Tom Schimmer is an author and a speaker with expertise in assessment, grading, leadership, and behavioral support. He is a former district-level leader, school administrator, and teacher.

Standards-Based Grading: A Million Little Things

Currently, one of my favorite television shows is A Million Little Things on ABC. It’s a show about a group of adult friends who, under unexpected circumstances, come together to support each other through an incredibly difficult time; the range of experiences is intense and the solutions often layered and complicated by their own personal stories. That said, the premise of the show (for this conversation) is not as relevant as the show’s tagline.

Borrowing the popular expression, the fundamental principle that drives the show is that friendship isn’t one big thing—it’s a million little things; that their support for one another is in the daily things they do, not the epic moments. After watching the first few episodes, that premise got me thinking that moving to standards-based grading (SBG) has a similar premise; that it’s not one big thing, but a million little things.

Let’s begin with a question: Is reassessment part of standards-based grading? While most would answer affirmatively, this question actually entails two of the million little questions that schools or districts must answer. Standards-based grading is simply grades based on the achievement of standards; reassessment asks how many opportunities will students be afforded to meet those standards? While the two are often synonymous in execution, consider that a teacher using traditional grading practices can offer retests, while one grading based on standards might not. For this reason, schools and districts moving to a standards-based grading model must answer a million little questions.

There is both good news and bad news with this prospect. The good news is that schools and districts get to shape their grading practices and policies for their context. The bad news is that schools and districts have to shape their grading practices and policies for their context. This, at least in my experience, explains why the implementation models can look different from school to school (or district to district) even though both might be implementing SBG; it is also one reason why the change can take longer than expected.

It would certainly be simpler if there were a shrink-wrapped binder with step-by-step instructions to purchase, but there isn’t. While we have no shortage of research that provides the most favorable course of action when it comes to assessment—and grading is assessment—there are still so many aspects where schools and districts will have to decide which direction to go in. As long as those decisions don’t violate any principles of sound assessment (i.e. validity), schools are free to make contextually sensitive choices about grading.

Yes, there are books that provide guidance on the depth and breadth of the most favorable practices, but schools and districts still have to answer the million little questions for their own context. The easy part is to make a proclamation, such as down with percentage grades; the more challenging part is to find a workable solution when a school’s current gradebook only accepts percentage-based scores. Solutions are more challenging, especially when the solutions are less than perfect (something I wrote about in my blog Acceptable Alternatives).

Questions to Consider

While any attempt to list the million little questions would be futile, here is just a sampling of a few. Consider each question you might face as a sort of implementation flowchart; each question is another pivot-point that continues to shape what SBG looks like in your school or district. Assuming a move to SBG has been decided, a sampling of questions could include:

  • What non-achievement attributes and characteristics will be taught and assessed?
  • How will the non-achievement attributes and characteristics be taught and assessed?
  • Will the non-achievement attributes and characteristics be reported? If so, how?
  • How will we hold students accountable if we don’t reduce scores for late work?
  • Can a student still pass a class if they haven’t completed all of the assignments?
  • How will we respond to cheating without distorting a student’s achievement level?
  • Will we use the most recent or the more recent evidence as the most accurate?
  • Is it ever okay to average across standards? Across strands?
  • How many reassessment opportunities will students be afforded? Is there ever a limit?
  • Is there ever a time (or grade level) where reassessment is not offered to students?
  • How do we ensure students do their homework when it isn’t graded?
  • How can we use homework more formatively to guide instructional decisions?
  • Does a student’s grade depend on who their teacher is? Who is in their class?
  • Will we use letter grades (A–F), numbers (0–4), or leveled descriptors?
  • Are there differences between an A, a 4, and an Exemplary? Are they the same?
  • How will we disassociate levels from predetermined percentage increments?

I could go on; you get the point.

As schools and districts reshape grading practices and policies, some things can’t be rushed. The point is to get it right, so thinking through these questions in real-time will allow the practices and policies to grow more organically; you need not answer these million little questions before beginning to shift. Some questions may not emerge until you answer others, while some may be a non-issue once you get to that point. You can literally start tomorrow by answering your first question, which will lead to the second one, and so on.

Below is an admittedly oversimplified sequence (for a high school) that is designed to illustrate this point:

Question Potential Answer
What is a grade? A grade is a way of reporting a student’s overall achievement levels with the standards in the classes within which they are enrolled.
How do we ensure that grades only represent levels of achievement? We establish clear criteria that is directly connected to the standard(s) being assessed, at the appropriate cognitive complexity. That way, achievement and student characteristics are kept separate.
Are we keeping our A–F scale? Yes. We feel at this time changing the scale would be too disruptive to parents and students.
Does that mean we are keeping percentage-based grades? No. We are going to redefine A–F as Exemplary through Insufficient evidence.
Why use A–F if they are no longer connected to percentages? For college and university applications and transcripts. While we want grades to be more standards-based, we think changing the symbols we use to report right now would be too disruptive.
Is Exemplary through Insufficient the same for every class? Yes. We are going to define each level in a subject-neutral way so that each teacher can use similar language when building their rubrics.

And it goes on.

Now, imagine a school answers no to the question about keeping A–F symbols; that’s a different pivot. A few more of those and the implementation in that school will look different than in another. Who’s right? Both are. One school might feel changing A–F symbols goes one step too far, while another believes it’s exactly what is needed to signal the significance of the change. Again, as long as we adhere to sound assessment practices and principles there is much to be decided about what we want the grading experience to look and feel like. Remember, grading is not just a clinical exercise so often the answers to the million little questions will also take student hope and efficacy into consideration; answers that undermine student optimism and confidence are counter-productive.

Take the necessary time to think through each of the million little pivot-points as you go through your journey. Each subsequent question will emerge from the answer to the previous one, and while the point is not for schools and districts to be different for the sake of being different, contextualizing your grading practices and policies is not only possible, it’s necessary. Use other schools as models and examine what other teachers have done, but never forget that every practice or policy has to be vetted through the lens of what’s best for your students, your parent community, and your school or district.



  1. Benjamin Nockles

    This is the first article of your that I’ve read. It’s so relevant! These are questions we are asking ourselves regularly and each one leads to more questions.


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)