Mandy Stalets is a middle school mathematics teacher for Illinois State University Laboratory Schools. She specializes in sound grading practices and standards-based learning.

A first look at Standards-Based Learning

I have the honor of teaching at a laboratory school and working with many pre-service teachers as they move through their teacher training programs. The mission of our school is to act as a model for educational methods and theory in support of the preparation of future educators. Many of the pre-service teachers that come through my classroom, as well as many of us, went through school with very traditional assessment practices and a traditional mindset when it comes to education, assessment, and grading. Tests were high stakes, early attempts at learning distorted our final grades, and we weren’t given full credit for our learning.

One of the experiences that I enjoy most is having having four-week clinical interns during the semester before they student teach, and through this I have the power to change their mindset about assessment. Changing over to a standards-based mindset is challenging task, especially when we don’t know differently. My last clinical student had never experienced a standards-based learning and grading classroom and was extremely hesitant at first. However, her eyes were opened to the power that sound assessment practices have on student hope, efficacy, and achievement. At our final meeting she had some thoughts to share. The following are some of my favorite and most memorable comments.

“Assessments aren’t stressful for the students.”
If set up with the appropriate assessment architecture, summative assessments don’t need to be high stakes or stressful experiences for our students. Cassandra Erkens (2016) says, “Teachers and learners alike should walk into the summative assessment experience already knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt how they will perform. If the formative assessment process is handled well, summative assessments simply become celebrations of all that has been learned.” (p. 12) Just as an athlete views practices as a chance to learn and grow, our students should view formative assessment in the same manner. This is a time to practice, communicate, make mistakes, receive feedback, and grow. When the heavy lifting is done in the formative assessment paradigm, summative assessment simply becomes a celebration of learning. As educators, we need to make sure that we have gathered enough evidence that we, as well as the students, know how they will perform walking into a summative assessment.

“Because of the way I provided feedback, I can tell you every kid’s strengths and what they need to work on next.”
When we teach to the standards, we have a very clear idea of what we need students to learn. When we change our language to focus on learning those standards, students have a clear idea of what their target is. When our assessments are aligned to the standards, we have the ability to help our students narrow in on that target. Providing students with actionable, meaningful feedback will give them the tools to do just that. Goal oriented feedback always guides our learners along a path of greater learning, making it much more valuable than simple value judgement feedback. While I suppose feedback like “good job” is appreciated, it does not inspire the student to take the next step in his or her learning. We should view feedback as a new opportunity to guide students to think about their learning in a new way. Our feedback rarely, if ever, should simply provide a correct answer, but rather direct students to reconsider their initial response or encourage well-thought out responses. If students begin to see feedback as a helpful growth opportunity versus a negative judgement on their abilities, they are no longer paralyzed by the goal of achieving a certain grade and are freed to be imperfect in the process of learning. When we, as educators, change the way we provide feedback to look at where students currently are, what they understand, and what they need to do next, we have a much clearer picture of the strengths and areas for growth of each student. After all, Hattie (2008) has shown that the single factor that has the greatest impact on student achievement is feedback.

“My grades are valid and accurate. They truly represent student learning.”
As the clinical student and I moved through our experience together, we talked about this topic often. She told me how she always understood the “game of school” and was really good at accumulating points to achieve the desired “A.” However, we also talked about how that “A” didn’t truly represent her most recent or most consistent understanding. In many classes she was able to put forth a great effort to achieve that desired level, regardless of her understanding. It made the focus of her schooling point accumulation, instead of learning. In a standards-based classroom the grade you deliver to students and other educational stakeholders represents only one thing: student achievement against the standards. It is imperative that behaviors (work habits, respect, attendance, etc.) are removed from the academic grade. These habits are just as important, but need to be reported separately as not to distort the whole picture of student achievement. By only reporting most recent or most consistent evidence of achievement of the standards, we are communicating a clear picture of student understanding. Schimmer (2016) says, “When schools allow an endless number of combinations or interpretations in grading, the reported data become ambiguous. If schools ensure that grades are only about achievement, they are more likely to convey a clear and consistent message.” (p. 24)

“I feel like there is an overall hopeful feeling. Everyone feels like they can and will be successful.”
We need to establish a culture that supports risk taking. It students are penalized for their early attempts at learning or our marks or grades are punitive in nature, they have the ability to crush confidence and hinder student learning. When our feedback in the formative assessment paradigm instead looks at each students current level of understanding and provides next steps for learning, we have the ability to give students the tools to improve their proficiency with standards. Students who take longer to learn aren’t punished by us focusing on what they did wrong. Rather, we are able to take that student at their current place and provide them tools to improve. At the same time, higher achieving learners don’t hit a desired level of achievement and stop learning. The journey continues as we always direct students to push themselves in the right direction. Scriffiny (2008) adds that, “…talented students can be truly challenged in a standards-based classroom because if they show early master of fundamental skills and concepts, they can then concentrate on more challenge work that is at higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy or that seeks connections among objectives.” In a standards-based learning classroom, we recognize the unique qualities of each learner and can personalize our instruction and feedback.

Teaching in a standards-based grading system has the power to overhaul the learning process and put students in the driver’s seat of their educational journey. We stop playing the game of school and show students what is truly important — their learning. We just need to take that initial leap to see the change it elicits in our teaching and in our students. As my clinical student and I wrapped up our conversation, she stopped to thank me. She said that without this experience she would have went into her teaching career assessing the same way she had been assessed. It’s time to do what is best for our students.


Erkens, C. (2016). Collaborative common assessments: Teamwork. Instruction. Results. Indiana: Solution Tree.

Scriffiny, P. L. (2008). Seven reasons for standards-based grading. Educational Leadership, 66(2), 70-74.

Schimmer, T. (2016). Grading from the inside out: Bringing accuracy to student assessment through a standards-based mindset. Indiana: Solution Tree.

Hattie, J. & Timperley, H. (2008). The Power of Feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1),81-112.


  1. Chad Guge

    Thank you Ms. Stalets for your insights, and for sharing your journey on Standards-based assessment. We do need more educators like you working with young teachers who need to start their careers with this understanding. Do you have any suggestions for how to approach this topic with more veteran teachers who are resistant to change? Thank you again and I look forward to hearing more from you.

    • Mandy Stalets

      Thanks for visiting the blog, Chad! Grading is personal and change is hard – we need to respect that when approaching teachers that might resist the change. Before making the commitment to standards-based grading, schools need to first work on implementing sound assessment practices such as removing behaviors from the academic grade, making sure we have a balanced assessment system, allowing retakes for full credit, etc. When we make these changes and communicate the why to students, they become the best advocates for making the change to standards-based learning and grading. They will start seeing the problem with allowing early attempts at learning to hurt their grade. They will also start to understand the point of practice (homework) and find value in actionable feedback and they will crave that in all of their classes. Allow their voices to be heard and give them a platform to speak on. For example, in year 2 of my switch we had an open house to introduce standards-based grading to new parents and instead of us being on the panel, it was all students. These students understood themselves as learners, were able to articulate their strengths and next steps, and advocated for this change. Teachers who had not made the change were amazed and started to buy in. It is critical to change the mindset first. Beyond that, make sure to celebrate and communicate the successes you see in your own classroom. The student who might not produce work in other classes might be working for you because you don’t grade punitively and you focus on next steps in their learning. Share those success and what aspects of standards-based learning helped to bring out the best in that learner.

  2. Shana Kelley

    Thank you for your recent blog. I am thinking about making the switch to SBG for my biology course. I am not sure my students will do homework if I’m not holding them accountable, but I am hoping that problem will solve itself when they don’t perform well on the summative assessments so they see its value.

    However, I am hoping you can clarify a few things for me:

    1. For each standard, students take part in one to multiple formative assessments and then when they feel ready they can take the summative assessment. Is this correct?

    2. Is a summative assessment over one standard, or do you combine multiple standards for one summative?

    3. Do your students have time to reassess during class?


    • Amy Struble

      Have you started to make the switch? Our district is wanting us to begin this transition and I have no idea how to start. I teach Biology I, Biology II, Anatomy/Physiology. Biology I is required for 9th, Biology II is for 10th/11th, and AP for 12th. I would love any help you could throw my way.

  3. Mandy Stalets

    Hi Shana! Thanks for visiting the blog. Yes, students should have multiple attempts at learning as we guide them towards proficiency of the standards. As a general rule, I try to formatively assess students three times before a summative assessment is given. I always tell my students that summative assessments should be a celebration of learning – there shouldn’t be any surprises and they should know exactly how they are going to score walking into a summative assessment. Having said that, there will always be students that master a standard early and some that need more time and we continue the learning even after a summative is given so we will need flexibility. The wonderful thing about Standards-Based Grading is that there isn’t one clear way to implement so we need to find something that works for our classroom. My summative assessment will almost always assess multiple standards. As for retakes, I think that varies depending on the unit and the class. If I want students to revise based off of my feedback, I will build that time into my class period. However, because of the individual needs of each student building it into class is not always possible. I utilize their study hall periods and after school as well. Please let me know if you have any other questions!


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