Five Problems with the Traditional Grading System and Why Standards-Based Grading is a Better Alternative

Grades are so imprecise that they have become almost meaningless.”

– Robert Marzano

Grading is deeply rooted in the education system in the United States. As Lynn Olson observed, grades are “one of the most sacred traditions in American education,” and according to Dr. Tammy Heflebower, “The truth is grades have acquired an almost cult-like importance in American schools.” Students need to learn over 200 standards each year, on top of trying to maintain their grades. 

So when I say, “It’s time to change from the traditional system of grading to a standards-based grading system,” some of you are ready to throw me off the nearest bridge. Yet, I’ve done the research and I’ve seen it applied successfully in hundreds of schools. 

Standards-based grading is centered on the idea that there are specific pieces of knowledge and skills that all students should know and be able to do as a result of their schooling. These essential pieces are articulated as standards or learning targets. 

Grades are an important element of schools, but this issue is that the current systems used to equate and assign grades are mostly ineffective. These are the five largest issues with our current education grading system.

Five Problems With The Traditional Grading System

  1. The Grading Scale is Disproportionate
  2. Skills Are Not Tested Equally
  3. Items are Weighted Differently on Single Tests
  4. Using a Single Grade to Demonstrate Performance is Problematic
  5. Teachers Consider Non-Academic Factors When Considering an Academic Grade

The Grading Scale is Disproportionate 

Why do we have ten points reserved for the A and 60 points reserved for the F? Why is our scale so completely disproportionate? We are setting kids up to fail over and over when there’s such a discrepancy in the different levels of grading. 

If we reversed the proportional influences of the grades, that A would have a huge inflationary effect on the overall grade. Just like we wouldn’t want the A to have an inaccurate effect, we don’t want an F grade to have such a deflationary effect. Why do we choose the most hurtful, unrecoverable end of the F-range for students? No wonder they completely give up when they receive these poor marks. 

Skills Are Not Tested Equally

I remember when I taught 4th grade with Mr. Arnold, we both taught the same novels and we both gave a test after every five chapters. My test would be ten constructed response/essay-type questions (DOK 3 & 4). Mr. Arnold’s test would be 25 multiple-choice questions (DOK 1 & 2). 

An A in my class certainly wasn’t the same A in his class. In fact, we were both wrong. I wasn’t giving the students in my class, who might have basic level knowledge, the opportunity to demonstrate that. And he wasn’t giving his students questions at the high level. We weigh items differently on our test and this completely skews what a grade really means.

Items are Weighted Differently on Single Tests

In our Standards-Based Grading Course, I give all of the teachers the same test and they have to decide how many points each of the three sections are worth.

Section A is ten recall questions.
Section B is four questions that are more complex, but grade level-aligned.
And Section C is one question that asks students to go above and beyond what was taught. 

It never fails… teachers are all across the board when they assign points to each section. Some teachers believe the ten recall questions should be worth ten points and others believe they should be worth anywhere from 20-60 points. Which means depending on which teacher a student has, the grades can vary and an A in one class is a C in another, even with the same test. 

Using a Single Grade to Demonstrate Performance is Problematic 

Using a single letter grade to summarize a student’s performance in one content area does not accurately translate a student’s performance and achievement over a quarter, semester, or year. If at the end of the grading period when one of my students got a C in reading, I wasn’t sure if it was his reading fluency, his inability to understand cause and effect, or if he wasn’t constructing the sentences in an accurate way. We’re not identifying the root of students’ struggles when we use singular letter grades. 

Teachers Consider Non-Academic Factors When Computing an Academic Grade 

These factors include attendance, participation, behavior, and a long list of many other things. Back in the day, I used to give bonus points for students who returned paper on time or brought in an extra tissue box. We have to remember that it’s an academic grade and we cannot let non-academic factors be included in this grade. That needs to be a separate part of the report card. 

I know this is a contentious topic, and leaving traditional grading practices for a more equitable and effective grading system requires time and collaboration. But there’s a reason why our Standards-Based Grading Course is one of the most sought-after professional development resources we provide at Strobel Education.

Here’s why we encourage schools to embrace a standards-based grading scale.

Why a Standards-Based Grading Scale is More Effective than the Traditional Grading Scale

  1. Identifies What Students Know and Don’t Know
  2. Supports Vertical and Horizontal Alignment
  3. Prioritizes Standards by the Importance of Skills
  4. Grades Provide More Detailed Insight on Student Performance
  5. Outlines More Effective Differentiation Opportunities

1. Identifies What Students Know and Don’t Know

Standards-based grading breaks down assignments and tests based on the specific skills that students demonstrate individually. Rather than a holistic letter grade that can be abstract and subjective, student performance is measured by the individual proficiency levels of each standard. This data much more accurately reflects what students have mastered and informs future instruction.

Kim’s depth of knowledge regarding best practices has aided our teachers in working through this transition. Her ability to facilitate organization and collaboration among participants fully engages teachers in developing and ‘owning’ their own work.

~ Dr. Tracy Lorey, Superintendent, Greater Jasper Schools

2. Supports Vertical and Horizontal Alignment

When schools have a standards-based grading system in place, teachers across grade levels and departments use the same scale to grade student performance. This provides better data and more targeted instruction for upper-grade levels because they have a common baseline for what students have mastered the prior year. Additionally, lower grade levels will have more concrete knowledge of how to best prepare students for the following school year.

3. Prioritizes Standards by the Importance of Skills

Standards-based grading scales differentiate between foundational skills that are necessary for vertical and horizontal curriculum alignment and skills that require proficiency in those foundational skills to demonstrate mastery. When I work with schools to map these grading scales, we look at specific abilities and knowledge that students need to bring with them to the next grade level and develop a pacing guide to ensure those expectations are aligned schoolwide.

4. Grades Provide Better Insight On Student Performance

Rather than just one overall average of student performance for the year, standards-based grading also provides a comprehensive overview of each skill and the level of mastery that student demonstrated for that skill.

Some schools still decide to average the separate standards tested, and then they use a conversion scale to come up with an overall letter grade for the subject. They do this to help appease parents who still get confused and want an overhaul letter grade, but not all schools do it this way. Some just show the standards and the 4-point scale without an average for an overall grade.

This data provides better insight for teachers, parents, and students and makes goal-setting conversations more productive.

5. Outlines More Effective Differentiation Opportunities

With more specific and accurate data, teachers can plan more effective learning opportunities that meet the individual needs of their students. They can be more strategic about planning instruction that reteaches or repeats specific skills for the students that need it. And students who have shown skill mastery can receive more effective opportunities to extend and accelerate their learning.

It’s time to rethink our grading practices and ensure we give students the critical skills they need to be successful adults. To learn more information about how you can implement a standards-based grading system in your school, reach out to us at

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