated Why, What If, and How questions that relate to my ill-structured problem:

Why do I keep the same grading system that I have used for 25 years?

Why do I think that these grades reflect what the students have learned?

Why do I think the grading system is fair?

Why are parents so fond of the historical grading system?

Why does the district not allow a greater variety in grading parameters?

What if I did away with tests and tested for understanding and skills with a flexible measure – either you have the skill or you do not and can continue to grow until you own it?

What if using a standards based grading (SBG) approach could take some pressure off of the students who are only concerned about getting an “A”?

What if a SBG approach would allow for greater flexibility in student learning rates?

What if SBG could be used to promote Carol Dweck’s “yet” concept?

What if the entire school district would go to a SBG plan?

What if I could find some resources / experienced teachers to help be get started?

What if students get too far behind and miss content?

What if I do not have the time to make all of the needed change?

What if the students do not progress quickly enough to encounter all of the state standards?

How will I get administrative support?

How will I get students and parents to “buy in” to SBG?

How will I know what steps to take first?

How will I know if it is working?

One of the most difficult tasks of the implementation process of SBG, and it must be a process, will be gaining parental support. Parents understand the traditional grading system. They are experts. They went through the process and know how it works. Parents will have to be recruited. They will need to understand that a SBG system allows students to retake assignments and to work at their own pace. They will need to understand that this grading system will not make their children less competitive in the marketplace, the opposite is likely to be true.

I believe that our district’s current push to employ UDL strategies will blend well with a decision to embrace SBG. That emphasis might be enough to allow a pilot effort to try out SBG. Grades will still have to be given, but they will be based on the student’s performance evidence that a standard has been mastered. This approach will be genuine, but the students will need to be flexible and that will require a limited commodity, patience. In SBG, a student should be able to return weeks later and demonstrate that a skill is mastered. There is no pressure to get an “A”. The advantage will be to get students focused on personal ownership and learning. The hardest part will be to confront years of practice and experience for “how grading and learning has always been done around here." The SBG will fit well with a growth mindset. There will be fewer students labeled as failures and ultimately greater autonomy. The SBG system allows students to have more ownership of their learning experience. They learn how to try again and manage time. Alternative assessments will be available and encouraged for students who need more support. Students will choose multiple methods to demonstrate mastery of a learning goal. For the SBG to be successful students will need to know their responsibilities and their rights. I will need to spend significant time developing new formative assessments.The challenge for my context will be to serve 150 students with this new and proven successful grading system. That will be no small task. The key to success will be finding how to merge standard based grading with student resolve, respecting learning needs, and recruiting student passions. My hope is that students will embrace the opportunity to demonstrate that they have truly attained and will hold on to the learning that was intended in the planning process.


Wormeli, R. (2014, January 29). Ankney Schools, Standard Based Grading, Retrieved from:

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