Category Archives: Grading

Who do you want as your skydiving training partner? (A lesson in Standards-Based Learning)

Who do you want as your skydiving training partner?

I would really love to skydive one day, and I would also love to tell my kids and grandkids about what it was like to go skydiving. My point is, I want to jump out of an airplane and live to talk about it. Therein lies my fear: choosing the right person to train me.

skydive 2The first time anyone skydives they are paired up with a skilled partner. That partner passed some type of certification program, and that person is still alive, so they must know what they are doing. In fact, every trainer there has the same credentials: they all passed their certification test, and they are all still alive. But I want to know more about the person I am going to trust my life with. Surely they can tell me more about their actual knowledge and skill level.

Pretend that I have two possible training partners standing in front of me. One earned an A in skydiving school, and the other earned a B. It would make sense to pick the one who got a higher grade, because an A inherently implies that the person learned more than the one who earned a B. So that’s who I should go with, right? Not necessarily. An overall score of an A is good, but it doesn’t tell me what areas of skydiving they are good at and the ones that need work. I want more information before I choose my training partner.

Let’s say there were 10 topics covered in skydiving school. I know there is much more to learn than 10 things, but this is just an example so go with it.

  • Jim is the first trainer, and he scored 100% in every area except for “ground landings” in which he got a 40%. He is excellent at everything EXCEPT landing on the ground. His overall average is still 94%. Solid A, right?
  • Felix is the second trainer, and he scored 90% in every area except “water landings” and “flip and barrel rolls” where he scored a 60% in each. His overall average is 84%, which is still a B.

skydiving score 2

skydive 5
Jim scored very low in ground landings. (Not an actual photo of Jim)

So who should I pick? This is my first time skydiving, and we are going to land on the ground. Felix is much better than Jim at ground landings. In fact, I have no faith that Jim can help me land without breaking at least three bones. Felix is not good at landing in the water or doing barrel rolls, but we aren’t going to do that on my first day. I don’t need those skills from him. In this case, I am going to avoid Jim, the A student, and go with Felix, the B student, because of their specific competencies.

The owner of the skydiving place might want to know his employees competencies as well. I’m sure he them to be excellent in all areas. He’s not going to make them re-learn all 10 topics. Instead, the owner will give Jim extra training only in ground landings, and he will have Felix work on water landings and barrel rolls. In fact, Jim and Felix can probably help each other. Students are often willing to help each other, especially if the can identify where they need help.

Skydiving school, like all schools, would benefit from standards-based grading

Like Jim and Felix, all students could benefit from the extra feedback of knowing where their strengths and weaknesses lie. One single letter grade for each class does not tell them where to put their time and effort if they want to improve. One single letter grade on a test does not provide the information needed to go back and review the specific areas that they should go back and review. Traditional grading – one score for every assignment and test averaged together for a single letter grade – does little to inform a student on where to practice, where to reassess, where they need to improve to become proficient in all areas of the subject. With standards-based grading, a student can take one test yet receive feedback in multiple areas of learning. As these learning standards are measured and progress is tracked throughout the year, the student receives continuous feedback as to where strengths and weakness lie. That student has the opportunity to practice learning targets throughout the year and also helps the student to spend more time on the standards where he or she is not proficient while still maintaining understanding of the other standards.

Mark Welchert, tandem parachute instructor, and Derek McMullen, 19, of Old Monroe, Mo., land safely after jumping from 12,000 ft., recently at the Hannibal Airport in Hannibal, Mo. via Rapid Descent skydiving (H-W Photo/Steve Bohnstedt)
Mark Welchert, tandem parachute instructor, and Derek McMullen, 19, of Old Monroe, Mo., land safely after jumping from 12,000 ft. in Hannibal, Mo.
(H-W Photo/Steve Bohnstedt)

When students understand their own strengths and weaknesses they can help each other with their learning, just like Jim can help Felix with water landings and Felix can help Jim with ground landings. Metacognition – knowing what we know and what we don’t – helps the individual to help him or herself, and it also allows him or her to help others. It allows every student to become independent and proficient with his or her learning.

The more feedback we can provide our students, the more they can help themselves become competent in all areas of their learning. Even A students can improve, but without specific feedback, often based on learning standards, they do not know where to spend their time and energy. A standards-based learning approach not only informs the student of their overall learning, but it also helps their teachers, parents, or even classmates provide support as well.

Author’s Note

If you are an active skydiver, please do not be offended by my lack of knowledge regarding what it takes to become certified. My knowledge is in the use of standards to inform learners, not how to jump head first out of an airplane. I respect your expertise, and hopefully you respect mine. Thanks.

How football can explain standards-based learning

Most teachers continue to issue overall letter grades based on a student’s overall average; the teacher takes the average of every score on every assignment over the course of an entire semester then issues a single letter grade to show the student’s accomplishments. The letter grade becomes the goal of going to school, not how much a student learns or how much a student grows.

One of my biggest issues with traditional grading (I have many) is that averages, in my opinion, are meaningless. It’s the results at the end that matter more to me. My usual argument uses a sports reference from when I ran the 100m dash in track in high school, and it goes as follows:

  1. I never earned a medal based on my average times from all my practices; practice helps me prepare but practice itself is not counted
  2. I never earned a medal based on my average times from all my races; each race was a chance to earn a medal
  3. If I lost a race on Monday it had no bearing on my next race on Friday
  4. My times got better throughout the year; my coach really only looked at the last race or two to decide if I would be entered in the next meet but he never took the average of my times to make that decision
  5. I qualified for the state finals because of my time in the final qualifying race of the season; no other previous times mattered

Don’t take my word for it, though. I will turn to Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots and winner of four Super Bowls in the last 15 years. At the halfway point of the 2015 season, a reporter told Belichick that his quarterback is the mid-season MVP. Belichick’s reply was,

“That’s great, but honestly I don’t think anyone is really focused on that… Some midseason report card, who cares? What difference does it make? Give me an F. Give me a C+. Right now we’re focused on the Giants [their next opponent]. That’s all I really care about.”

The reporter then asked the coach what grade he would give his quarterback. Belichick’s response was, “I don’t give grades… We’re trying to beat the Giants. I don’t really care about some midseason midterm grades. Give me whatever you want.”

In football, nothing really matters except winning the Super Bowl at the end of the season. It doesn’t matter where you stand at any point during the season except for the fact that you need to make the playoffs and win the championship. Let’s look at the 2007 NFL season as an example of whether or not a team met the standard. The Patriots were 18-0 going into the Super Bowl; their average was 100%. But they lost the Super Bowl, dropping their average to 95%. Yes, they performed well all year, but they did not meet the standard of winning the Super Bowl. A teacher would still give them an overall grade of 95%, which is an A, yet they didn’t prove they knew what they needed to know.

patriots lose super bowl the catch 2
David Tyree of the New York Giants trapped the pass against his helmet and held on to get the first down. The Giants scored on that last drive and beat the 18-0 New England Patriots to win Super Bowl 42.

Their opponent was the Giants, who entered the playoffs at 10-6 for an average of 63%. They won the next four playoff games to win the title. What was their new average? 70%. For a teacher issuing traditional grades, the Giants would get a C-. But if you look at the STANDARD, which is winning the Super Bowl, they met the goal that everyone is striving for.

Averaging scores for an entire semester just doesn’t make sense to me. It penalizes every student if they do not understand a concept during the week it was taught, even if the student learns later in the year and remembers it forever. Is the point of grades to measure learning at the exact moment that something appears in the curriculum, or is it more important to fully understand the concept before the course ends? Providing students with meaningful feedback throughout the semester – telling them where their strengths and weaknesses lie on a continuous basis – is far more valuable in helping a student meet the standards by the end of the year than issuing a final, single letter grade based on the average of how their scores from assignment.



Curran, Tom E. “Belichick’s Report Card? ‘Who Cares? Give Me an F'” Comcast SportsNet New England. Comcast SportsNet New England, 11 Nov. 2015. Web. 11 Nov. 2015. <>.

Using standards to provide specific feedback to students

Standards-Based Grading (SBG) is a monumental shift in the way teachers grade. Instead of issuing a single letter grade based on a percentage of what the student got right and wrong, teachers instead rate a student’s level of mastery of multiple standards. It’s a complex process both in the way teachers view standards-based grading and also in the way they implement it. Some districts require SBG training over a one or two year span to allow teachers to fully prepare for it. Standards-Based Grading might be complex at first, but so is differentiating instruction and using technology in the classroom. There are enormous benefits to grading students based on standards. Teachers who use Standards-Based Grading strongly believe that SBG gives better feedback to students which leads to better performance.

Standards-Referenced Feedback (SRF), sometimes called a Standards-Aligned Gradebook, is a system where increased feedback is given but the grade book does not have to change at all. Standards are aligned to every assignment, discussion board and assessment which allows data to be gathered regarding students’ progress towards meeting the standards. Yet the assignments are still scored the same way, and a percentage or letter grade can still be issued at the end of each term. The standards are only being referenced to give students more feedback towards their progress; the standards themselves do not play a role in the final grade. Using standards as another form of feedback rather than the central focus of a new grading system is much more subtle shift for teachers while still providing students with additional data that can help them self-assess and improve their own learning.

Standards-Referenced Feedback in a gradebook that utilizes a traditional 0-100% format.
Standards-Referenced Feedback in a gradebook that utilizes a traditional 0-100% format.

Why should teachers align standards?
Let’s pretend that a boy named Keith is in high school English, and he is getting a B after about a month of class. If Keith wants to raise to raise his grade to an A, what should he work on? What should he study? What type of writing should he improve upon? He needs more feedback from his teacher so he can learn how to take control of his own learning. How many students try to “study everything” right before a final instead of focusing on their areas of weakness because they simply don’t know what to do? I would say quite a few. By aligning the homework and the assessments to learning standards, students can get feedback on their areas of strength and weakness. Instead of Keith merely seeing a B in the gradebook, Standards-Referenced Feedback would tell him that he has done very well in writing narratives (Common Core Writing Standard #3 on page 41) but he needs to work on his overall range of writing (Common Core Writing Standard #10 on page 41).

A standards-referenced feedback chart for one student displays his progress towards meeting each learning standard in the course.
A standards-referenced feedback chart for one student displays his progress towards meeting each learning standard in the course.

How do teachers align standards to their assignments?
There are really only two requirements for providing Standards-Referenced Feedback. First, you need an electronic copy of the learning standards for your course. Nearly every school district now has learning standards for every course. You must use the accepted standards of your school district. In addition to the district’s learning standards you might also consider including your subject area’s national learning standards like ISTE-S for technology, Common Core for English and Math, and NGSS for Science.

The cycle of creating standards, communicating standards, instructing with a focus on standards, and assessing the standards. Image from Nauset Regional High School.
The cycle of creating standards, communicating standards, instructing with a focus on standards, and assessing the standards. Image from Nauset Regional High School. <>

Second, your gradebook or your assessment software must have the ability to tag learning standards to assessments and assignments. Schoology is an LMS that lets you attach standards to every assignment, discussion board, or individual assessment question. Mastery Manager is an assessment tool (paper-based and online tests) that can also tag learning standards to individual questions.

A test question is tagged with the proper learning standards. This teacher uses Schoology for his gradebook and LMS.
A test question is tagged with the proper learning standards. This teacher uses Schoology for his gradebook and LMS.

Once the learning standards have been entered into your gradebook (like Schoology) or assessment tool (like Mastery Manager), then you need to choose one or more standards for each assignment. Open the assignment so you can edit it, then click on Align Standard, then choose the standard(s) that goes with the assignment. If it is a test then you will need to align each individual question to a learning standard by following the same steps: edit the question, then click on Align Standard, then choose the appropriate standard.

Final thoughts
Classroom instruction should be overtly focused on the learning standards of the course. The classwork, homework and assessments that follow that instruction should also be connected to the learning standards. The next logical step is to give students feedback based on their progress towards meeting the learning standards. Using Standards-Referenced Feedback helps students take ownership of their learning by giving them specific feedback on their progress towards mastering each of the learning standards.

Additional Resources

“Standards Referenced” from The Glossary of Education Reform

“Standards-Based Practices: Self Assessment for Teachers” from Colorado Education Association

“Critical Learning Standards” from D211 Instructional Vision (January 2015) <>

A Standards-Aligned Gradebook Provides Rich, Meaningful Insight Into Students’ Progress

Introduction to Standards-Based Grading (SBG)

A Standards-Based Gradebook, or SBG, is one where a student earns a score for each learning standard based on his accomplishments throughout the grading period. This is different from a traditional grading system where students earn one composite score at the end of each quarter – an A or B, for example. With an SBG, the student instead earns multiple scores – one for each measured learning standard. In a class with nine learning standards, a student might earn five scores of Excellent, three scores of Proficient, and one score of Adequate in the different measures of the class. Instead of getting one composite score (a B for example), he instead earns nine different scores which tells him what he has mastered and what he needs to improve upon. There is a much higher level of detail and feedback within an SBG.


Some teachers want what they see as the best of both worlds: a typical gradebook with percentages that leads to a letter grade which is then combined with a more sophisticated view of whether or not students are meeting each learning standard. Can this be done easily? Absolutely. It is called a Standards-Aligned Gradebook.

What does a Standards-Aligned Gradebook look like?

A Standards-Aligned Gradebook is set up in a typical fashion: there are categories like tests and quizzes, homework, labs, and projects. Each category has a weight (tests 40%, homework 40%, and projects 20%). There is a grading scale such as A 90-100%, B 80-89%, C 70-79%, etc. Your gradebook does not change in any way.

A typical gradebook in Schoology

However, every single assignment is tagged with one or more learning standards. As students complete their work and earn points towards an A or a B in class, they are also earning a score in each of the learning standards.

Align a learning standard to each assignment

Setting up a Standards-Aligned Gradebook in Schoology

There are really just three steps to take when creating a Standards-Aligned Gradebook. A fourth step is needed if you were going to create a Standards-Based Gradebook instead, and I’ll briefly explain the one big difference later in this article.

Step One: Define the learning standards for your course

The learning standards are paramount to your (and your students’) success. The standards define not only WHAT you want your students to learn but also the LEVEL OF MASTERY you want them to achieve. If you cannot clearly explain to your students what you expect them to learn then you cannot possibly grade them properly. There are national learning standards such as the Next Generation Science Standards and the National Educational Technology Standards which have already been written, vetted, and accepted by others. Your state or your school district might possibly have their own sets of standards, too, and those could be acceptable as well. I strongly recommend against creating your own standards, though, for the simple reason that a widely-used, accepted set of national standards are easier to explain and justify than standards you created yourself.

NGSS Forces and Interactions
NGSS: Forces and Interactions Standards

Once your standards have been chosen you will need them uploaded into your gradebook. With Schoology you can import your own standards for your own classroom or you can ask a tech person to upload the standards so that every teacher in the district can use them.


Step Two: Tag each question of each assessment with the learning standards

Create Question Banks in Schoology to hold every question you use on a test or quiz, and then align each question with a standard.

Each individual question is tagged with a learning standard

Every single time that question is used in class, the student’s score towards meeting the standard will be recorded. The same question might be used when they first learn about the topic, used a second time during a review quiz, and then used a third time during a summative assessment. Each time the student answers that question the progress towards meeting the learning standard will be calculated.


Tagging every question is time-consuming, but it is a necessary step for a Standards-Aligned Gradebook. A huge time-saver when creating these tagged question banks is the ability to share your question banks with other teachers. Your entire grade level can pitch in by writing questions or tagging each question with a standard.

Schoology Question Bank with multiple assessment questions. Each question is aligned to a standard.

A quick and easy way to get hundreds or even thousands of questions tied directly to your curriculum is to contact your textbook providers and ask them for the latest ExamView question bank. Many textbooks offer about 100 questions per chapter that are aligned directly with your textbook. These questions can be imported into Schoology in a matter of minutes. All you have to do is tag them with your learning standards.

Step Three: Tag each assignment and activity with the learning standards

Similar to tagging each assessment question with a standard, you will also tag each assignment, activity, and discussion board with a standard. Anything that is graded needs to be tagged. This is a much simpler and less time-consuming process than tagging your assessment questions. Each assignment is likely tied to just one or two standards, whereas a ten question assessment has to be tagged to ten standards (one per question).

The written portion of the Marble Sorter assignment is tagged to the Principles of Engineering Learning Standard 5.1 (Design Process)

The difference between a Standards-Aligned Gradebook and a Standards-Based Gradebook

A Standards-Aligned Gradebook still uses a typical grading scale (0-100%) and typical grading categories (homework, quizzes, and so on) with the end result of getting a single letter grade. A Standards-Based Gradebook relies on proving proficiency in multiple standards, with the end result of earning a level of mastery in multiple areas. If you were going to create a Standards-Based Gradebook then there would be a fourth step: choose an appropriate grading scale that can measure mastery. Marzano created a four-point scale for measuring mastery which is shown in the photo below. In an SBG using Marzano’s scale, every assignment is worth between 0 and 4 points based on their level of mastery (Excellent, Proficient, Adequate, Limited, Incomplete). Four point grading rubrics are also typically used in an SBG. That has been an oversimplified explanation and I apologize for that, but to learn more about Standards-Based Grading you will need to read one of my other articles.

Marzano 4 point scale
Marzano 4 point scale

Final Thoughts

Evaluating each standard separately provides each student with more feedback on their learning compared to a single letter grade. Measuring growth within each standard also provides the teacher with feedback regarding his or her own instruction. A Standards-Aligned Gradebook provides easy visual evidence as to what the students have learned and what they have not. Students can easily see where they need more help, and teachers easily see what they should re-teach at a later time.



The examples in this blog were created by Michael Schaffer, a high school Principles of Engineering teacher at Fremd High School who uses Schoology for his gradebook and learning platform. It took him approximately 3 to 4 weeks (right in the middle of the second grading quarter) to switch to this new gradebook. I want to stress that any teacher at any grade level can set up a standards-aligned gradebook. It just so happens that Mr. Schaffer is a motivated applied technology teacher who was the first person who volunteered to make the transition. I am hoping he will present at a teachers’ conference in the near future so you can hear the full story in his own words.

About the author

Keith Sorensen has been a public school educator for 18 years. He is a technology coordinator who provides staff development to his faculty on a large variety of technology-related topics. Follow him on Twitter @keithosorensen to learn more about using technology in the classroom.