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 as a Game Changer

“What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” – Jane Goodall

Why should I make a change in my grading practices? What difference does it make moving to a standards based system from a traditional one? Given the current climate of education with initiative after initiative piling up, why is this endeavor worthy of my time and consideration? If the goal is to put learning first and help students stop gaming the system to earn grades, we are primed for a shift in paradigm and practice. Learning is not a game with winners and losers, nor does it have a finish line. Standards based grading supports learning above all else and solves the problem of students playing the game of school. The collection of points for a myriad of reasons fades away, and the classroom experience ceases to be about the quantifiable value of assignments and assessments. Instead, the process of learning is the focal point.

There are unspoken risks we take with a traditional grading system. Students may not be acquiring the knowledge, skills, and understandings to be successful in further study because of inflated grades and/or a hyper focus on grades over learning. Others still may have lower grades because of behaviors such as late work or non-compliance. The risk of miscommunicating student proficiency levels increases within a traditional system. If grades are going to be meaningful, they need to provide accurate information. Below are five examples of how a change in grading practices will make a positive impact in classrooms and schools.

  1. Learning is valued over grades
    According to Danny Hill (2014), “Learning cannot be secondary.” (p.59) This concept was not at the forefront of my thinking as a beginning teacher. Of course it wasn’t that I didn’t value learning; it was because I hadn’t considered the impact of grading on the classroom culture. I didn’t think twice about the fact that my students were more focused on grades than learning, and I wasn’t helping the issue. Once identified, this problem had a solution. A change in grading practices for my students and myself was in order. As educators, we have to reflect and make sure the focus of everything we do and communicate to our students is on learning. We cannot begin classroom conversations about assignments and assessments with a discussion of points and grading procedures. Rather, center the attention on learning and the journey to mastery. The students will follow suit.
  2. Evidence from assessment is clearly aligned to standards in order to be meaningful
    An assessment, whether formative or summative, is inconsequential unless it gives relevant and valid information for both the teacher and the student to utilize. The information gathered should facilitate a call to action and yield a clear path forward. With standards based assessment and grading, every assessment is aligned to a learning target and designed to inform future instruction and practice. Cassandra Erkens (2016) states, “Identifying and understanding the learning targets is imperative to a team’s ability to create an accurate assessment.” (p. 9–10) This alignment process maximizes class time and streamlines the process by which students learn.
  3. Grades reflect learning
    When it comes time to determine a grade, standards based grading provides a more straightforward process in lieu of combining various behaviors, student growth, and academic achievement into one grade. These are separated into independent categories for reporting, as all three are important to communicate clearly. If, for example, a student shows mastery of the standard, but is not timely with his or her work, one letter grade combining the these two aspects of performance would be an inaccurate representation of academic achievement. The separation not only gives clarity, but also weight to the different categories. Behaviors and growth can’t inflate or deflate an academic grade when they are reported independently.
  4. Intrinsic motivation drives learning
    Extrinsic motivation can only take students so far. “In environments where extrinsic rewards are most salient, many people work only to the point that triggers the reward – and no further.” (Pink, Daniel, 2009, p.56) In my classroom experience, extrinsic motivators worked against what I was trying to achieve and were counterproductive to the task of making learning the center of the classroom. “As motivation to get good grades goes up, motivation to explore ideas tends to go down.” (Kohn, Alfie, 1999, p. 40-42, 44-46) Students need the opportunity to persevere in a safe environment through challenges and adversity. With support and guidance throughout the learning process and path to success, intrinsic motivation blooms.
  5. Grades are determined and communicated with clarity
    I couldn’t tell you how many different grading policies under which I functioned throughout my experiences as a student. Each teacher had a complex algorithm for determining grades, and it was my job to figure out how to play the game. In a standards based system, there is no algorithm. Instruction, practice, and assessment are all aligned to the standards. Standards and learning targets are transparently communicated to students as well as what each proficiency level means. The scale is significantly shortened to 2-7 levels from 101 in a traditional percentage setting. Students and teachers alike can take evidence of learning, compare it to a standard, and determine a proficiency level for grading.

Standards based grading is a game changer. Just as a pair of glasses takes what we see from blurry to crisp and clear, a shift in grading methods provides an accurate picture of where a student is at that moment in time. The grading practices and policies we use make a difference and have a significant impact on student learning. The question is, what kind of difference do you want to make?


Erkens, Cassandra. (2016). Collaborative Common Assessments. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Hill, Danny. (2014). Brick House: How to Defeat Student Apathy by Building a Brick House Culture. Lebanon, TN: JJ & Zak.

Kohn, Alfie. (1999, November). The Cost of Overemphasizing Achievement. School Administrator, 56(10), p. 40-42,

Pink, Daniel. (2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

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