Garnet Hillman is an instructional coach at Caruso Middle School in Illinois. Also a writer and presenter, she consults around the country on assessment, grading, and student motivation.

Standards-Based Grading the Right Way

My son began his high school career this fall and has had what I would consider a successful transition. He didn’t get used to his new surroundings, teachers, or student population overnight, but with time, he has grown comfortable and really enjoys the new setting. Not everything has gone perfectly, but he has responded when obstacles have arisen. Before school started we talked about what he would need to do this year to find the success he desired; we discussed what would be similar and different between his junior high and high school experiences. He wanted to get it right. But we also had to talk about the unknown, the things that he just wouldn’t know about until he got there, what he wouldn’t understand until he lived it. As uncomfortable as that may have been, this is transition and learning. For teachers, a change in grading practices can run parallel to this experience.

To begin the conversation about grading practices, it is important to remember it is a transition. Effective implementation of standards-based grading is a process, and it does not happen by changing everything at once. In fact, there will be systems and practices that may not change in a standards-based system, along with those that will need to change. By taking the time to analyze current practices before making decisions about how to move forward, teachers are setting themselves up for success. They will find affirmation as well as challenge.

When I work with teachers, I do find a common theme: teachers want to implement standards-based grading in the right way. Teachers want the best for their students, and many of them want the right answer to the question “How do I make this work in my classroom?” The tricky part is that the question is a very open-ended one. There are many right answers, and they depend on not only the teacher, but also the students, parents, and community at large.

With a solid foundation in the standards-based mindset, teachers will grow comfortable making decisions about implementation. When teachers keep their focus on student learning, standards-based practices make sense. Grading practices can support learning and build student confidence. Grades are able to accurately represent academic achievement, behaviors, and growth when they are reported separately. When teachers have an in-depth understanding of their standards and align their assessment, instruction, and practice to them, confidence grows. As the environment leans heavier on formative assessment and feedback and lighter on grades, learning takes center stage and drives student motivation.

Teachers also need to remember that they don’t know what they don’t know. There will be some things throughout this transition that they won’t know until they live it, just as with my son’s transition to high school. This can be uncomfortable for teachers, but they will make the best decisions possible based on their learning, prior knowledge, and professional judgement, remembering that changes can be made as they learn and grow.

Critical Guidelines for Successful Implementation

In his book How to Grade for Learning (2018, p. 303), Ken O’Connor identifies seven critical guidelines for successful implementation based on his own experiences as well as contributions from practicing educators:

  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate with every method you have available.
  2. Ensure that there is clarity and consensus about the purpose, which should be to create a culture of learning.
  3. Determine the appropriate balance of pressure (policies/procedures and timelines) and support (studying, reading, talking, and professional development).
  4. Plan with the end in mind, but be willing to adjust.
  5. Utilize diverse committees/task forces/teams, but be transparent about which decisions will be made by administrators and which decisions will be reached by consensus.
  6. Be clear about what will change and what will not change.
  7. Be courageous and persistent.

When asked about the right way to implement standards-based grading, my advice would be to follow the aforementioned guidelines and take the transition one step at a time. It all comes down to student learning in the end, and if our grading and assessment practices can work in harmony with that goal, the right way forward will be made clear.



O’Connor, K. (2018). How to grade for learning: Linking grades to standards. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, a SAGE Company.

Schimmer, T., Hillman G., & Stalets, M. (2018). Standards-Based Learning in Action. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

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