Standards-Based Grading Promises a Healthier Learning Environment for the Future of Woodbridge High

Some classes at Woodbridge High have adopted the 1-4 point system of standards-based grading, including math and science


Sidra Daker

This shift towards a standards-based grading mindset is new to both teachers and students.

Irvine Unified School District (IUSD) is within its fifth year of a seven-year plan to transition to a new learning system called standards-based grading.

The system is in line with the core concepts of growth mindset, focused not on punishing failure, but rather encouraging it as a natural part of the learning process.

Standards-based grading seeks to implement these core concepts and reflect them within the gradebook. These changes are well underway, and in some cases have already arrived at Woodbridge High.

The basic concept of standards-based grading is prioritizing a student’s skills in the gradebook, rather than a letter grade that may misinterpret their true academic accomplishments.

Standards-based grading was popularized around the mid-2010s as the growth mindset movement gained popularity through a series of papers and speeches created by Carol Dweck.

Standards-based grading holds similar ideas, encouraging teaching to be about providing students with opportunities to grow from mistakes rather than punishing them through quizzes, tests and rigid deadlines.

“Standards-based grading is essentially grading based on performance on the standards,” Alyssa McCane said, director of Data and Assessment within IUSD.

McCane is a specialist in standards-based grading and has a clear vision for what standards-based grading might look like in the classroom.

“This means that our grades are aligned to the standards, are accurate representations of student learning, are a form of effective communication and help build hope and efficacy in our students,” McCane said.

Within the gradebook, a standards-based class will still receive a letter grade at the end of a semester to factor into traditional grade point system for transcripts.

“Determining the final grade based on what the student’s current level of performance [is essential],” McCane said.

This means that although the grade is based on standards, they can still be displayed in traditional report cards as assignments.

Not only are the students’ learning accurately represented, but the feedback from the teachers presents a positive idea about standards-based mindset.

“The feedback we have heard from teachers is that this type of grading has changed the conversation that they have with their students – shifting the discussion away from points and toward learning,” McCane said.

This reinforces the idea that the change to standards-based grading will be beneficial to both students and teachers as a whole.

An article provided by McCane, “What Does the Research Say About Standards-Based Grading?” acknowledges that the traditional gradebook has never had conclusive research done to prove that it is the most effective form of learning.

“In an era of data-driven decision making, that’s critical to note,” experts on public education Matt Townsley and Tom Buckmiller wrote. “The absence of research supporting traditional grading practices is concerning.”

The article goes on to describe how growth mindset should be applied to the school environment and what the future of grading would look like under a system like standards-based grading.

“In the past century, everything from modern medicine to personal computing has evolved and improved; yet our educational system’s grading practices have remained the same, despite a lack of supporting evidence,” Townsley and Buckmiller said.

With the new grading system, report cards accurately reflect the student’s learning progress. (Sidra Daker)

According to an IUSD outline of standards-based grading provided by Natalie Hanks, an IUSD teacher specializing in standards-based grading, there are several priorities with standards-based grading.

One of the main objectives of the change is to remove “assessments to provide scores or numbers that do not help students understand what it is they have and have not yet learned,” Hanks said.

Townsley and Buckmiller agree that “[To assess students] with appropriate rigor to determine proficiency on learning targets/standards [and to] promote increased understanding of essential standards,” is paramount.

This change would prevent harmful concepts such as rewarding memorization rather than properly understanding concepts or skills taught in the class. Utilizing the standards-based grading system in this way would encourage the growth mindset ideals of skills being prioritized above a letter grade.

“Students would have opportunities to practice, improve their learning and have that honored in the grade,” McCane said when asked about how students might be impacted on a more personal level with their teacher.

These opportunities will ensure students have the ability to learn without the repercussion of earning a bad grade.

“This means that there would be places for students to practice their learning that don’t impact the final grade as much,” McCane said.

This practice is known as formative assessment and allows for tests to judge a student’s proficiency in a standard without impacting their overall grade in the course.

A second objective of standards-based grading provided by the IUSD outline is to separate behavior from grades.

Reducing the impact participation and homework have on a student’s grade is critical to stopping these elements from being incentivized as a “reward or punishment,” which does not align with the ideals of growth mindset.

“This might mean that students have the opportunity to turn in more late work, redo assignments, participate in ungraded practice assignments, or retake assessments,” McCane said.

The new grading system uses summative grading to check student progress while also removing strong penalties for late work. (Sidra Daker)

Standards-based grading seems to be a hopeful and welcomed change to the traditional letter format.

“For students, hopefully, the transition to [standards-based mindset] has been an introduction to a more flexible way of learning,” McCane said.

The transition between learning and grading is not only stressful for students, but also for teachers.

“For teachers, it has been a bit difficult to completely shift the set-up of gradebooks and communicate the new expectations to parents [and] students…We recognize that it is a large task to make all of the shifts outlined above and it will take time to shift our instruction, assignments, assessments and grades to better align with the standards. This is not a change that can happen overnight,” McCane said.