Implementing a Standards-Based Classroom

Grading, and everything that comes before it, should be this easy

By Scott Sterling

“Standards-based” is a widely used term these days, usually in reference to certain grading systems that some view as controversial. We’ll talk about grading toward the end of this post, but the key to remember is that standards-based education is nothing new. It is just rarely practiced correctly.

Unfortunately, many schools and districts begin and end their standards-based practice with mandating things like standards have to be printed on the board for every lesson, not bothering to think that children (and some teachers) lack the tools to unpack a standard and assess their progress. Board posting is, therefore, useless. Instead, here’s a comprehensive approach to developing a standards-based classroom.

How a standards-based classroom operates

In a classroom that is standards-based:

  • Teachers and students are absolutely clear on what they should know and be able to do, according to the standard.
  • Every activity in the classroom is aligned to those goals. “Why are we doing this?” should never be asked.
  • Assessment is ongoing, as it informs the scales used to track progress toward the standard.
  • Differentiation offers multiple paths to get to the same place: mastery of the standard.


Getting on the path

So the first step is unpacking the standard so that you and the students understand what it’s asking students to do.

Then it’s time to set out your learning plan, based on the taxonomy of your choice. Again, students need to be able to understand the plan, as well. They need to know the succession of their progress and how that progress is affected if they struggle or work ahead.

“Why are we doing this?!?” 

As I mentioned, the goal is to eliminate the dreaded “Why are we doing this?” question. Every student in the room should know why they are completing a certain task—because it aligns to the progress plan, which aligns to the standard.

Not only should students be able to follow the goals, they should also be able to follow along on the scales on which they are assessed. We’ve talked at length about formative assessment, goals, and scales. A key point is that, word for word, your learning goal should appear on the scale you’re using. On a four-point scale, level 3 is appropriate. Save level 4 for advanced applications of the goal, tasks of the highest cognitive complexity.

Standards-based grading

Finally, if the scale is accurate and aligned to the standard, you should be able to use it for grading. This is where some of the controversy comes in. Adults in education—teachers, parents, and administrators—are used to grades being based just as much on how much work students have turned in as how well they did on that work. When you’re truly using standards as the basis for grading, the grade is simply where on the scale the student falls, according to their progress.

This obviously depends on a number of factors and mandates from governing bodies. Perhaps the scale corresponds to the traditional letters-and-numbers style of grading or something completely new. What’s important is that grades are more of a progress report and less of an inventory of work.

Work, whether it includes activities in class that are guided and assisted by the teacher or assignments outside of class for added practice, is only a means to an end and not the end itself. Again, students should know why they are accomplishing any task that is set for them in a class. The answer: that it moves them toward mastery of the learning goal.

Have you attempted a move to a fully standards-based classroom? How has the transition gone so far? Share your thoughts with your colleagues in the Comments section.

Want to go into even more depth with standards-based lesson planning and cognitively complex tasks? Check out the Learning Sciences International bookstore for resources that help educators make the critical instructional shift required by rigorous standards.