Grading for Communication NOT Compensation

For school leaders to demonstrate trust in the areas of instruction and assessment, it requires being up-to-date on the latest research-based best practices, and guiding schools through the current reformation, which is taking place throughout the educational world. One significant example of this is the shift to instructional and assessment practices, which utilize Standards-Based Reporting (SBR).[1] SBR is quickly becoming universal in schools today. Many teachers and administrators struggle with this shift, even when the many benefits of SBR are well known.[2] Competent school leaders develop systems that guide and support teachers through the transition process from a traditional grading system to a more authentic and meaningful SBR system.[3]

I have witnessed school leaders recognize the value and benefits of SBR and then simply instruct their teachers to implement the practice, without providing the necessary PD and support for teachers to be successful. Academic leaders and teachers need a clear process to move from the traditional style of instruction and grading, to one that creates meaningful learning support. This takes time, unity, vision, clarity, intentionality, and buy-in from all stakeholders.

When implemented well, SBR provides meaningful, detailed, and helpful feedback for students, which results in increased levels of learning and student achievement.[4] As mentioned earlier, Feedback for Learning is the single most helpful teaching strategy when increasing the levels of student achievement. Grading tied directly to very specific criteria and clearly understood by the student, results in more meaningful feedback.

When students receive clear feedback, rather than a subjective letter-grade, it provides them with concrete steps to improve their level of understanding and academic performance. Effective feedback gives students an actionable path to visualize their own success. This is key to improving student motivation, which is essential to students owning and pursuing their academic engagement.[5]

Research has shown that SBR practices result in dramatically higher student achievement compared to students in schools still practicing traditional instructional and assessment methods. What keeps schools from quickly embracing SBR? The answer may be the fact that grading practices are part of the DNA of schools, communities, and even societies. Moving to a more meaningful and student-centered form of assessment requires “educators, students, and parents to reframe their existing beliefs and expectations about grades.”[6] All school stakeholders must realize that grades are far more meaningful when viewed as a tool for communication rather than a means of compensation.

For generations the work of grading has been seen as teachers compensating students for their work. Grades were viewed as a form of reward. This approach is not helpful in increasing student achievement levels. SBR holds to a different paradigm in which grading is a means of communicating to the student not only where they are in relation to a certain learning standard, but also a pathway toward further improvement.

Competent leaders understand it will take time for schools to make the transition from a traditional grading model to an authentic and meaningful SBR model (i.e. literally years), and they provide a very workable and doable process to accomplish that transition, beginning with prioritizing learning outcomes. This work begins first by reflecting on the school’s mission, vision, and values. No two schools are alike; nor are their educational programs, even if aligned to similar standards such as the Common Core. Competent leaders prioritize which standards are of greatest value in meeting the unique mission and vision of their school’s educational program. They ensure that proficiency scales are in place to assess when those standards are met. Both of these steps are foundational to a successful SBR program.

Competent leaders provide a clear process to assist teams of teachers in the prioritization of the desired learning outcomes and the scales to demonstrate proficiency of those standards. When teachers reference common proficiency scales, there is greater consistency between classrooms and greater collaboration. For administrators, a higher level of consistency and collaboration also helps when resourcing the school, and greatly streamlines planning and budgeting. When teachers work together, management of school resources becomes far more efficient.[7]

Common assessments are another part of SBR that provides opportunity for teachers to work in collaboration. After the standards are prioritized and proficiency scales for each standard have been crafted, teachers can effectively create assessments, which authentically measure where students are in relationship to a specific desired learning outcome. This task, however, may require the support of assessment specialist and additional PD for teachers to create quality assessments that triangulate the data.[8] Competent instructional and assessment leaders guide their teachers in the utilization of multiple forms of assessment for each learning standard. Those forms may include obtrusive assessments (e.g. quizzes, tests, exams, etc.); unobtrusive assessments (e.g. observations, classroom discussions, etc.); and student-generated assessments (e.g. reflections, rubric reviews, etc.). All three assessments should be utilized when determining what a student knows and what they are able to do in relation to any given standard, thus providing better levels of assessment data through triangulation.

Valid quality assessments are not easily designed. Teachers must ensure assessments are appropriate for the maturity level of the learners, are free from any kind of bias, and can be understood at the Lexile level of the students being assessed.[9] Competent instructional leaders know in backward design lesson planning, the learning assessment is the critical starting point for all classroom activity.[10] They cannot expect teachers to create meaningful and effective lessons plans without first knowing how the learning will be assessed.

One of the fundamental elements of SBR, and the value of Feedback for Learning as an instructional practice, is ensuring students having the opportunity to redo assignments. When students retake assessments, they can better demonstrate their growth in relationship to the standards being assessed.[11] This is a major difference from traditional grading, where students are provided a singular opportunity to demonstrate mastery and then are moved on to the next unit of study. Achievement levels increase when students have the opportunity to redo assignments, or retake tests after individualized and meaningful feedback.[12] When students have multiple opportunities to improve their work and demonstrate mastery of a standard, teachers gain confidence in what their students actually know and can produce.

As teachers determine learning activities and assignments to guide students toward mastery of any given learning standard, identifying or creating said activities and assignments becomes far more doable with clear scales of proficiency. Thus, the need for proficiency scales to be in place.[13] Purposeful learning activities and assignments must be scored directly in light of the proficiency scale of the standard assessed through those activities or assignments; and only in relationship to the learning standard. No other elements should be a part of the academic grade.

Many schools have permitted non-academic and non-standards-based elements in teacher’s grading practices. However, this is antithetical to authentic SBR. There must be a clear separation of academic and nonacademic grades; especially removing the assessment of behaviors. If school leaders truly wish for report cards to reflect student achievement, they must relegate reporting on behavioral issues to another medium or form. Of course, this also means report cards must be redesigned as schools transition to SBR so these serve as clear communication tools regarding where the students are in relation to the learning standards and identifying specific areas within those standards requiring additional work.

One significant challenge faced by schools establishing a fair and equitable grading policy is grading students identified as exceptional. This includes:

(1) students with disabilities or diagnosed learning challenges,

(2) students in a learning environment predominantly conducted in a language other than their native language, and

(3) those students who are either slow learners or gifted learners. In schools still practicing traditional grading models, the “grading practices for exceptional students can be capricious and unfair.”[14]

Often, for students falling into these categories, grading accuracy is questioned not just by parents and students but also the teachers themselves.[15] The means to avoid these challenges is found in establishing prioritized standards reflected by proficiency scales, which remove all doubt as to the student’s level of competency. It can be argued that schools discard the old 100% or letter grading scale all together, and embrace a 4.0 grading scale.[16] Within that scale the 3.0 indicator represents mastery of the standard. This provides ample room for gifted students to demonstrate their abilities, and at the high school level, this scale very easily translates into the Grade Point Average (GPA), which nearly all North American colleges and universities require. Within a 4.0 grading scale adaptations can be made to reflect the educational needs of individual exceptional students. “Using proficiency scales with accommodations or modifications can create a fair and consistent grading system that meets the needs of all students, including those with disabilities, EL (sic) students, and gifted learners.”[17]

School leaders who are competent in fostering clear communication, team mobilization, and a commitment to strategies best supporting student learning and achievement, can successfully lead a school through the transition from traditional grading to authentic and meaningful SBR. As a school administrator who took his campus through this very process, I can attest to the great value of our leadership team providing our faculty with a clear, detailed, and segmented outline for the transition. With the support of a unified leadership team, the 4-year-long process was accomplished; and that was the secret of our success. All of our academic leaders shared the same commitment to SBR. When stakeholders doubted the benefits of SBR, our unity of purpose sustained us. Yet, as our stakeholders saw that all members of the leadership had done their homework, and were all able ambassadors of the needed changes, those with doubts more quickly embraced and participated in the change. The pace of the transition is unique to every school setting, but my advice to other school leaders is do not embark on the journey of moving their schools to SBR unless first they possess the unified support of their entire leadership team.

To be successful, school leaders must cultivate collaborative cultures and productive structures necessary to move the initiative forward. Teachers need time to process with one another, try new ideas, receive feedback from peers, and – over time – change existing philosophies. A culture of support, trust, and modeling is important.[18]

That modeling begins with the competent leader who demonstrates his or her own expertise and knowledge of curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices. This results in deeper levels of trust.

©2017 Toby A. Travis, Ed.D.


[1] Marco A. Muñoz and Thomas R. Guskey, “Standards-based grading and reporting will improve education,” Kappan 96, no. 7 (2015): 64-68.

[2] Thomas R. Guskey, Gerry M. Swan, and Lee Ann Jung, “Grades that Mean Something: Kentucky Develops Standards-Based Report Cards,” Phi Delta Kappan 93, no. 2 (2011): 52-57.

[3] Kyle Spencer, “Standards-Based grading,” Education Digest 78, no. 3 (2012): 4-10.

[4] Theresa A. Craig, “Effects of standards-based report cards on student learning,” ProQuest Dissertations and Theses (2011): n. pag.

[5] Sitwat Saeed and David Zyngier, “How Motivation Influences Student Engagement: A Qualitative Case Study,” Journal of Education and Learning 1, no. 2 (2012): 252-267.

[6] Tammy Heflebower and Jan K. Hoegh, A School Leader’s Guide to Standards-Based Grading (Bloomington, IN: Marzano Research, 2014), 449, Kindle.

[7] Ann Marie Thomson, James L. Perry, and Theodore K. Miller, “Conceptualizing and measuring collaboration,” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 19, no. 1 (2009): 23-56.

[8] A recognized best practice for making summative judgements on a learning standard is that of utilizing at least three types of assessment in order to establish a final grade – thus “triangulation of data.”

[9] “Lexile,” Wikipedia, accessed 22 June 2016,

[10] Jay McTighe and Ronald S. Thomas, “Backward Design for Forward Action,” Educational Leadership 60, no. 5 (2003): 52-55.

[11] Veronica Frisancho, Kala Krishna, Sergey Lychagin, and Cemile Yavas, “Better luck next time: Learning through retaking,” Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 125, (2016): 120-135.

[12] Rick Stiggins and Rick DuFour, “Maximizing the Power of Formative Assessments,” Phi Delta Kappan 90, no. 9 (2009): 640-644.

[13] Sun-Young Shin, “Proficiency Scales,” The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics John Wiley & Sons, Inc. (2012).

[14] Heflebower and Hoegh, A School Leader’s Guide to Standards-Based Grading, 1711, Kindle.

[15] Lee Ann Jung and Thomas R. Guskey, “Grading exceptional learners,” Educational Leadership 67, no. 5 (2010): 31-35.

[16] Robert J. Marzano, “Formative assessment & standards-based grading,” Classroom Strategies That Work (2010): xiii, 167 p.

[17] Heflebower and Hoegh, A School Leader’s Guide to Standards-Based Grading, 1717, Kindle.

[18] Ibid., 2249-2251, Kindle.

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