Standards-Based Grading in High School: Where Grades Matter the Most

How can you assure that all students in your building have met a minimum proficiency on all of your priority standards, regardless of the teacher? As Lander Valley High School began to answer this question, it became apparent that we needed to have a different grading system to ensure that when I sign a diploma, I can verify that the student has met the standards.

Simply stated, there were too many extraneous variables that influenced our students’ grades to ensure all students were learning at a high level. Just take a moment to think about the way behavior is ingrained into our grading system—from attendance, punctuality, late work, missing work, etc. Then factor in extra credit, and by the time students’ grades hit the report card, it is hard to say what they know about any given topic. Moving to a standards-based grading system ensures that proficiency is measurable, student by student and standard by standard, and allows me as a building principal to guarantee a product of our system despite the teacher, family, or behavior of the student.

Get Crystal Clear About What You Expect All Students to Know and Be Able to Do

What do you want students to know and be able to do? Up until three years ago, what our students learned in their respective classes depended on which teacher the student management system randomly assigned them. Let’s face it; as teachers, we all had things that we preferred to teach and those items that we would prefer to avoid. If you are going to grade on standards, it is imperative that collaborative teams have agreed-upon standards to which all teachers within that team will adhere. Creating a list of priority standards that are also vertically aligned guarantees a clear scope and sequence of material for all students to learn.

Create a Scale to Outline Specifically What Proficiency of The Standard Looks Like

Once you have identified the standards that all teachers will teach, it is important to have an agreed-upon proficiency scale. This scale will clearly articulate exactly what it looks like for students to be proficient in each individual standard. Using Robert Marzano’s scales, our system outlines beginning, approaching, meeting, and advanced application of the standard. Each one of those levels becomes our 1–4 grading scale, with 1 indicating beginning work, and 4 demonstrating advanced application. The concise, four-point grading scale makes it very easy for teachers to calibrate their assessment of a student’s level to ensure every student is assessed equally. With only scores of 1–4 being entered into the gradebook, it becomes crucial for a high school to conquer the next step of converting those back to a traditional percent and letter grade for all the purposes of transcripts, scholarship, college apps, etc.

Convert Scale Grades to Percentages and Letter Grades

There are many suggestions on how to convert scale grades to percentages and letter grades in the literature concerning standards-based grading. As a school, you have to decide what the value of a certain grade means in your school community. Below is the conversion scale LVHS selected, and it is set against the Marzano conversion so that I can highlight our differences and reasons for those differences.

LVHS CONVERSION                MARZANO CONVERSION

4 = 100%                                  4 = 100%

3.5 = 90%                                3.5 = 95%

3.0 = 80%                                3.0 = 90%

2.5 = 70%                                2.5 = 80%

2.0 = 60%                                2.0 = 70%

1.5 = 55%                                1.5 = 65%

1.0 = 50%                                1.0 = 60%

The starting point when deciding a conversion at your own building should focus on level 3, or proficient. Level 3 is your benchmark, the level to which you will drop everything to ensure a student has achieved the standard at this level. The staff at LVHS agrees that level 3 is high-level work worthy of more than a C, but we also agree that there is a difference between showing proficiency and having advanced knowledge and/or application skills that should be reserved as A-level work. Therefore, we agree that level 3 work represents an 80 percent, or a B.

Furthermore, on our scales level 2 work is listed as the prerequisite knowledge needed to acquire proficiency on the standard. We cannot support giving students credit towards a standard without ever having to move above a 2 and apply that knowledge. Therefore, we give 2’s a 60 percent and also changed our grading scale so that D’s no longer receive credit. This guarantees that students who earn credits and eventually graduate demonstrate proficiency on the standards each subject area has identified as priority.

Converting a high school grading system is not always an immediate reality; however, what things could you do almost instantly to ensure that students’ grades are reflective of their proficiency towards a standard rather than an indicator of their behavior? I challenge you to identify the behavior that is being included in your school’s grades and work towards eliminating such marks to ensure your grades assess proficiency towards academic standards.

Brad Neuendorf is in his fourth year as principal at Lander Valley High School where he also served as the assistant principal for four years. He took over at LVHS during a transition to a new block schedule that was created to build time during the day for targeted intervention for students. In an attempt to continually deliver a better product to students, the PLC journey began at LVHS and with immediate buy-in from staff, LVHS quickly prioritized standards, created proficiency scales, and created a standards-based grading system to serve their 500 students. He is the 2018 Principal of the Year in the state of Wyoming.

6 Comments

  • Eric Miller says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I am a firm believer that SBG is the best way for all students to receive feedback on their progress. I am having a difficult time convincing my staff of this though. Our biggest hang-up has been the question “how do we translate it to transcripts?” I appreciate you taking the time to share!

    • Brad Neuendorf says:

      You are welcome Eric, please don’t hesitate to let me know if you need anything. We have a lot of materials and resources simce making the transition that we are happy to share.

      • Anonymous says:

        If be very interested in any resources you may have. We are also transitioning to SBG for some teachers at our HS and it has been a struggle. Much appreciated!

        • Brad Neuendorf says:

          Hello Anonymous,
          Your comments came back with no info to send these to. Please feel free to email me directly at bneuendorf@landerschools.org to request more information. I can then forward you a plethora of links, templates, presentations etc that we have created for our implementation. I am also available to chat via phone etc to help any way I can.

  • Cheryl L Lang says:

    Happy New Year! Thank you for this article. Much of it resonates with where our school district is in the process of moving from traditional grading practices to standards-based grading practices. We have separated out behaviors from standards-based achievement, and we call those behaviors “Habits of Work and Learning” (HOWLs). They are then labeled respect, responsibility, and perseverance.

    My question is, “Why do we need to translate the standards-based grading into a numerical scale?” If that can be done with integrity, then why make the move? Our biggest struggle right now is determining which standards are the “non-negotiable” musts for each content area. And…when we translate the specific standard to learning objectives or break them down into doable measures for lesson planning (formative assessments), how do we ensure that we are not changing the integrity or level of rigor expectation that was originally meant?

    Happy New Year,
    Cheryl

    • Brad Neuendorf says:

      Hello Cheryl,

      Great question, moving to standards-based grading is an enormous change to traditional practice and we tried to do everything possible to ensure that the change was as easy as possible for our stakeholders. We believed that “translating” our new practices back to our old scales of A-F and 0-100% made it easy for parents to understand how their students were performing. The letter grades were important for transcripts and admissions processes but the percentage conversion made it so parents could still easily track student progress without having to learn a new scale.
      On your second question prioritizing standards is extremely tough and I would just take comfort in the fact that it is a continual process. Our teachers are constantly reviewing both their standards and proficiency levels to ensure they are where they need to be. The most important part is to remember it is learning by doing, which means they will need to apply them to know what is working and not working. I would note however that once you have identified a standard and you have a team of teachers identify what it looks like for students to be proficient on that standard your level of rigor will almost always rise. We used Marzano’s proficiency scales templates to ensure consistency and high levels of rigor throughout our process. Please let me know if you need links to any of that.

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