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.

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.

Introducing the 3D Gradebook

In December, I had a wild idea to take the spreadsheet that I used for standards based grading in my classroom and turn it into an online application that would be easier to use and to market.  The basic premise of the spreadsheet and of the application was to adapt a gradebook model for standards based grading in a way that allowed teachers to store and use data in simple, meaningful ways.  From the outset, the 3D Gradebook project has focused on three main beliefs:

  1. The teacher is the most important asset in the classroom.
  2. Student grades should be an accurate reflection of what they know and can do.
  3. Educational technology should enhance the role of the teacher in the classroom, not minimize it.

Each of these beliefs have led me to create a product that is a simple, intuitive data platform.  It is not an assessment platform because teachers make assessments, not computer programs.  It doesn’t make decisions based on the data because those decisions should be made by the teacher in their classroom for their students and their objectives.  It doesn’t even assign a grade because that is the professional responsibility of the teacher.

What it does is give teachers a way to store data and view it in a way that helps them to write good assessments, make decisions about what their students need to be successful, and assign grades based on student achievement.  It also facilitates communication of that data to relevant stakeholders, including parents, teachers, students, and administrators.

Traditional Gradebooks

A traditional gradebook has two axes: the x-axis contains the assignments that the teacher has given, and the y-axis contains the students in the class.  Teachers use the resulting grid to input assignment scores, the scores are averaged and turned into a percent, and the percent is converted to a letter grade.  This model presents difficulties in a standards based system because there is no place to tie assignments (or assessments) to standards.

The 3D Gradebook

What is needed for a standards based gradebook is a z-axis that can link assignments to standards and then link those assignments to students.  The structure of the data platform needs to be three dimensional, allowing teachers to tie standards and assessments together to be a representation of student achievement.

The 3D Gradebook has just that type of data structure.

Z-Assignments View


When teachers finish scoring student assessments, they need a simple place to enter their standards scores for that assessment.  The Z-Assignments View in the 3D Gradebook is where that happens.  As shown in the screenshot above, this view has the standards as its x-axis and students on the y-axis, giving a traditional grid to put scores in that is familiar and easy to use.  The z-axis, which holds the assignments in this view, is on the left, allowing teachers to click to each individual assignment page and input/view scores.

Z-Students View


When teachers want to find out how individual students are performing and create plans for them, they need a place to see individual student data in a way that is easy to understand, visual, and organized.  The Z-Students View in the 3D Gradebook is perfect for this.  As shown in the screenshot above, the x-axis for this view holds the assignments that the student has been given, and the y-axis holds the standards for the class, giving the teacher a view of student achievement on assignments and how that achievement is tied to the standards.  The z-axis on the left allows teachers to select which student’s data they want to view.  This view is also editable if the teacher needs to update individual student scores, such as when a student retakes an assignment to show improved mastery.

Z-Standards View


When teachers meet in PLCs or with administrators, or when they are making decisions about pacing and reteaching opportunities, they need to have a place to view data on each individual standard that is visual and concise.  The Z-Standards View in the 3D Gradebook is the place for making these classroom and PLC decisions.  As shown in the screenshot above, the x-axis for this view holds the assignments that have been used to assess a given standard, and the y-axis shows the students in the class.  The z-axis on the left allows teachers to select which standard’s data that they want to see.  This view is so useful as a teacher when planning and implementing curriculum.

Summary Views

Click on the picture to enlarge.

Class Summary
Student Summary
Standard Summary

Along with the views above, sometimes teachers (and other stakeholders) just need a quick summary of data.  Sometimes we just need an overview.  The summary views in the 3D Gradebook provide just that.  Below is a short description of each of the summary views above:

  • Class Summary: This view shows a list of which standards the teacher has assessed during the marking period and which haven’t been assessed yet.  It also shows a list of students and missing assignments.  The students and the standards are links to the other two summary views.
  • Student Summary: This view shows a pie chart of how many standards for a student are currently at each achievement level.  It has a list of missing assignments on the right.  Below the chart and the list of missing assignments, there are lists of the standards that are currently at each level for the student.  This is a fantastic tool for parent/teacher conferences.
  • Standard Summary: This view shows a pie chart of how many students are currently at each level for an individual standard.  It also lists the assessments that have been used to assess that particular standard.  This is another great view for lesson planning and PLCs.

Other Features

In the name of brevity, here are a few other features that the 3D Gradebook offers.  They all build off of the ideas and views above.

  • Student Portal: Using a username and password, students can log in and see their Student Summary page, Z-Students page, and a list of assignments with detailed instructions for completing them.
  • Email Updates: A teacher can send a brief update of what’s happening in class along with instructions for logging into the student portal and a list of missing assignments to all students and their parents with one click.  The update and the date of the email are saved to give teachers a record of communications with parents.
  • PLC View: Teachers in the same PLC can mark certain standards as “essential” and see a standard summary for those standards for their whole PLC.  This will facilitate discussions about achievement in the PLC and possible interventions that need to be implemented.
  • Canvas Integration: All requisite data can be automatically pulled from Canvas.  This includes courses, rosters, assignments, standards, and rubric scores.


Go to for more information and to purchase a license.

3D Gradebook Beta Testing

It’s been over a month since I presented at UCET, and I’ve been steadily working on the 3D Gradebook since then to get it ready for testing.  I think we are finally at that point.  I still have some things to do:

  1. Create an email feature, so progress reports and class updates can be sent out to students and parents.
  2. Create a student view that will allow students to log in and see their missing assignments and current performance levels (the back end of this is already finished)
  3. Create a PLC view that will tie a group of teachers together and allow them to share data.
  4. Work on mobile compatibility.  It will never be awesome on mobile (there is too much information on each page), but it should be usable.
  5. Fix a few persistent annoyances.

However, the base functionality is there, and I would like to start work with volunteers to get this thing tested and ready for the big time.  If you are interested in testing, please comment below or email me at  I will send you a username and a password so you can start testing.

I will be posting tutorial videos over the next couple of days to help everyone get going.