Imagine a student named Johnny, who earns the following grades in a unit on surface area: ■ Homework Completion: 50 percent
■ Quiz: 60 percent
■ Test: 100 percent
Because Johnny initially did not
understand surface area, he did not
complete the homework and did not
do well on the quiz. After the quiz, he
asked his grandmother, a former math
teacher, to explain the concept. With
her help, he finally understood surface
area, which explains his sudden
improvement on the test.
Now imagine another student, Jane,
who scores 100 percent on all three
activities. In a traditional grading
system, which student, Johnny or Jane,
earns a better grade? Jane, of course.
Both students demonstrated the same
level of understanding on the summative assessment, but Johnny was
penalized for struggling initially.
During my first several years as a
high school math teacher, the difference
between Johnny and Jane frustrated me.
Was it right for Johnny to earn a lower
grade when he had in fact mastered the
material, just not as quickly as Jane?
Homework gave me fits, too. How
much emphasis should I give it? I
tried giving students credit for the
number of problems correct, the
number completed, and various
hybrids in between. I even assigned a
few problem sets that would be worth
100 points—as much as a test—to see
if it would change the value students
placed on practicing math. No matter
which method I chose, the same students completed their homework (and
the same students didn’t).
A New Standard for Grading
During my fourth year of teaching, I
attended a state conference for math
teachers and learned two axioms that
changed my practice to one centered
on standards-based grading.
Axiom 1. Report learning targets
rather than assignments, assessments,
Before standards-based grading, my
grade book could be described as a
timeline of completed activities and
assessments written in ink: 10;points
for a worksheet, 30;for a quiz, 50;for
a test. My new grade book was more
of a barometer of student learning
goals written in pencil. Each student’s
current level of understanding for each
standard was recorded using a four-
point scale, with four representing
the highest mastery level. As students
demonstrated greater mastery, the
recorded level changed.
I gave students a copy of the course
standards so they could track their
progress toward mastering the concepts. Parents and students could log
in to our online student information
system and see the specific areas of
strength and areas that could benefit
I calculated students’ final grades by
determining their overall mastery of
the standards. For example, if students
were expected to master 10 standards
in the course and a student earned nine
4s and one 3, that student earned 39
of 40 possible points, which translates
into a percentage of 97.5 or an A on the
report card. As Marzano (2000) suggests, I did not include effort, behavior,
or attendance in the overall grade.
Axiom 2: Value what students learn
over when they learn it.
To accommodate both the Janes and
the Johnnys in my classroom, I started
A teacher transforms his grading
practice to reflect student mastery
and watches the practice spread.