The Must Have

Teachers are thieves.  We talk with other teachers and steal what is working in their classrooms for our own.  It’s a celebrated part of the culture and one of the reasons that I became a teacher.  It’s important as teachers to collaborate with others and to hone our craft by using and adapting things that are proven to work.

What I’m writing about today is one of these stolen ideas.

Three years ago when I was just starting to put together a plan for standards based grading, I was talking to a colleague about my frustrations with students “taking assignments off,” or intentionally skipping assignments because they had enough points already accumulated to get the grade they wanted.  This wonderful teacher told me that she had had the same problem, so she had made some assignments in her class “unmissable.”  For her major projects, she told her students that they would fail her class if they didn’t do them because they were so important for their learning.

I really liked this idea, so I tried it with my sophomore English class who was getting ready to write a paper.  I told them that they couldn’t miss it, or they wouldn’t pass the class.  They groaned and complained, but I told them it wasn’t a negotiation (because I had to be tough like that, right?).

What happened is that my students that didn’t want to do the assignment, didn’t really do it, but they turned something in that was hastily and poorly done.  None of them came close to the prescribed parameters of the assignment.  I had told them to write a 750-word essay about the novel Tree Girl, and many of my didn’t-want-to-do-it-in-the-first-place students wrote fewer than 250 words only loosely related to the novel that they obviously hadn’t read.

I was massively frustrated.

I want back to my dear friend who had suggested the “unmissable” assignment and shared what had happened.  She explained that I had missed a step: the must have.  What I needed to do, she explained, was to make the parameters of the assignment unmissable as well.  She told me to think of what constituted “complete” with regards to the assignment and write that as a list of “must haves” that the students need to complete before the assignment will count as complete.

My mind was blown by the simplicity of this concept and by its potential to increase student achievement by making project completion the goal, not “well some points are better than none.”  At that point, I created a simple assignment template that I have used ever since and that has become a key in my standards based grading toolkit.

Assignment Template


So, in my class, not only are all assignments required to be completed, but they are also required to be completed at a minimum level of completion that can give me meaningful data about how that student is performing on standards in my class.  It has been such a powerful revelation to my students, who now can’t take the lazy way out.  Once that option is removed, many students rise to the challenge and produce high quality, thoughtful work that showcases their learning, not their ability to game the system for the grade they want.

The Need for Communication in Standards Based Grading

When I decided to give standards based grading a try in my classroom, one promise that I made to myself was that I would communicate with parents weekly.  I felt like it was important for me to communicate about what I was doing in class since I was the only one in the school using standards based grading.  However, weekly communication can be difficult, so it is important to find a system that will simplify the process.

The Mail Merge

In the beginning, I created a Google Spreadsheet version of the 3D Gradebook.  With a few custom Google Apps Scripts and some custom formulas, I was mostly able to get the functionality out of the spreadsheet that I wanted.

Using the spreadsheet, I was able to write a custom mail merge script fairly easily that would send a message out to all of my students and their parents that had a link to their personal spreadsheet, a list of missing assignments, and a brief overview of what we were doing in class that week.  The results of this weekly communication with parents were even better than I could have imagined.  Parents engaged in the learning process consistently because they were a part of it, and students tended to stay more on top of things because their parents were in the loop.

Because of this success, no matter how I grade or what I do in my classroom, weekly parental communication will always be a part of my teaching practice.

Using the 3D Gradebook Email Update Feature

At the top of this post is a screenshot of the 3D Gradebook email update screen.  When a teacher fills in the message box and hits send, every student on the class roster and their parents receive an email about with the message that the teacher typed, instructions about how to access the student portal, and a list of missing assignments like the sample below.


There is so much power in a simple email.   Not only does it keep students and parents informed of progress, but it also shows them that as a teacher, you care about them enough to keep them informed.  One of the most frequent comments that I get from students and their parents when I ask for feedback is that I genuinely care about their learning.  I believe that switching over to standards based grading requires a cultural change from teachers, students, and parents toward valuing student learning over grades and percentages, so the trust that comes from consistent communication is an invaluable component of changing that culture.

Tips for Using the Email Update Feature

  • Be consistent. I make sure that my class grades are updated at least once a week, and I try to make sure they are current on the same day each week.  On that same day each week, I send the email to parents.
  • Be detailed in your summary of what is happening in class.  I always share what we are reading, what major projects we are working on, and any collective successes or struggles we are having in class.  The more information you give to parents, the more they feel a part of what is happening in class.
  • Be concise.  When I first started sending emails home, I got a lot of feedback that my emails were too long and parents didn’t read them.  A paragraph or two is plenty.  Don’t take over the parents’ day by making them read your novel of an email.
  • Talk about how you are adapting curriculum based on the data you have collected from standards based grading.  Including a couple of sentences about how the class struggled with a certain concept, so you are going to reteach it in a different way shows parents and students that the learning process is important, and you are willing to use what is happening in class as a guide for what needs to happen in the future.  Be honest and transparent.
  • Show your personality.  I have a tendency to be stuffy when I write.  I can’t do that in emails home.  If I want parents to read my emails, I need to be personable and real.  That means letting a little of my personality seep into my writing.  That’s not always easy, but I think it’s important for parents and students to see us as real people.
  • Don’t panic if you miss a week or two.  We are very busy as teachers, and sometimes we will miss an email.  It’s fine.  Just get back on track as soon as possible.

Professional Judgement over Math

Well, after a week off of blogging to go present at InstructureCarn in beautiful Keystone, Colorado, I’m back at it.  I did get a pretty wonderful flat tire on the way home from the conference that tested my tire changing in 100+ degree heat skills.  I passed the test, and we made it home.

Over the last several days on Twitter and during my standards based grading presentation at InstructureCarn, I have been asked many times about how I aggregate standards scores into a current or final score.  For instance, if I have a student who has seven scores for standard 1–say: 1, 1, 2, 3, 3, 3, 4–how do I combine those into a single score for final grading or progress reports?

First, let me say that most student achievement scores aren’t nice and linear like the example above, so that complicates the matter a lot.  Second, there are lots of thoughts on how best to do this, so I want to break a few of them down first.

Common Thoughts on Aggregating Scores

  • Average: While this has been the standard in education (and in many other areas) for a long time, it has long outlived its usefulness and should be avoided.  Averages dilute the data and give no meaningful information to us as teachers.  The average of the scores above is 2.4, which would mean the student has not quite met proficiency with this standard, which I think is demonstrably false, considering that the last four scores are proficient or better.  I don’t feel confident as a professional with 2.4 as the final score for this student.
  • Decaying Average: This is the default method of the Canvas Learning Mastery Gradebook that comes preloaded in Canvas.  This method weighs the most recent score at a higher percentage than the older scores.  The default in Canvas is 65/35, although it can be set anyway that the teacher wants.  Using the default, the student above would have a final score of 3.35 or so, which is proficient, and I feel is more representative of where the student actually is as far as achievement.  However, one of the beautiful parts of standards based grading is simplicity. describing achievement levels from 1-4 is much less complicated than 1-100.  Using a decaying average muddies these waters a little bit by introducing decimals.
  • Most Recent: This method is espoused by many standards based grading practitioners and experts.  It posits that the most recent score is the closest representation of where a student actually is.  In our above example, the student would have a final score of 4, which I am also comfortable with for this student; however, as his teacher, I might want to see a couple more assessments where he scored 4 to be completely comfortable with this rating.  While I think that there is value in this method, I also have a little trepidation adopting it because of the variance of single assessments.  As I said above, student scores are rarely linear like our fictitious student we are talking about, and assessments are rarely 100% perfect as measures.  In order to feel completely comfortable with this method, I would have to be very comfortable with every assessment that I give.  I’m close to that level of comfort, but assessment is a difficult business to be sure about.
  • Mode: This is the default method of the 3D Gradebook. It takes the most frequently occurring score and makes it the current proficiency level score.  The theory behind it is that in order for a student to clearly demonstrate mastery, they need to do it consistently.  I tend to agree with this.  In our example above, the student would have a final score of 3.  As a professional, I’m probably okay with that score.  The student has obviously shown proficiency and is on his way to the advanced level.  He is obviously between a 3 and a 4 on the scale, so anywhere on that scale is going to be fairly accurate.  What I would do with this student is offer him the opportunity to retake one or two of the assessments that he earned threes on and see if he has taken the jump.  It would give him the opportunity to show that he has moved up a level by showing evidence of that learning on multiple measures.

Hiding Behind the Math

In his article “It’s Time to Stop Averaging Grades,” Rick Wormeli brings up an interesting point about the need for professional judgement in making final determinations about grades, not just a good math formula.  He tells a story of a student who came to him with a 93.4% score and asked about the possibility of being rounded up to 94%, the difference between an A- and an A.  Wormeli told the student that he couldn’t round up because that’s not how the math worked; if anything, he would have to round down.  He goes on to say,

I was hiding behind one-tenth of a percentage point. I should have interviewed the student intensely about what he had learned that grading period and made an executive decision about his grade based on the evidence of learning he presented in that moment. The math felt so safe, however, and I was weak. It wasn’t one of my prouder moments.

I think in the end, no matter what our “system” is for calculating grades and final proficiency levels, we need to remember Wormeli’s lesson from his anecdote.  It’s not the math that knows our students.  It’s not the math that understands their strengths and weaknesses, their proficiency levels, and their highs and lows.  It’s the teacher.  And, as teachers, it is our professional responsibility to assign grades and levels of mastery that we can justify as professionals as being representative of what our students know and can do.  No formula can do that 100% accurately all the time, so no matter which of the above systems we decide to use, we need to embrace our role as professionals and understand that the math doesn’t determine grades and final proficiency scores, we do.


My Grading Policy

This is taken from my course syllabus and explains how I grade.


I believe that grades should tell a story of achievement and mastery. They should be a reflection of what a student has learned and what a student can do. The following guidelines will inform grades in this class:

  1. Entries in the grade book that count towards the final grade will be limited to course or grade level standards.
    1. These entries will stay the same throughout the year. Each quarter, the complexity of the work on each standard will increase, leading to a high level of proficiency by the end of the school year.
    2. Each entry in the gradebook will be marked from a 0-4. A 4 indicates that an advanced level of mastery has been attained. A 3 indicates a proficient level of mastery. A 2 indicates a student that is approaching proficiency for that standard. And, a 1 indicates a still emerging knowledge of that standard. If there is a blank standard or a 0, it would indicate that I don’t have enough evidence to make that determination yet.
  2. Mastery of standards will be determined by in class assessments and projects. These assessments and projects will usually be scored using a rubric that students will have access to during the whole process. Students will know what is expected of them and what mastery looks like.
  3. Because grades are based on mastery of concepts, not points attained, students must complete every assessment or project in order to get a grade for the course.
  4. Because of the limitations of the SIS system, student assessment and project scores will be aggregated in a program called the 3D Gradebook that parents and students will have access to. SIS will only show the current level of performance on each standard. I would encourage you to track student progress in the 3D Gradebook. SIS and the 3D Gradebook will be updated by Monday morning each week.
  5. The final score for each standard will be determined by taking the mode (or the most frequently occurring) of all the data points.
  6. There will not be any extra credit available in this class.

Late Work and Retakes

Because of the nature of the grading system, late work and retakes will be allowed in this course under the following conditions:

  1. Students who miss work because of absences will be eligible to turn in their work when they return. They simply need to speak with me when they come back to make arrangements.
  2. Students wanting to turn in work late, retake an assessment, or redo a project must first fill out a “Request to Reassess” form available in my classroom. This form will require them to state the reasons for wanting to reassess or turn in the assignment late, what their plan is for mastering the standards before completing the assessment, how they will show evidence that they have completed their plan, and what deadlines they will meet during the reassessment process.
  3. The “Request to Reassess” form needs to be reviewed and accepted by me before any late work or retakes will be accepted. I may ask the student to revise their plan before accepting the request.
  4. Late work or retakes may be different than the original assignment at my discretion. Any quizzes or tests will definitely be different. Most projects will not.
  5. Late work and retakes will not be accepted the last week of the quarter.
  6. All late work and retakes will be accepted for full credit as long as the above criteria are met.

Grading Scale

Because all scores are based on competency and between 0-4, the grading scale looks a little different. In SIS, the standards scores will be averaged and converted into a percentage. The percentage will determine the final grade based on the following scale:


Average Score Grade Percent
3.26 4 A 81.50% 100.00%
3 3.25 A- 75.00% 81.25%
2.84 2.99 B+ 71.00% 74.75%
2.67 2.83 B 66.75% 70.75%
2.5 2.66 B- 62.50% 66.50%
2.34 2.49 C+ 58.50% 62.25%
2.17 2.33 C 54.25% 58.25%
2 2.16 C- 50.00% 54.00%
1.76 1.99 D+ 44.00% 49.75%
1.26 1.75 D 31.50% 43.75%
1 1.25 D- 25.00% 31.25%
0 1 F 0.00% 25.00%


Getting Started with Standards Based Grading, part 3

In the first two parts of this series, I wrote about what to do before instruction in standards based grading and during instruction.  This final post in the series will deal with what to do after instruction, when the teacher has the graded pile of rubrics in hand.  I will discuss the importance of tracking progress and reporting meaningful data to all stakeholders using the 3D Gradebook.

Data Angst

When the subject of data comes up in the world of teaching, it elicits a powerful response, generally negative.  Many teachers feel that data is an administrative gotcha, a way for the powers that be to spy on them and catch them at the slightest misstep.  They will talk at the water cooler about how they know all that they need to know about their students in order to be successful.  They absolutely don’t need to track data.

I believe that much of this negativity toward the concept of data is a result of poor communication when data programs are rolled out.  Teachers believe that data means standards based testing data or premade assessment data, numbers that mean little to the average teacher on the average day.  We need to reframe the discussion to accurately convey what educational data and data-driven instruction really mean.

From Anecdotal to Numerical

I spend a lot of time talking to my colleagues, and one in particular always makes the argument that she knows exactly what her students need and where they currently are in their educational progression.  This statement is, of course, true.  She is a phenomenal teacher with a great grasp of her students’ needs.  However, I will tell her and other teachers that make the same argument that we don’t teach in a bubble.  Teachers answer to many different stakeholders as the graphic below illustrates.

Educational Stakeholders

Each stakeholder in the graphic has a vested interest in the education of our students.  Because of this, they have a right to ask us about student achievement and to receive a data-driven response.  This requires us to quantify the anecdotal data that we have collected in our brains about students in a way that can be shared.

Enter the 3D Gradebook

Because teachers need to be able to explicitly share data with relevant stakeholders, they need a data platform that will do the heavy lifting.  Many data platforms that are on the market today double as assessment platforms, providing teachers and districts with premade, standardized assessments for data collection and making it more difficult for teachers to enter their own assessment data.  I believe that this two-pronged approach has led to many of the misconceptions about data and the feeling of “data gotcha” for teachers.

Teachers don’t feel like they need premade assessments.  We feel like we already create and deliver quality assessments, and we struggle with the notion that an edtech company or assessment company can write a better assessment than we can.  The 3D Gradebook eschews the notion of premade assessments and instead focuses on giving teachers a place to store and retrieve their own assessment data.

The 3D Gradebook platform provides a place for teachers to easily enter student achievement scores on a per assignment/per standard basis and a place to easily retrieve and share that data with relevant stakeholders.  There is an email merge feature that allows sharing with students and their parents, a PLC section that allows for sharing with other teachers, and summary views that make sharing with administrators and others simple and intuitive.  This sharing is exceptionally important in the new age of education for improving student achievement.

Tips for Using SBG after Instruction

  • Make sure that students get accurate and timely feedback on their work.  The feedback should be based on the standards and the rubric for those standards.
  • Talk to students about decisions that you are making based on their achievement data.  If you are changing your pacing, let them know why.  This shows that you care about them and their learning, and it also gives them some goals to work toward.
  • Email parents often.  I aim for once a week.  This also shows caring and helps change the culture from grade grubbing and complaining to collaboration and learning.  This change is important if we’re going to be successful with standards based grading.
  • Understand that cultural change takes time.  Be patient with yourself, your students, your parents, and others as you take this on.  It takes time to make these kinds of changes.  Trust the process.

Getting Started with Standards Based Grading, part 2

Yesterday, I wrote about the steps for setting up standards based grading in the classroom before giving instruction.  Today, I want to look at how to take the knowledge gained from unpacking the standards, writing a guaranteed viable curriculum, and defining performance levels can be used during our daily instruction time.

When I started with standards based grading, one realization that I had during instruction was how much more focused on the standards and learning targets my lessons became.  I found it so easy to focus on the standard and what exactly I wanted students to do with that standard.  I love the focus that comes from the standards based model.

A Word from Ms. Frizzle

Ms. Frizzle

On the hit show The Magic School Bus, Ms. Frizzle says on more than one occasion,

Take chances! Make mistakes! Get messy!

This is fantastic advice to teachers of all stripes, but especially those who are entering the realm of standards based grading.  The standards based grading classroom seeks to be a place of optimal learning, which requires that students feel safe and comfortable taking chances and messing up.  In order to foster that kind of trust, it is important that the teacher cultivates relationships with students and delivers effective, immediate, and honest feedback in non-threatening, constructive ways.  The key to standards based grading in the classroom lies in creating the culture of trust and mutual respect.

Build and Deliver Instruction

When approaching standards based grading from an instructional level, consider the following bits of advice:

  • Focus on learning experiences:  One thing that has changed in my room with the advent of standards based grading is that I seldom have students complete traditional assignments.  I focus more on learning experiences for students, which means they are working together, solving problems, discussing ideas, and thinking critically.  Not only does this increase engagement exponentially, but it also makes it easier to explain to students why every activity isn’t completed for a score.  The focus of class activities is to learn material, concepts, and skills, not just to earn a grade.
  • Chunk and scaffold:  Teachers do this anyway, but it’s always a good reminder to break up learning into bite-sized bits.
  • Your rubric is your friend: When preparing to teach concepts, it is important to remember that students will be assessed using the rubric that you have already created.  Be sure to use it liberally in your instruction.  Break down the descriptions of achievement in the rubric for your students, and make sure that they understand the vocabulary.
  • Offer lots of opportunities to try and fail before giving an assessment: This is a key component of standards based grading.  Students should have lots of opportunities to learn, make mistakes, relearn, and reassess.  As teachers, we need to consciously build that into our instruction, or it will get lost in the day-to-day chaos of the classroom.
  • Change the “Game of School” mentality: Students become adept at manipulating their grades by lobbying for points, proposing interesting and irrelevant extra credit (“I’ll clean your classroom, Mr. Winget”), and selectively skipping assignments when they won’t negatively affect their grades too much.  I call this “the game of school,” and the standards based teacher will have to work daily to change this mentality.  It is a cultural battle that we must win in order to be successful.

Assess Understanding

Probably the most important part of the standards based grading classroom is assessment.  How do we know that students are proficient at the standards we are trying to teach them?  I believe that teachers need to write their own assessments because assessments need to be intimately tied to classroom instruction.  When I write assessments, I create “assignment sheets” for students that clearly and explicitly explain what the student is supposed to do and what constitutes an acceptable level of completion.  Here is a link to my template.  Each section helps the student understand what is expected.

I approach assessment in the same way as I do building instruction: create learning experiences.  Because of this, the vast majority of my assessments are performance based or project based.  I believe that this is the best way to get authentic data about students’ abilities.  While other types of assessments have their place, I believe that projects give the best data as summative assessment.

Make Instructional Decisions Based on Assessment Results

The best assessments will give the teacher a valuable understanding of student learning.  The best teachers will take that understanding and make changes to instruction in order to best serve the students.  Standards based grading makes teachers be more flexible and more amenable to the instructional needs of their students.  If we focus on what they need, not a schedule or a pacing guide or a “we need to get this done this week” attitude, we will be able to make clear decisions about instruction and use the data that we collect to improve the lives and learning of our students.

Getting Started with Standards Based Grading, part 1

When I started with standards based grading 3 years ago, the one thing that struck me the most about the process was how much work there was to do before school even started.  While I genuinely believe that it doesn’t take great changes for most teachers to implement a standards based program in their classrooms because they already do most of the things that are required, I do suspect that most teachers will need to put in some summer work in order to get started.  This work is best completed by a PLC (Professional Learning Community), but, as my experience shows, can also be an individual project.

In this post and the two that follow, I want to walk you through the basic steps of getting a standards based grading program up and running.  I hope to give you an overview of what it takes to get going and some tips at avoiding pitfalls in the process.  Because I have been working on my standards based grading platform for awhile now, I feel like I have some thoughts that can be helpful.  To this end, I have divided my thoughts into into three posts: before instruction, during instruction, and after instruction.

Before Instruction

The first step to beginning a standards based grading program is to understand what is exactly in the standards.  Even though every teacher on earth has read the standards and understands what the standards require of them, not as many have really dug into the standards through a process called “unpacking.”

A snippet of my unpacking work.

Unpacking the Standards

Unpacking the standards means teasing out each individual concept and skill that the core requires.  For each standard, write down all of the nouns (concepts) and all of the verbs (skills); reflect on what the standard is asking; and think about what activities might be appropriate to use to teach the standard.  This unpacking work allows the teacher to really understand what the core is asking and to break it down into its individual components.  Since many of the standards are long and contain several concepts and skills, it is important to break them down first to truly understand what needs to be taught in class.

While it might be easy to go to Google and search for unpacked standards in your content area, I believe that is a mistake.  The act of going through the standards and unpacking them has immense value that will be missed if you skip it in favor of using someone else’s work.  Spending time understanding and reflecting on the content has immense value to a teacher, and unpacking the standards is the best way to approach that reflection.

The next step in the process of standards based grading is to create a list of standards for your classroom, or a “guaranteed viable curriculum.”

My Current Guaranteed Viable Curriculum for Sophomore Honors English

Guaranteed Viable Curriculum

The way I approach writing a guaranteed viable curriculum for my class is to take my unpacked standards and decide what are the most important skills and concepts that students need to know before they leave my room in May.  I see this list as the non-negotiables and the key focus of student success in my classroom.  While it might be nice to say that the whole core is non-negotiable, the reality is that time constraints and the vast scope of the core make narrowing the focus to the most important standards a necessity.  This doesn’t mean that teachers ignore the parts of the core that aren’t in their GVC.  All it means is that every student will be proficient in the GVC standards, there will be many measures of that proficiency, and students will understand the importance of each and every one of those standards.

In his book, Classroom Assessment and Grading that Work, Robert Marzano explains the importance of narrowing the standards down to a manageable number:

Given that one of the main barriers to implementing standards is that they contain too much content, it would be counterproductive to identify too many measurement topics. I recommend no more than 20 measurement topics per subject, per grade level, and ideally about 15.

These measurement topics become the key ingredients to the standards based grading program in the classroom.  Because of this, I would also suggest that the standards be written in clear, easy-to-understand language that students can clearly discuss and feel comfortable with on the first day of school.

The final step of what to do before instruction is to define achievement levels.

Part of my master rubric for Sophomore Honors English

Define Achievement Levels

Defining achievement levels is a vitally important part of the process of standards based grading.  What it means is that the teacher decides what each level of mastery (Emerging, Approaching, Proficient, and Advanced) looks like for each one of the standards.  For most content areas, this will mean creating a master rubric for their GVC.  This rubric can then be used as the main scoring mechanism for each standard in the curriculum.

In order to create this rubric, a teacher needs to first decide what proficient looks like for each one of the standards.  For instance, when I wrote mine for standard R2 above about citing textual evidence, I had to examine what was really important for my students to be able to do in their writing when citing textual evidence.  I decided that they needed to be able to provide context for their evidence and to be able to explain how the evidence supported their argument.  These elements of the standard became the basis for my described levels of achievement.

After deciding on what proficient looks like, the teacher needs to adapt that explanation to the other levels of achievement.  Ask the following questions to help in that process:

  • What can a student do to show that they are beyond proficiency?  What evidence shows an advanced level of understanding?
  • What gap in understanding shows that a student is near proficiency? What does the student who is approaching mastery look like?
  • What does a very basic understanding look like?  What does the emerging student’s work look like?
  • What is the minimum level of acceptable work?  What must a student show to register on the rubric at all?

Once the master rubric is created, the teacher is ready to begin instruction using standards based grading.  On Wednesday, we will discuss what standards based grading looks like during instruction.