How One Teacher Made the Shift to Standards-Based Grading and Never Looked Back 1

This post was written by Michal Eynon-Lynch as a featured interview with me for Haiku Learning. It is re-posted here with permission. The words and ideas expressed here are those of Michal.


Transitioning to a new style of grading is fraught with challenges; it is not a task that an educator pursues lightly. Before considering such a change, it’s important to remember why we teach. For Gary Abud, he is excited by the notion of “impacting students’ lives, getting to explore and learn together with kids, and helping students achieve what they couldn’t achieve alone.” Students leave your class with so many impressions, skills, and lessons; you have the ability to be a role model, leader, and shape students’ futures with them.

Gary Abud Teaching

“It’s motivating when students ‘get’ what you’re doing; in other words, when they buy into the process because they find value in it, that is motivating. When the teaching process becomes explicit enough that students can feel like it’s something they are a part of (and not something that’s being done to them) that makes the learning environment very motivating for everyone.”

He went on to say that, “Challenges are one of the best thing about teaching. Every challenge helps you grow in your ability and expertise. Challenges include finding that right connection for each student that will give them access to the understanding, engage them in the learning, and motivate them to be a part of the classroom culture. The feedback from interactions during class pose the challenge of what to do next and how to improve my practice to reach all learners.”

Gary first learned about SBG in a graduate class on assessment. Gary recalled that there was a watershed moment with one of his physics students, in which he realized that the way he graded allowed students to earn a grade that didn’t represent what they knew. “ I really decided something had to change. I started researching some ideas online and found several science teachers around the country who were doing SBG and blogging about it. I read all their work and it inspired me to give it a try. I purchased some books about SBG by Marzano and read up about the philosophy and logistics behind it. I did all this “homework” over Christmas time, and then came back second semester implementing an entirely different plan–SBG!”

10 Ability Statements Per Unit

Gary based his standards off of state content standards, district curriculum, and other curriculum framework materials for his courses. He combined all of these resources into 10 “power standards” for each unit of study and each one is phrased as an ability statement using first-person language and observable action verbs. In this way, students clearly know what they are expected to be able to do and the questions on assessments can be worded in very similar ways. See Gary’s Chem Standards

Assessments, Assessments, and Re-Assessments

In Gary’s classroom, SBG is all about assessments. The only thing that counts is an assessment of learning. While he does do formative assessments for learning, grades are based exclusively on assessments of student learning. Homework is not counted. “I give an assessment every Friday on the new standards of that week + any previous standards from the same unit of study. Assessments are no more than 10 questions, all constructed-response, and fit on one sheet front/back. Each question assesses one standard, which is written next to the question.”

Every question is scored on a 1-4 scale, where 1=novice and 4=expert-level demonstration of understanding. The scores are reported by standard for each assessment, and no overall grade is given to an assessment. “Using ActiveGrade, or formerly Microsoft Excel and Google Spreadsheets, I can report student progress on each standard over time. Then, I align my assignments, projects, and lessons to standards. This way students can keep track of their learning in a formative way or know what resources there are to study from in preparation for assessments.”

One of the key pieces of Gary’s system is that students’ scores are recorded on each standard and each new assessment replaces the scores of the previous assessment. “This gives students an accurate running record of their learning. This is true of better scores or worse scores on subsequent assessments.” However, students are invited to come in during office hours to reassess any skill. If the student feels they can demonstrate better understanding, they are given the opportunity to do so.

Drawing in All Stake-Holders

Students are kept up-to-date through their ActiveGrade login. They can see detailed feedback on their learning and progress over time. Parents share a login with their student, and school staff have their own login to interact with relevant student data. “Weekly progress reports are emailed to students as well as parents and support staff who feel like they can help students even more in my class because the detailed SBG feedback gives them exact information on areas where students are successful or need more attention.”

The Best Thing For Student Learning

“SBG has been one of the best things I ever did for my teaching. Instead of “what you did” to get a grade, it’s now “what you knew” to get a grade. Shifting the paradigm in grading for myself and my students has refocused everyone on what’s most important–student learning.”

Adopting Standards-Based Grading has had a couple of nice side effects in Gary’s classroom. For one, it necessitates being much more organized in his lesson planning and designing. “I have to start with the standards, design assessments to clearly measure them, and create lessons aligned to standards that can support my instruction to get students to master the standards. I have to really be ‘on my game’ with a SBG system, because everything needs to be organized and well thought-out beforehand.”

Another side benefit is a new level of transparency that removes some of the barriers to learning. “Now that everything is aligned to standards, students have a clear picture of what they are expected to learn and how they can organize themselves to prepare for assessments.”

Students Are Less Stressed and Don’t Have to ‘play the game of school.’

“Getting more detailed feedback about what students know and are able to do, from assessments, has really informed my instruction so that I can more readily address student learning or adjust my instruction based on performance. With the reassessment piece in place, students feel more in control of their learning and I feel that I am empowering students to be better learners and more metacognitive. Before, task completion and playing ‘the game of school’ was students’ focus. Behavior (e.g., tardiness, late-work, missing assignment zero scores, etc.) is now separated out from the grade, and I am confident, as are the students, that their grade is an accurate reflection of what they know and are able to do. I don’t even assign homework, because I want that practice to be done in class together. Students are less stressed about class, even when there is an assessment, because they’re focused more on the learning and are more prepared to demonstrate their learning. SBG has become part of my classroom brand, and it guides nearly every decision I make in my classroom.

Downsides, No; Challenges, Yes

#1 – Philosophical Shift

Gary admitted that adopting SBG was not without it’s challenges. First off was getting used to grading on a rubric, designing better assessments, and using those assessments to alter teaching as needed.

#2 – Student onboarding

This is new for students. They are used to a point-based grading system, as are their parents, and are accustomed to their grades reflecting what they have completed, not necessarily what they know right now. Whereas traditional grading is 2-dimensional – in that it returns an average of scores on different assessments, Standards-Based Grading is more 3-dimensional – it reflects mastery of individual skills. “But once students understood it, they became ambassadors. This translated into another challenge: students would confront other teachers on their traditional grading practice pitfalls and cite my classroom in their argument. Great problem to have, but still a challenge to navigate.”

#3 – Buy-in from Parents and Support Staff

To get stakeholder buy-in, Gary found he had to do a lot of educating on the process of SBG. People weren’t necessarily immediately convinced and became frustrated by the change. Since SBG requires such a shift in thinking, it can take a while for all parties to see the benefits.

Think of It Like Rubric Grading Without an Overall Score

Gary advises anyone considering a switch to SBG to remember that it’ll be a major shift for everyone involved, which might include “fallout from stakeholders and students, and a fair amount of work (at startup) to get your lessons and assessments fine tuned to your standards.” He recommends doing your homework ahead of time and be prepared for a rocky beginning. “ The best advice for making the transition smoothly is to look at this as something you’ve probably already been doing (using rubrics to grade student performance) and that for the big picture, it is just rubric grading with no bottom-line, overall score in the rubric reporting.”


Photo by Brian Abud |

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Gary is an influential teacher leader with extensive experience educating students at the high school and university level. He is a regular conference presenter, education speaker, and leader of staff development for educators. His classroom practice embraces a collaborative environment centered on constructivist teaching, project-based learning, classroom branding, Modeling Instruction, standards-based grading, and mobile device technologies.

About Gary G Abud Jr

Gary is an influential teacher leader with extensive experience educating students at the high school and university level. He is a regular conference presenter, education speaker, and leader of staff development for educators. His classroom practice embraces a collaborative environment centered on constructivist teaching, project-based learning, classroom branding, Modeling Instruction, standards-based grading, and mobile device technologies.

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One thought on “How One Teacher Made the Shift to Standards-Based Grading and Never Looked Back

  • daveeckstrom

    I see a lot of what I’ve been going through in my shift to SBG in this post.

    The switch is full of headaches, but mostly because people don’t get it. I’ve been called everything from lazy (as if) to a communist since I began using SBG, but I don’t care, because it’s the one innovation I’ve tried in my classroom in 20 years that most moves students toward actively taking charge of their own learning.

    The only way I will ever go back is if some influential parents in my school district get their way and my administrators force me to return to a traditional grading philosophy.