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Standards Based Learning

One of the most frustrating things a student can receive in school is a poor grade without understanding why or how to improve. Grades should be markers of learning and progress, but A B C D F grades are very vague and do little to provide beneficial information to students. 

What is Standards-Based Learning?

Standards-based learning (SBL) is a system of education which focuses on student learning and grades based on demonstrated understanding of specific concepts. Instead of a simple letter, students receive grades in multiple different learning targets and can see which concepts they understood well and which they need to improve on.

Standards-based learning provides explanations of the concepts and material that students should know at each point in their education. These are called learning standards, which provide a baseline that is consistent across all students at this education level. Teachers’ instruction is guided by these standards and they work to make sure their students learn all of the expected standards they need to before leaving their class. When students receive report cards, they receive a list of learning standards and a grade (normally on a 1-4 scale) on each standard of how well they mastered the material.

What is Standards Based Grading?


Provides meaning to grades – In traditional grading, students received a report card with overall grades for each subject. They may not have been able to explain exactly what skills were assessed or what the expectations were to earn a specific letter grade. Communicating this information is one of the primary aims of standards based learning.  

Standards provide outcome statements or specific skills and content knowledge for each level of mastery. Students understand why they receive each grade and the breakdown of how they did on each standard rather than receiving a vague letter grade, subjectively determined by the teacher. 

Keeps students and teachers accountable –Learning standards that include learning outcome statements ensure teachers know what they are expected to teach, and students understand what they are expected to learn and do. With the use of consistent formative assessments, teachers and students have data to show the progress in mastering these learning targets and can adjust as needed to ensure proficient understanding by the end of the course. 

Better feedback for improvement – With grades broken up into different learning standards, students can immediately see which specific areas of learning they need to improve upon. Rather than thinking, “I’m bad at math,” a student might identify, “I am strong in addition and subtraction, and I need more practice with decimals.”  

Teachers also use this information to improve instruction; if they see that most of the class has a lack of understanding in one standard, they can target review on that specific skill, not the entire chapter or unit. 

Provides information to differentiate instruction – With frequent formative assessments and a clear learning target as the basis, the teacher can identify which students have mastered the concept and which students need reteaching. Using this information, they can differentiate instruction, providing extension and challenge for those who are ready and review for those who need more practice. These groupings are flexible, changing based on the data collected for each standard. 

Students become more self-motivated – The goal of standards-based learning is student mastery through a growth process. Students are not penalized for missing questions during the instructional phase, as formative work is not reflected in their grades. Knowing there are opportunities to improve, students become more motivated to truly understand the material. Sharing the outcome statement as the goal of the unit communicates the relevance of each lesson that builds toward the end in mind. For example, students make the connection as to how a lesson on light reflection and refraction is important to the overall goal of explaining how “light reflecting off of objects and entering the eye allows things to be seen (4th grade science).” The, “Will this be graded?” question is slowly replaced with earnest questions to better understand the material and continue to improve. 

Tracks Standards Mastery – With standards-based grading, teachers can focus their instruction and analyze student progress toward mastering the content required for each standard. Tracking standards mastery helps instructors make sure they are adequately preparing students for benchmark testing, standardized testing, and the curriculum content that will be introduced the next year. In short, it provides a systematic road map and check-in process that necessary skills and content knowledge have been obtained through the year. 

Adapted from Edulastic. Everything You  Need to Know About Standards-Based Grading. August 27, 2018.