Standards-Based Grading: Lowering Grades?

This is about as original as I get. I’m well aware that all things under the sun are not new, and I will remind you that this blog is a autobiographical historical comedy more than it is SBG evangelism. That said, in my SBG system, sometimes kids’ grades move backwards. (read that last sentence again after hitting play)

Here’s why:

  1. Grades should indicate what you know now, not what you crammed and purged a month ago.
  2. The danger of a backslide really enforces the kind of responsibility that is impossible to teach or grade explicitly.
  3. Homework and studying become customized and what I always dreamed they would be
  4. The midterm/final can’t “sneak up” on a kid

Let’s have a little chit-chat about why these are good and bad ideas:

1. Learned vs. Crammed


Obviously, we want kids to actually learn the things we teach. This process can be duped by what any teenager will tell you is a fool-proof method for getting A’s: cram and forget. Everyone has their pantheon of stories. They stayed up until 2 a.m., drank a pot of coffee, a pitcher of tea, and the blood of the highly nocturnal opossum. They then ran to class, took the test, crashed, and woke up wondering if the whole thing was just a really lucid dream. This is not the kind of learning I want for my kids.

What SBG gets me is a dynamic look at these understandings. I want to give students a chance to overcome a “bad day,” and I want to get a better picture of my crammers as well. This means that as the semester goes on, I bring back standards that we’ve already covered. I assess them, and they get the grade based on where you are right now.


This might seem contradictory, but giving kids their most recent score can also be harmful. In the end, that just gives you a single-shot look, which is bad. Or is it?

Here’s what happens: I initiate a reassessment. Girl is having like a totally awful day because her boyfriend broke up with her after only 2 weeks for that hose-beast Bridget. Girl loses ability to command vectors, and assess poorly despite her proficient performance a few weeks ago.

What this means to me is that in a state of duress, the kid’s score can go down and does not accurately reflect her abilities, or it means she really did regress and her attention must be focused on vectors. This confusion is bad. Very bad. However, because you’re an SBG monster, the student can initiate a reassessment to make up for this, and all is not lost. Working this system out is the hardest thing to do, and will be totally unique for your brand of students. (Mine are totally Prada, btw)

2. The Responsibility Monster


Responsibility is that kind of word that makes every teacher convulse into a frothing teacher’s-lounge rant, one that often weaves a tapestry of such visceral profanity and frustration that it can still be seen hanging over Lake Michigan hours afterward (holla’ Christmas Story). SBG has helped me to promote responsibility in my class. Why “promote?” Mostly because responsibility can’t be taught. It can be modeled, it can be emphasized, but it’s an intrinsic thing. The kid has to feel the need to make a good decision.

SBG says, “Hey, this is your grade. You want to let your knowledge atrophy? Then your grade will, too.” Most kids take this new sense of control and run screaming into the wind with it, showing it off and reassessing in way I never would have thought of on my own. I see kids poring over books, that would otherwise have been playing video games. This is why the fear of the backslide must be ever-present but not used as a teacher-weapon (you know who you are.)


Grades going down makes some kids quit. Cut and dry, some kids cannot afford to quit. They are in a situation where there’s a hairline difference between being in school and being on drugs or dropping out or name your specific at-risk problem here. This is why SBG must be tailored to your specific population. My kids tolerate the backsliding of grades because my culture of reassessment is rigorous and free. You may not want that. Student-initiated reassessments might make you queasier than a corn dog followed by the tilt-a-whirl. That’s fine, and maybe backsliding shouldn’t be a part of your SBG implementation, yet.

3. Finally, Some Real Studying


When kids know they’re responsible for retaining, and — this is key — they know what they’re responsible for retaining, studying becomes a guided missile of academic awesome.

This is often the trouble with high school kids. They know they should study, but they see a 1,000 page book full of information that is all equally enigmatic. Do I need to know about one-sided limits more than rationalizing limits with radicals? They don’t know, they haven’t been teaching calculus for years. SBG provides them this road map, and then refuses to play the role of full-service gas station. I like that.


This one is so easy I’m surprised Buell or Cox hasn’t already commented before this post has even been published: A list of standards is damaging to the big picture. What about the things that don’t make the standards list? What about the tangential enriching things? My only response is: it better be obvious how in-class activities are connected to increasing their abilities on the core standards. This requires a pile of planning and really well written standards. Better than grading homework, to be sure.

4. Summative Assessments


SBG and backsliding prevents tests from sneaking up on students. How many times have you heard, “I totally get it, but when it comes to the test, I forget.” I question their usage of the word “totally.”

The way I view SBG is like a sandbox. We used to give students day-long or week-long sandboxes, saying, “Here figure this out take a quiz take a test, aw too bad you didn’t get it let’smoveonOMGCOVERTHEBOOK”

The SBG sandbox is much wider. Mine lasts all semester. Didn’t get it, kid? Take some time. The real deadline is the one forced on me by the semester schedule. There’ll be a midterm, and a final. Get it by then, or else we’ll assume you might not. This gives them the time and opportunity to really flesh out understandings. Yes, we’re moving forward in class, but that kid can spend their SBG dollars wisely on where they need the most improvement before the looming summative evaluation.


Reassessing makes kids soft, like little marshmallows floating in a sea of Cool Whip. I do not buy this one bit.

Also, some of you will argue against summative assessments altogether. I had are hard time with this, but eventually came to the conclusion that there must be an end, and why not make it the end of the reporting period? Finals are great management tools, too …

Others of you only grade homework and never give quizzes or tests. I’m really really interested in how this works. Mostly because it rubs me the wrong way, but if your students aren’t calling for a mutiny, then something must be working.

What’s It All Mean, Basil?

I sincerely believe that a system that allows for the reporting of improvement should also allow for the reporting of regression. SBG is not as damning as the summative-obsessed system of yore. Information about regression is often welcomed by students, so that they know where to spend time before finals.

Thanks for the tweet that inspired this post, @JamiDanielle.