California Department of Education
Taking Center Stage – Act II

Grades and effective standards-based reporting

The link between standards-based education and accountability raises the question of grades and the importance of accurately reporting progress to students and parent/guardians. In Transforming Classroom Grading, Robert Marzano says, "A single letter grade or a percentage score is not a good way to report student achievement in any subject area because it simply cannot present the level of detailed feedback necessary for effective learning."1

One problem with traditional grading is that it is often subjective and combines all the course standards under a single grade. Since each course covers a number of standards per quarter or semester, a single end-of-term grade does not give either parents or students an adequate picture of progress on all standards. As a result, it is difficult to convert measures of proficiency on a variety of standards into one letter grade. To help schools transition to a standards-based reporting system, Taking Center Stage included a Prototype Student Performance Report as a model for a standards-based report card.2

Another problem with traditional grades is that they are not consistent from one teacher to the next. One teacher’s A might signify grade-level excellence, while another teacher, grading a struggling student, might give an A showing that the student tried hard and made good progress.

Open-ended questions and assignments (in contrast to multiple-choice options) raise another challenge in grading. Standards-based rubrics provide a more objective means of assessing student performance levels. Rubrics generally define specific criteria—and often show exemplars—to indicate levels of proficiency on constructed-response tasks. Taking Center Stage included an example of a Four-Point Scoring Guide (Appendix 3-G), or rubric, for writing. The California Standards Test Teacher Guide for the 2008 California Standards Test in Grade Seven (PDF; 1.32KM; 73pp.) includes both exemplars and explanations of how sample student work was scored at each level. The guides for the California Standards Tests in writing from 2005 through 2008 provide multiple sample student responses at each score point for all writing tasks administered.

Although rubrics work well for writing and other open-ended tasks, different types of scoring may be needed for courses such as mathematics. Rubrics may not be appropriate to indicate end-of-course proficiency levels on all subjects.

Conversion from a letter grading system to a standards-based reporting system is challenging. Parents expect letter grades, which often help to determine college admission or to provide motivation for sports and participation in extracurricular activities. However, changing from a traditional grading practice to a standards-based system will provide more reliable information that measures all students fairly on comparable scales. Standards-based reporting more accurately shows parents and students specific areas of proficiency as well as areas needing improvement, but it takes time to develop.

In the Spotlight

Galt Joint Union Elementary School District
Galt developed a paper explaining Standards-Based Middle School Report Cards. The paper provides the background about how the district devised the report cards. It also explains the performance levels (including those for work habits and conduct) as well as provides a sample of how the report card would work for a fictional student.

McKinleyville Middle School, McKinleyville Union School District, a 2006 Schools to Watch™-Taking Center Stage Model School
McKinleyville implemented an online standards-based report system and standards-based strands for all intervention lessons and classes. McKinleyville has deliberately chosen not to implement a dual system but to use only standards-aligned reports.

Ocean View Junior High School, Ocean View Elementary School District, is a 2006 On the Right Track School
Ocean View also developed a standards-based report card to emphasize the importance of standards-based instruction.

Silverado Middle School, Dry Creek Joint School District, a 2003 Schools to Watch™-Taking Center Stage Model School
Silverado developed a dual reporting system using both a standards-based report card and one reporting traditional grades.


Some middle schools have implemented a grading system known as the ABCI program that includes a no failure option. The intent of the ABCI no-failure system is to overcome complacency by counting only A, B, and C grades. Any assignment or test that earns less than a C receives an I for incomplete. Students must attend after-school classes, tutoring, or other support options to make up the assignment. Teachers collaborate on modifying instruction to support students in achieving the higher expectations.3 School staff teams who agree to this system must take into account what to do with students who earn an incomplete at the end of a semester or course. Students must understand that they cannot go on to high school without completing the required courses and that summer or intersessions will be required before they can pass to the next grade level.

Discussions about grading and standards-based reporting can help to ensure consistency and fairness for all students in a school. For example, the teaching team can discuss ideas such as those in Rick Wormeli’s 2006 book about differentiated instruction. Wormeli, a popular lecturer, writer, and former teacher, warns against ten grading practices that dilute a grade's validity and effectiveness:

  • Penalizing students for multiple attempts at mastery.
  • Grading practice (daily homework) as students come to know concepts (feedback, not grading, is needed).
  • Withholding scaffolding or other supports to help the student gain mastery (except on final tests).
  • Group grades.
  • Incorporating nonacademic factors such as behavior, attendance, and effort into the final grade.
  • Assessing students in ways that do not accurately indicate students' mastery (student responses are hindered by the assessment format).
  • Grading on a curve.
  • Allowing extra credit and bonus points.
  • Defining supposedly criterion-based grades in terms of norm-referenced descriptions (above average, average, etc.).
  • Recording zeros on the 100.0 scale for work not done. For example, many teachers will record 50 percent or even 20 percent for incomplete work, realizing that a few zeros will make it nearly impossible for a student to earn enough points to pass if he or she starts working harder. Anything less than 50 percent still earns an F grade on the missing assignment but does not lead the student to believe it is hopeless to keep trying.4

Discussion Point: If a teacher uses the no zero option for incomplete work, the issue still arises of what to do about those who skip assignments completely. Rewarding students by granting points despite missing assignments sends the wrong message to those students who try but fail to complete or understand their work. Teams need to develop consistent policies that all teachers are willing to enforce when dealing with incomplete, missing, or completely wrong assignments. One option is to give either a 1 or a zero on homework, with total homework assignments counting for the difference between a plus or a minus grade. Other incentive programs such as field trips or dance passes might be available only for those who have completed all assignments.

In the Spotlight

The 100 Percent Club, or The Perfect 10s
Some middle schools have used incentive systems, such as The Perfect 10 Club, to encourage homework completion and good citizenship. In one example, all students begin a semester with 100 merit points. Only those students who maintain 95 or above may attend dances or other special events. Citations result in deduction of points for small infractions (one-point citations) or for as many as five points for California Education Code infractions. Teachers use a three-part form to issue and track citations: one copy to the student, one to an office assistant who enters the data each day in the computer, and one for the office file. To encourage team spirit, students can earn back merit points through attendance at the homework/after-school study center or through school-approved service or make-up assignments. However, when students drop below 90 points, the computerized system automatically generates a letter to the parents and mandatory lunch detention. At the end of the semester, those students with a Perfect 10 (100 points) join in the Perfect 10 celebration. Perfect attendance, completion of all assignments, and good citizenship are honored at the celebration.

Tell us about your positive discipline and incentives at your school. Please Share Your Ideas!

Pacing guides


1Robert Marzano, Transforming Classroom Grading. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2000.
2Taking Center Stage. Sacramento: California Department of Education, 2001, 34-36.
3Sue Kenkel, Steve Hoelscher, and Teri West, "Leading Adolescents to Mastery," Educational Leadership, Vol. 63, No.7 (April 2006) 33-37.
4Rick Wormeli, Fair Isn't Always Equal: Assessment and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom (PDF; Outside Source). Portland, Maine: Stenhouse, 2006.

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