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

My Journey to Standards-Based Learning

Early on in my career I was a very traditional grader. Homework was scored, retakes weren’t allowed, and I even gave extra credit. I’m not proud of this, but it’s the truth and helped shape the educator I am today. I realize now that I was teaching my students to play the game of school. They were to accumulate the desired amount of points to be rewarded with the grade they were working towards.

I did this because it was the way I was graded as I went through school and I didn’t know anything different. However, as time went on, I started to question some of the decisions I was making in the classroom when it came to assessment and grading. After I would post quiz or test scores in the online grade book, I would often get bombarded with emails from parents asking what their child misunderstood and what they could do to help their child’s understanding. Parents would see all of their child’s hard work and studying at home summed up with a singular number with no meaning behind it. Also, my grades weren’t accurate. They were often inflated or deflated by meaningless points and their grades did not represent their understanding of the standards. Although there were many grades in my grade book, they lacked substance and meaning. The focus wasn’t where it should be – on their learning. It has been several years since I started the process of grading reform and I’d like to share a little bit about my journey.

I realized I needed to start by removing behaviors from my academic grades so that I was not distorting the whole picture of student achievement. When we look at implementing sound grading and assessment practices the first and most important question that we need to ask ourselves is: What do our grades represent? If our answer is anything besides the student’s achievement of the standards, it is time that we overhaul our current grading practices. In a standards-based classroom the grade you deliver to students represents only one thing: student achievement against the standards. While behaviors such as work habits, respect, attendance, etc. are just as important, they need to be reported separately.

Next, I needed to know my standards. Truly, deeply know my standards. Wormeli (2006) states that a clear target is easier to hit.  If students know exactly what is expected of them, it is more likely that they hit that target. I needed to know what type of learning I was trying to create and what proficiency looked like. I also needed to know pre-requisite skills and underpinnings of the standards so that I could scaffold my instruction. Standards are at the core of all learning experiences for our students. They guide and build our instruction, help us develop our assessment, and give us a guide for providing feedback. They are our roadmap and provide clarity for units of study for students and teachers. I realized that before I could expect learners to understand their expectations, I would need to learn how to communicate those expectations. This process included deconstructing my standards, looking at success criteria, and going through the backwards design process to plan units of study. Covey states that, “To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you’re going so you better understand where you are now so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.” By being able to provide that clarity about the destination to myself, I could better plan routes for my students and redirect them when they are wandering from the path.

Feedback has also been an integral part of my reform. I realized that students wouldn’t know the next steps to take and how to improve their understanding if I didn’t provide them a target and help point them in the right direction. Feedback has been described as “the most powerful single moderator that enhances achievement.” (Hattie, 1999) I had to change my focus from point accumulation to put the focus on learning. Instead of telling students what they got right and wrong, I started recognizing where they were currently at and providing next steps for their learning. I saw my role transform from teacher to coach. Just as an athlete goes to practice to improve and get feedback about next steps, my classroom became a similar environment. Actionable feedback provides next steps, gives clarity, and coaches students through the learning process by narrowing the target.

I also started focusing more on having a balanced assessment system. One of the Solution Tree Assessment Center tenets tells us that assessment architecture (design) is most effective when it is planned, purposeful, and intentionally sequenced in advance of instruction by all of those responsible for the delivery. I realized that I would have to do the heavy lifting in the formative assessment paradigm and by the time we reached a summative assessment, students would not only know how they would perform, but it would be a celebration of learning. Cassandra Erkens says, “The summatives should simply serve as a public celebration of how much learning has happened along the way. In light, formative assessments might actually be more ‘dull’ because like the hard work on daily practice, they represent the little parts of scaffolding that can only lead to the big game.” By infusing formative assessment into everyday instruction and providing actionable feedback along the way, students became increasingly self-aware and it helped to increase hope, efficacy, and student achievement.

Gone are the days when grades were a mathematical mystery. When I teach to standards and report by the standards, all educational stakeholders immediately know what skills the students are working on, as well as standards that they have mastered and standards that need more work. Instead of an online grade book saying that a student has an 82%, they now see all of the standards he or she was assessed on and scores on a proficiency scale representing their most recent evidence. What I have found several years into my journey is that students are now the drivers of their own learning. I honestly never imagined that my journey to standards-based learning would create such creative, independent learners and make me such a better teacher. Student are aware of their current place in their learning journey and they can articulate next steps. They understand the importance of practice (even if it isn’t for points) and have put their focus where it belongs – on their learning.


Covey, S. R. (2012). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change. S.l.: FranklinCovey Co.

Erkins, C. (2015). Cinderella Summatives.  Retrieved from

Hattie, J 1999, Influences on Student Learning. Inaugural Lecture: Professor of Education, University of Auckland (downloaded August 2015 from student-learning.pdf)

Wormeli, R. (2006). Fair isn’t always equal. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishing.


  1. Mark Peterson

    I’ve been on the same journey and it has been such a transformational ride, for myself and my students. Thanks for sharing!


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