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WDMS Standards-Based Learning

What is Standards-Based Learning?

A standards-based system in which teachers report what students know and are able to do relative to district adopted standards. The foundational beliefs of this system include:

  • Academic grades are dependent upon student proficiency against identified standards and are not influenced by non-academic factors.
  • Academic grades will reflect the student’s level of proficiency attained on identified standards, as measured by specific assessments aligned to the standards and rubrics.
  • Behavioral/life skills grades will also be assessed and reported using defined rubrics.
  • Students will receive a separate grade for current academic scores and behavioral/life skills scores.

Standards-Based Learning Frequently Asked Questions

WDMS Standards-Based Learning Grading Scale

Better Communication Leads to Greater Student Achievement

Report cards are, by definition, tools used to communicate student performance. The point and percentage systems of traditional report cards are familiar to many of us. It is what we are comfortable with. But simple points struggle to reflect the complex thinking and learning that happens in today’s classroom. Standards-Based Learning ‘breaks down’ a student’s grade into specific skills, communicating specific levels of achievement in each area. Factors that would be misleading are not included in the academic performance levels. Parents can see which skills students have mastered and which ones they need more work on. This also creates a more consistent curriculum between teachers on the same grade level.

Why have we moved to Standards-Based Learning?

The answer is simple: better communication and more rigor. By changing the way we communicate a student’s progress, we are able to provide better, more meaningful communication to parents and students. This progress is measured using rubrics, which clearly articulate what different levels of performance look like and provide parents and students valuable information about the student’s progress and also a roadmap for growth. It is a much better way to communicate progress. These rubrics create higher rigor in our classrooms. This increase in rigor better prepares our students for whatever college and/or career path they choose. Many educational researchers consider Standards-Based Grading much more fair to students and best educational practice.

Isn’t basing grades on standards and rubrics really subjective?

All grading has an element of subjectivity. Reporting progress on standards is less so because there is clear criteria, divided into distinct levels. A system where a student’s grade is based on an average of points earned has the illusion of objectivity, but the reality is that the value of the points earned by students in such a system is totally subjective and often inconsistent from one teacher to another. In a Standards-Based system, a student’s work is measured against specific and clear criteria. This criteria is the backbone of the rubrics used to determine the level of proficiency. With specific criteria, it is much easier to control other factors that may impact a grade. These other factors may still be reported (an example would be neatness on an essay) but don’t impact that specific grade on a standard. Communicating progress on clear expectations is a better, and much less subjective, way to communicate academic progress to parents and students.

What do these proficiency levels mean for students and parents?

To determine a student’s proficiency within each standard, the teachers are creating clearly articulated rubrics to go along with each standard. Each rubric has five levels of proficiency. These levels represent what a student’s learning progression would look like.

For many of us when we were in school, our grades were primarily based on our ability to memorize things, which is represented in the beginning and developing levels of our rubrics. We want our students to be able to use what they know to apply, analyze, judge, and create. That’s college and career readiness in the 21st century and that is how we are increasing rigor for our students.

How does my student earn ‘Leading?’

Every student will have the opportunity to demonstrate advanced proficiency. Leading is usually challenging and our teachers scaffold instruction so students can get there. Please refer to classroom rubrics for individual levels.  

What was ‘wrong’ with the old system?

There are many similarities, but with Standards-Based Learning, progress is reported with much more detail. Single grades hide strengths and weaknesses. Averaging can gloss over misunderstandings and can create gaps in learning that only get discovered later when the stakes may be higher. Single grades contain many different factors making it difficult for parents and students to know what needs attention and what has been mastered. Providing feedback based on standards ‘breaks down’ a grade into component parts with clearly defined criteria. By providing the parents and students with the standards that make up or feed into a letter grade, the school is essentially “turning on the lights” to what had once been hidden behind a point or percentage system. With the information that priority standards provide, parents have more relevant and a greater quantity of information when conferencing with their student’s teacher(s). Parents will know the skills and/or knowledge necessary to demonstrate “Leading” work.  

How long have standards been around?

The state of Wisconsin adopted academic standards over 20 years ago. Since then we have had ‘standards-based instruction’ and assessments (big and small) tied to communicate progress toward achievement. Teachers have been required to teach to the standards for decades.

How will this benefit students?

This will assure that students within a grade level receive similar instruction and are assessed on the same expectations. This will also allow teachers to better communicate individual student progress. A Standards-Based reporting system shares much more information about the skills and knowledge a student has acquired with more detail than a single number. With the increased focus on higher performance and preparing our students for competition in a global marketplace, Standards-Based Learning provides consistency between teachers, clearer communication between school and home, and increased levels of rigor in classrooms. Parents can see their child's specific academic development. Students will have a clearer understanding of learning targets/goals, which research shows, raises student achievement.

How will this benefit the district?

Standards-Based Learning gives the district a much better understanding of the effectiveness of our curriculum and instruction. It allows us to analyze our practices making sure all our students leave college and career ready.

Adapted from the book, Leading Standards-Based Learning by Tammy Heflebower, Jan K. Hoegh, and Philip B. Warrick

Also adapted from Baraboo High School “Grading For Learning: Frequently Asked Questions”

The Research Behind Standards-Based Learning

Years of research connected to grading and reporting best practices are highlighted here. Read the following to learn more. 

Bradburd-Bailey, M. (2011). A preliminary investigation into the effect of standards-based grading on the academic performance of African-American students. (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. (3511593)

Dueck, M. (2014). Grading smarter, not harder: Assessment strategies that motivate kids and help them learn. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Feldman, J. (2019). Beyond standards-based grading: Why equity must be part of grading reform. Phi Delta Kappan100(8), 52-55.

Feldman, J. (2018). Grading for equity: What it is, why it matters, and how it can transform schools and classrooms. Corwin Press.Campbell, C. (2012). Learning-centered grading practices. 

Guskey, T. R. (2006). Making high school grades meaningful. Phi Delta Kappan, 87(9), 670-675. doi:10.1007/s11092-014-9191-4.

Heflebower, Tammy, Hoegh, Jan K., and Warrick, Philip B. (2021). Leading Standards-Based Learning: An Implementation Guide for Schools and Districts. Bloomington, IN. Marzano Resources

Marzano, R. J. (2017). NEW ART AND SCIENCE OF TEACHING: More than fifty new instructional strategies for academic success. S.l.: SOLUTION TREE.Marzano, R. J. (2000). Transforming classroom grading. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

O'Connor, K. (2010). A repair kit for grading: 15 fixes for broken grades. Portland, OR: Pearson Assessment Training Institute.

Pollio, M. & Hochbein, C. (2015). The association between standards-based grading and standardized test scores as an element of a high school reform model. Teachers College Record, 117(11), 1-28.

Wormeli, R. (2011). Redos and retakes done right. Educational Leadership, 69(3), 22-26. Retrieved from

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