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As two teachers who think critically about their grading practices, we are happy to share our successes and challenges in implementing standards-based grading in our 10th grade chemistry class.

The 2022-23 academic year brought the two of us together in a collaborative teaching partnership at Boston University Academy, our small private school nestled within Boston University’s campus. The preceding summer, we had both read Grading for Equity, by Joe Feldman, and were excited to experiment with some of the topics in the book related to standards-based grading. We knew we could not commit to a course entirely based on standards-based grading, so instead we looked for natural ways to adjust existing aspects of the course.

Over the 2022-23 academic year, we enjoyed seeing how introducing standards changed the conversation around learning, both for us and our students. We also looked for ways to extend the standards-based grading pedagogy to other aspects of the course for the 2023-24 school year.

In this article, we share some of our tactics, observations, and challenges in the hopes that those who are thinking of trying standards-based grading might find a place to start. For those who already use standards-based grading, we hope this article might motivate them to share about their experience, so that we can all learn and grow from them, too.

Implementing learning check-ins

Before 2022, students in our chemistry course took mini-quizzes between tests to assess their understanding on new topics. Our first effort to incorporate standards-based grading was to make those quizzes ungraded, and create descriptive standards that aligned with each skill being assessed. We also rebranded them as learning check-ins (LCIs), to remove some of the anxiety that can go along with the word “quiz.” We continued to grade tests, labs, and projects using our usual point system, but told the students to use LCIs as a guide to determine what to study for upcoming assessments.

At the start of each unit, we presented to the students 4-6 standards we had written in an attempt to encompass the skills we wanted to emphasize for that section (Figure 1). On the day of the first LCI, we explained that each LCI would be assessed not with a grade, but rather with a ‘P’, ‘D’, or ‘NE’ (for proficient, developing, or no evidence, respectively). Students would earn a ‘D’ on a standard if they showed anywhere from minimal knowledge of a topic to almost reaching mastery. Earning a ‘P” would mean they showed full mastery of a topic, while earning an ‘NE’ would mean the student either left the question blank or was way off base. If a student earned a ‘D’ on all standards for that LCI or an ‘NE’ on any of the assessed standards, they were required to meet with us to review and correct it together. LCIs typically assess 2-3 standards each.

Right away, we felt that applying standards-based grading to LCIs appeared more equitable in comparison to grading with numerical points. For one thing, it was much easier to assign a P, D, or NE than to determine how many points to take off for a calculation error, for example. Also, it was easier to talk to students about how to focus their studying; for example, we could now tell a student, “You need to practice drawing dipole moments to determine molecular polarity,” as opposed to sharing a more general comment. We could also be more specific with students and families when sending home progress reports, as it was easy to point to standards the student should review based on their performance on LCIs.

Figure 1. The authors’ Learning Check In (LCI) standards rubric. The top image shows the standards assessment rubric they used on the first LCI they administered in 2022. The bottom image shows the changes they made to that specific rubric in 2023. The authors changed the wording to describe performance on standards in the present tense, and also made the second standard more generic, so it would be applicable across many units.


Throughout the year, we observed that our students liked the LCIs, even to the point where they would request them! Who would have thought students might want an assessment? This experience showed that they recognized the importance of LCIs as a tool to gauge their understanding and influence their studying. Removing the grade reduced pressure on the students and allowed them to make mistakes without penalty. Further, requiring students to meet with us about LCIs created an easy opportunity for one-on-one check-ins. Students were not embarrassed to come in; rather than being self-conscious about a low grade, they knew the meeting was what all students did to review their developing skills.

At the end of the year, we compared the final exam averages to those from the last eight years, and found no significant change. This was encouraging in that it showed that removing the quiz grades and adding standards did not affect the course generally, although we had hoped it might have shown a slight improvement with the change in mindset for students. We hope to gain more insight on this point as we implement more standards-based grading practices going forward.

These benefits did come with challenges along the way. For one, it took many preparation blocks and time at home to create the standards and adjust the mini-quizzes-turned-LCIs to match them. We wanted to be consistent and have standards for every unit, so we were committed to that extra planning time. It also took time to track the standards for each student. Rather than listing one score for an LCI, we were entering in a P, D, or NE for each standard on each LCI in an Excel spreadsheet. We were initially tracking standards by LCI rather than standard progress over time, so it was difficult to get a complete picture of the students’ growth for a particular standard (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Standards tracking sheet (for the teacher’s use). The image shows the initial tracking method which tracked standards individually on each assessment. This made it difficult to track standards over time.

At the same time, we were still grading all other assessments using points. We did not love the disjointed feeling of giving standard feedback on one assessment, and points on another. We also could not give specific feedback on tests, as we did for LCIs. Our excitement about using standards-based grading in the face of these challenges made us determined to continue our standards-based grading journey, and gave us ideas for what we wanted to build on the next year.

Figure 3. Standards tracking sheet (for the teacher’s use). The image shows the tracking method used in the second year, which shows how a particular student changed over time for a specific standard. For example, this student showed no evidence of an ability to compare polarity on the first LCI, showed they were developing the skill on the second LCI, and finally showed proficiency on both a lab assignment and the unit test.

Evolving our practice

In 2023 we have grown our implementation of standards-based grading in scope, usage, and transparency. For one, we have provided standards for each unit to students ahead of assessments; chapter materials now contain a comprehensive list of skills that students are expected to master upon completion of the chapter. The goal is to have students know exactly what skills they are working to master in advance of assessments.

We also are updating standards as we review each unit; some apply across many units, allowing us to minimize the list of standards to track (Figure 1). We have extended standards to lab experiments, as many of the assignments involve the same quantitative and reasoning skills assessed on LCIs. We are also creating lab-specific standards about data analysis, observation, and science communication.

For tests, we are attaching the full standards list to the front of the test, and scoring students with P, D, and NE, along with a traditional numerical grade. This year, however, we decided to continue grading with the traditional point scale, because we do not yet have a clear idea of how to translate a test graded on standards to a point value. Analyzing our tests with the standards has allowed us to adjust them to ensure that we are neither over- nor under-assessing any particular standard.

Seeing benefits

So far, we have noticed several benefits of expanding standards-based grading. For one, providing students with a comprehensive list for each unit allows them to track their own progress and understand their learning goals. Students continue to appreciate LCIs as opportunities to attempt test-style problems on their own to gauge their understanding of a particular concept without fear of grade penalization. We’ve also noticed that students can connect lecture material more easily to lab material, as the two aspects of the course become more integrated in terms of skills through shared standards.

In addition, students are discussing course content in terms of standards on which they need to improve, rather than merely talking about points lost. For example, a student wrote in a mid-semester reflection, “I need to work on lab analysis problems and give more specific details to completely explain my answer.” Finally, even though we are still grading tests numerically, showing students which standards are assessed on each question gives them a more comprehensive understanding of their test scores.

Our qualitative feedback to students has continued to improve; with the inclusion of standards on lab assignments and unit tests, we can now write even more specific comments to students and families about areas of struggle or mastery. The extension to labs has felt particularly useful, as we can help students develop empirical reasoning skills more concretely than before (Figure 4). We now track by standard rather than by assignment, which gives us a better sense of a student’s conceptual mastery. This way, we can see a student grow from showing no evidence to reaching proficiency on a standard for a particular unit (Figure 3).

Figure 4. Example of a lab assignment rubric attached to the front of a student’s lab assignment, including standards-based grading assessment and qualitative feedback.

Though course pacing has stayed the same, growing our standards-based grading practices continues to take up much of our preparatory time. Extending standards to labs and tests has meant taking time to ensure we are assessing each skill multiple times across assignments. We have been diligent about creating lab standards and adjusting assignment questions for each of the seven labs in the fall semester, and adjusting tests to assess the standards we have created more equitably. It takes more time to grade tests with points and numbers, as we still report a numerical value for unit tests. It has also been a challenge to get students to track themselves consistently; we have encouraged them to keep track of progress in their chapter packets, but with limited success.

Finally, we have encountered some standards that are not assessed more than once, which makes us question if it makes sense to track across all assessments, or cut them out of the curriculum entirely. For example, we only assessed students once on the law of multiple proportions; perhaps this means we do not actually feel this is something important to assess.

Planning for the future

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Looking to next year, we would like to also incorporate standards into homework assignments, which now are checked only for completion, and do not take standards into account. We also are brainstorming ideas about how to effectively share “live” tracking of standards that students can access and perhaps even contribute to. We also would like to determine the best way to assign numerical grades to tests while only grading with standards, which will get clearer as we become more comfortable with the pedagogy of standards-based grading.

In the years ahead, we hope to move our course to a full standards-based grading model, meaning that all assignments (chapter problem sets, labs, projects) and assessments (LCIs, tests, final exams) are assessed solely using standards. Given that we still operate on a letter-grade/GPA system, many questions remain about how we translate standards-based grading into numerical scores and letter grades for student transcripts.

We have found our initial work in applying standards-based grading to be fruitful and encouraging. While it requires time and patience, we believe that other science teachers can readily incorporate more equitable grading practices. We recommend starting small; even changing our graded quizzes to ungraded LCIs provided an entry point to this form of grading. If that is all you can change, there are still great benefits to changing the conversation about grades around one small assessment.

We also recommend practicing a growth-mindset, and to not be afraid to change practices mid-year. While these changes at any scale can feel laborious, we can clearly see benefits for both students and teachers. Standards-based grading has led to clearer, more specific communication with students in terms of their mastery of course material, and has allowed for us to better understand how students are learning. It has also been a rewarding experience as teachers to be able to step outside of the usual conversations about numerical points to talking about skills instead. That alone is worth the time!

We are lucky to be at a school where we have a lot of freedom to make changes like this on our schedule and receive support from our administration. We also have not received negative feedback from families on this practice (yet!). Being at a private school, we do not need to follow the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and have the freedom to create standards that make sense with our course.

Using NGSS might be an easy place to start for teachers. Clueing students in on what they are being assessed on is one of the main components of standards-based grading. The other part is the huge hurdle of ditching points altogether. We would love to hear from other chemistry teachers who are trying standards-based grading. What are your methods? What challenges have you encountered? How have you overcome them? Let us know!