A Vision For Grading

Standards-Based Grading

Year three of a journey through Standards-Based Grading has wrapped up, and my reasons for using it are similar but different from 3 years ago. It began with a desire to promote positive mindsets and perseverance in students, and that’s where I still stand today. However, I’ve realized that in order for this system, or any system, to be effective, it has to start with a vision. The outcomes of SBG will not necessarily be different than any other grading system if a different vision isn’t in place. I’ve realized that even though my reasons for use are similar, the vision behind it has changed. So, the following is a long flow of thoughts about the vision I currently have for grading.

Actions Speak Louder…

The old saying that actions speak louder than words drives my approach to grading and assessment because I believe the way we assess and evaluate students is the loudest action in our classroom. At the end of the day, whatever values we’re trying to promote can only go as far as the way we assess and evaluate the kids. If we say mistakes are a good thing, this has to shine through in the way students’ grades are developed. If we say that it’s important to persevere and keep working even when it’s difficult, this has to shine through in the way the students’ grades are developed.

Here’s a picture I put in front of the kids every time we take a formal assessment (big thanks to Kyle Pearce because I stole it from him).

Quiz Message

This statement is what fuels most of my decisions when thinking about assessment, when to quiz, and when to grade. However, the words are empty if I don’t back them up with my embedded practices. I actually have to believe this message myself and seek to follow through with my actions. So, I put it in front of the kids every quiz to reinforce and remind them of what the class is about, but more importantly, to hold myself accountable. The kids will call me out either directly with their words or indirectly with their body language if they know I’m not implementing this well.

With all this in mind, it’s crucial to create a system that speaks the values we want to promote. Here are some of the hopes and values embedded in the vision I try to implement.

Promote Perseverance

Promoting perseverance is the overarching goal to the system, and every point after this aims to support it. So far, I’ve found that a great way to promote perseverance is to allow full-credit retakes (with healthy boundaries) for any assessment. This is the way I’ve been able to back up my words that mistakes are a good thing, and that it’s important to keep working hard even when times are tough. When I didn’t allow retakes, my actions were telling kids that mistakes were not okay because mistakes led to permanent bad grades. I saw so many students give up completely whenever they made low test grades. For a while, I didn’t understand why this was happening, but then I realized that the kids were actually making a good observation. They realized that once they made a really low test grade, there was almost no hope to recover. It was better to not take the time and make the effort to get out of the hole because it would hurt too much to do that and in the end come up short. Retakes give the kids hope, and I believe this is true even if kids don’t really take advantage of it. I’ve found that most kids don’t retake on their own, but just the option to have it helps so much.

Side Note: The way I’ve countered the underutilization of retakes is to offer 1 retake in class on the same day we take a quiz for the next concept in our curriculum. There’s more explanation about this here.

2nd Side Note: I like the 3 -6 question quiz approach of SBG because a retake isn’t as intimidating as a 30 question test. I’ve heard students say that they decided not to retake another class’ test because it was too long and not worth the effort. I don’t want to have kids give up because of intimidation, and it’s another reason why SBG is my current favorite.

In addition to retakes, it’s been helpful to make the lowest possible grade a 5 (50 in the gradebook) instead of a zero. This is huge as well because it’s much more motivating and attainable to try to bring up a 50 instead of a 0 and keeps more kids bought in. Also, it doesn’t completely put a kid in the dumps if they aren’t initially understanding concepts. Instead, it communicates the message, with my actions, that it’s okay if you’re not understanding yet. I’m still here with you and am ready whenever you are to get you where you want to be.

At first, allowing a 50 instead of a 0 almost sounds like a sympathy grade that may enable lack of effort. However, I’ve found that the students who continue to not put in the effort still fail whether they get 50s or 0s. The difference is that I’ve seen so many students in this position who would usually tune me out eventually warm up to me through relationship building, and then we’re able to get to work and get them going in the direction we both want them to go. It doesn’t work for everyone, but there’s at least an opportunity. This wasn’t the case before I used this approach.

Less Pressure

I think pressure is very harmful for learning. At least it was for me when I was in school. I remember wishing I could just have the freedom to learn without the pressure of grades. Instead, I was always worried if my grade was high enough, or if I was going to get into the college I liked, and this led to me doing whatever was needed to get a good grade instead of truly focusing on learning.

Since most of us can’t go gradeless, we have to find other ways to take down the pressure in our classroom. I really like SBG again because of the quiz approach. There aren’t lengthy tests but instead quizzes that can realistically be retaken. This helps alleviate some of the pressure of grades, and I’ve had students express this.

Less Testing

This goes hand in hand with the less pressure section. I’m definitely in favor of less formal testing. The less we get kids to think they’re in a formal, pressure packed, testing situation, the better. Quizzes help with this, and overall I devote less time to actual test days and days devoted to preparing for tests (we don’t have review days for quizzes) with SBG.

Also, I’m trying to get better at finding and using formative assessment techniques in order to know where kids are without actually putting them in a quiz situation. The more we can discover about student thought process and progress without them knowing that we’re assessing them, the less pressure they will feel. Also, ultimately, I want to spend more and more time learning than testing. The more teaching days the better.

“Sweet Spot” Pacing

I want a class that moves slow enough for deep thinking and learning to occur but fast enough to keep it moving at a healthy rate. This is such a fine line thing that may never be mastered, but it’s really important for perseverance. Dylan Wiliam has a great quote in his book, “Embedded Formative Assessment.”

“Never grade students while they are still learning. As soon as students get a grade, the learning stops…if grades stop learning, students should be given them as infrequently as possible.” (Wiliam, p. 123)

This has really helped in deciding when to quiz or when to move on to new concepts. If students aren’t at a place where learning has really occurred, I can’t quiz them or else my actions begin to contradict my words. Many times when I struggle are when I’m quizzing or moving on before kids have learned. Everything just seems to be out of sync.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine getting to a point where every student is learning exactly at the pace they need. As much as we want this to happen and work so hard for it to happen, I just don’t think that we’ll have that perfect classroom. However, creating a pace where students feel like we’re moving slow but at the end of the year are like, “Wow, we really learned a lot in not a lot of time” is something to strive for.

Avoiding Temptation to “Get Enough Grades”

This has been a big conviction point for me and goes along with sweet spot pacing. I sometimes find myself in the mindset of, “Man, I really need to get some grades in the gradebook. Let’s go ahead and quiz.” I’ve learned that this mindset really needs to be fought and avoided as much as we can because it’s the mindset that really shines through to the kids and leads to less buy-in. Let’s go back to the quiz message picture from earlier.

“Not to just put a grade on you.”

The kids don’t believe this message when my mindset is to get enough grades in the gradebook. Therefore, whenever possible, I wait as long as I can to give a quiz/grade (definitely waiting until learning has occurred). However, I do make mistakes and quiz too early. Sometimes I give a quiz and the results come back poorly for the majority of the kids. In these times, I think it’s good to throw the grade away, apologize to the class for giving it before they were ready, and get back to that topic and work on it more.

One thing that really helped this year and was welcomed with open arms by the kids was to give ungraded quizzes every once in awhile. The first time I did this, the kids were blown away. “Really? It’s not for a grade? We can just try our best, and then we’ll talk about it?” It really drove home the quiz message. One kid actually spoke up, “because quizzes aren’t just there to put grades on us.” It really is so helpful to fight the mindset of needing to get more grades in the gradebook.

See Where Kids Are and How I Can Improve

Last, and for sure not least, I want a system that allows me to quickly know where students are, where they need most improvement, and how I can improve/change instruction to help them. In addition, I want a system that emphasizes that students are sense makers instead of mistake makers (thanks David Wees).

It’s really important to get insight into student thinking in order to do this. This is a work in progress for me, but I really like not giving multiple choice questions on the quizzes in order to help with this. Instead, the kids are given problems to solve, and they are required to write their thought process out. This is really helpful, and here’s an example why.

Vision for Grading 1

From this graph (or if it was a chosen answer choice on a multiple-choice test), I’m initially thinking that this student is right on the money. It looks like they’re good to go with graphing slope-intercept form. However, things can change when we see thought process.

Vision for Grading 2

Now my assessment of student understanding changes. I have much greater insight into this person’s sense making, and I’m more likely to make a better instructional decision.

Therefore, I need to provide frequent opportunities to see thought process and common misconceptions in order to get a feel for understanding and if learning is occurring. SBG has helped because I get quick snapshots of student work and can quickly change direction to help kids.


Switching to SBG has been the best change I’ve ever made in my classroom. It’s the only system I’ve found that creates an environment where it’s truly okay to make mistakes, and students really can grow from mistakes. With SBG, I’m finally backing up my words and embedding positive messages into actual classroom practices.

12 thoughts on “A Vision For Grading

  1. I am very interested in SBG in our math classes. Every time I research into how to start; I end up getting overwhelmed by the many different ways SBG is implemented. Do you have any suggestion on a “small” step I could start? I just cant seem to pinpoint the rating scale for SBG. Thanks for a great read.

    1. Thank you for your comment! I’m happy to help. The way I got started was by reading this blog post from Dan Meyer. It’s the basic format that I use for the most part.

      Also, here is my grading system that includes the rating scale I use. I like it a lot because it easily translates to a traditional gradebook system.

      Let me know if that helps. I think those two links are a great way to get started with SBG, and then over time you will make tweaks that work for your classroom.

  2. I love this! I’ve been interested in SBG for a while but have been nervous to try it. But I’ve decided to dive into it. Thank you! Also, I was thinking of weaving in some FALs from MARS site. Check it out. I hope it helps you as much as you have helped me.

    1. Thanks so much David! I really appreciate the positive feedback. Thanks for pointing me to the FALs from MARS. Looks awesome! I’m glad the resources here have been useful. Let me know if you have more ideas for improvement!

      1. Thank you for sharing your philosophy, assessment, templates, and what should be considered best practice. Especially now, kids need to feel safe to grow themselves in a lower risk, higher reward environment. I’m a subject area leader in a small school and am excited to jump in with both feet using SBG this year.

  3. Hi Dane! I teach 7th math and will switch to SBG this year. Thanks for all of the excellent resources and advice! One question … what do you actually write on the student quiz when you first grade it? I agree it takes too long to write a lot of feedback and kids don’t read it anyway if there is a grade. Do you write a rubric score by each question? Or do you leave the quiz blank for them to self-grade, and then tell them a score after you go over it as a class? Thanks for your help!

    1. Hey Shaunda! Thank you for the kind words!

      Great question. I actually don’t write anything on the quiz. I grade it on my own, put the score in my spreadsheet, and then I pass back the quizzes the next day.

      Then, I have answer keys for students to look through and check their work. The answer keys are fully worked out so students can see the method to solve the problem. This is usually good enough for students to figure out their mistakes for the 80 level questions (and some of the 90 level questions).

      After students have some time to check their work, I take the answer keys back, ask students if they want me to go over any of the 80 level questions, and then I go over the 90 and 100 level questions since those usually need more explanation.

      Once all of that is complete, I tell students their scores individually, and after class I put the scores in the online gradebook (in my district, students and parents were able to see their grades instantly with an app, so I made sure not to release the score until we had a chance to go over the quiz).

      Let me know if that helps!

  4. Hello Dane! Thank you for all the great resources and advice. I teach Secondary Math I and II this year, I am hoping to begin my journey with SBG. I have a question: As far as the quizzes, what do you do when students are absent on the day of the first quiz? And say they come back when you are reviewing the quiz or the next class period. Thank you for taking the time to answer my question!

    1. Hey Lisett! Thank you for the kind words! I really appreciate it.

      When students are absent, I usually have them work on the quiz in the hallway so we can still go over the quiz with the rest of the class. Another option is to have them come in during lunch or before or after school.

      That usually caught most of my students, but if those don’t work, then maybe giving them a quiz with different numbers and answers could be a solution so they can take it during class without having to worry about them knowing the answers.

      Hope that helps! Feel free to share other ideas you may have!

  5. Our school is switching to SBG and I’m nervous about what to expect. Your blog has helped me feel much more comfortable about the switch! I have two comments I would like to share: 1. The first concerns the notion of quizzing as distinct from learning. I believe quizzing actually helps learning occur; in fact, much research has shown that quizzing (called ‘practice retrieval’ in the research literature) is one of the most effective learning tools. However, quizzing doesn’t always have to be graded or equal grades. So I think more quizzing is better than less quizzing! Again, it doesn’t always have to go into your grade book! 2. Second, much research has shown that spacing out the learning with repetition is a very effective learning tool—it’s called ‘spaced repetition’. So, pacing becomes much less of a concern when you know you’re going to see a topic again. If students don’t completely get everything on the first pass, it’s ok because they’re going to see it again! I’m not sure if you’ve read Make It Stick by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel but it details some of the most effective learning practices backed by research.

    1. Hey Greg! Thank you for sharing those insights. I completely agree! After writing this post, I eventually started doing ungraded formative assessments pretty often, and it was a great way to see where students were and help us continue to grow.

      I also really like the idea of spaced repetition. Great stuff! I’ve heard of Make It Stick, but I haven’t had the chance to read it.

      Thanks again for the recommendations!!

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