Standards-Based Grading in the Chemistry Classroom

Standards Based Grading

An educational reform that has been gaining a large amount of popularity in the last decade is standards-based grading (SBG). The heart of the SBG movement is truly rooted in one very important question, “what do you want your grades mean?”

In a traditional points-based system, a student’s grade typically reflects performance on tests and quizzes, ability to turn in homework, participation, and maybe some extra points for bringing in tissues. This system leaves little room for reflection, remediation and growth. It also puts an undue weight on behavior as opposed to learning. In an SBG system, a student’s grade reflects how well he/she has mastered a set of learning targets. This system gives students timely feedback and opportunities to remediate and reassess their knowledge and skills. Behavior is modified outside of the gradebook so grades simply reflect learning. 

Theoretically, this system sounds great, but how do you implement it? Consider the following a crash course in implementing SBG in your chemistry classroom:

1. Map your curriculum into student friendly learning targets

If you curriculum is not broken down into learning targets, get to work. If you already have learning targets, make sure they fit the following criteria:

●Targets are written in student friendly language and are phrased as “I can” statements. Ultimately, these learning targets are for your students to reflect on, not you. Make sure your students can understand them.

●Targets address measurable skills. If you are going to grade by learning target, you need to be able to assign grades to your learning targets. Use specific action verbs that you can accurately assess like “I can calculate”, “I can define”, “I can construct”, etc.

●Targets should reflect what you want students to walk away knowing. Your learning targets should address the major concepts and skills for each unit. You can group related skills together instead of making individual targets. I aim for around six targets for each unit. 

Make sure your students always know what learning target they are working on. I have students write down their targets on grade tracking sheets and I am working on putting corresponding targets at the top of all of my worksheets.

2. Map your assessments to your learning targets

Now that you have all of these learning targets, it is time to put them to good use. Take a look at some assessments you already have written and align the questions to your learning targets. Make sure your targets are addressed evenly. I aim for one or two questions for every learning target I want to address on an assessment. Make the alignment clear on your assessments so students know which questions go with each target.

3. Rethink the way you assess

I give short, frequent quizzes in lieu of large tests to give students multiple opportunities to show growth. I try to assess every learning target on at least three different assessments. An assessment could be a quiz, a lab, a practicum, a challenge problem or anything else you think is a good demonstration of a student’s skills. You can start by breaking up some of your large assessments into smaller chunks.

Additionally, I allow students the opportunity to reassess any learning target at any time. If the goal is for students to learn, the timeline for learning should not matter. My reassessment policy is you can reassess one learning target a day until the end of the grading quarter. A reassessment is simply a one question quiz over a single learning target.

4. Track grades by learning target, not assessment

This step is a big one. In a traditional grading system, your gradebook may have headings like “Quiz 2.1” and “Worksheet 6.2.” These headings do not help the teacher, the students or their parents understand where a student is struggling and excelling.

In an SBG system, your gradebook has headings like “I can convert between mass and moles” and “I can find the empirical formula of a compound using percent composition data.” Since you are no longer grading by assignment, each assessment you give does not get one singular grade but rather a grade for every learning target the assessment addresses. My quizzes typically cover five learning targets. That means at the top of every quiz, students get five different grades, one for each learning target covered on the quiz. 

Figure 1: Sample student grade sheet.

5. Stop grading homework

The purpose of homework is to give students an opportunity to practice new skills and make mistakes. Students need to be given the opportunity to make mistakes with impunity. I try to only give homework when practice is truly needed so students are more inclined to complete it. We also whiteboard the homework the next day so students know they must be prepared to present their solutions to the class. I also assign optional homework that students can decide how much to complete depending on how much practice they think they need. This allows students the chance to reflect on their own learning and take control of their grades.

There will always be students who do not do their homework. Those students either already know the content and do not need the homework or will soon figure out that their grades are suffering because they are not practicing. I do not want a student who knows all the content but does not do homework to fail my class any more than I want a student who knows nothing but copies his/her homework from friends to pass my class. In the end, I want my grades to reflect what my students know about chemistry. 

6. Choose your “flavor” of SBG

You need to make 3 big decisions about your grades: what scale are you going to use to grade each learning target (rubric), how are you going to aggregate multiple grades for one learning target (standard calculation) and how are you going to calculate an overall grade (overall calculation).

I have never met two people who do SBG exactly the same. Figure out what works for you and commit to it. You can use the graphic below to help you brainstorm:

Figure 2: Possible combinations of calculation methods to define your SBG system.

These are not the only methods you can choose from for your SBG system, but these are what I have seen to be most popular and effective.

I use a 3-point rubric for my learning targets. This means for every learning target on an assessment, students get a grade of “got it”, “almost” or “not yet.” A “got it” means the student has demonstrated complete mastery of the target, an “almost” means the student is on the right track but made a mistake or two and a “not yet” means the student has yet to demonstrate an understanding of the learning target. I try to stay away from points-based language entirely so students are less concerned with how many points they have collected and more concerned with their strengths and weaknesses. The 3-point system allows for a small amount of gray area but not enough to become arbitrary. I use median to aggregate multiple grades for a learning target because it allows students to show growth while encouraging students to remediate “not yets” early instead of waiting until the last minute. Finally, I calculate an overall grade by taking the average across all my learning targets. I do this because it is transparent and more forgiving than percent mastery.

Do your research and make your system your own. You need to buy into it if you want your students and parents to buy into it.

7. Communicate confidently and positively

You may be in for an uphill battle with administrators, parents, students and your colleagues. All of these stakeholders are used to a traditional grading system that has been in use for over 100 years. If you are going to challenge the status quo, you must do it confidently. Be prepared to answer questions and defend your methodology. Most importantly, always communicate positively! If you believe in what you are doing, others will believe in you. 

If you would like to do more reading about standards based grading, I can't do better than Matt Townsley's curated top 10 SBG articles list

Best of luck! 

Join the conversation.

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Comments 7

Erica Posthuma's picture
Erica Posthuma | Mon, 02/01/2016 - 19:06

THANK YOU for this article. This is one of the best "crash courses" I"ve seen!  I have started the process of switching from traditional to SBG this year.  I have a question about the sample grade book you included in the article.  I noticed on the first standard the student earned 0,1,1,2,2 and it looks like the student's mean score is reported as 1, but what I see is that the student has shown growth and has tested at a 2 on the most recent assessments.  If the grade is supposed to reflect what the student knows, hasn't the student demonstrated mastery by earning a 2 on the most recent assessments?  As I'm trying to craft my grading policy, I'm interested in your thoughts.


Lauren Stewart's picture
Lauren Stewart | Tue, 02/02/2016 - 15:15

Hi Erica!

Great question! I use a median calculation when calculating the grade for my learning targets. I have a few reasons for this:

  1. If a student does not get something the first time, I want them to demonstrate mastery more than once to show they have got it, just like I would expect a student who gets something the first time to continue to show mastery. On the flip side, if a student has been consistently showing mastery and has one off day (as we know teenagers do), I don't want that single assessment to completely drop his/her grade for the target. 
  2. I find that using a median instead of most recent encourages students to remediate and reassess immediately instead of waiting until the last minute like they could with most recent. This helps keep students from falling behind if they take a little longer to master a concept. My students know as soon as they get a "not yet" they need to get some extra help and reassess so they don't dig themselves a hole with more "not yets." 
  3. I also like the idea of using a weighted average calculation where the most recent grade is weighted most heavily but that is too difficult for my students to understand right now. Median works well for me because it is easy for students to understand and track their grades and it is not impossible to work against "not yets" like it would be with a straight average.

When I look at the first learning target for the sample gradebook, I see a student who struggled on three formal assessments and then achieved mastery. Since that student had some struggles with this target, I want to make sure that the student has the target down. I have found that multiple reassessments over the same target really help students feel more confident with the material. The first time a student reassesses, he/she often comments, "I'm not sure if I did this right." The next time, the student always feels more confident about what he/she hands in. If the student has to reassess a third time (which is pretty rare), that target is a piece of cake. I think that shows mastery more than the reassessment that the student is unsure about. My gradebook also rounds in favor of the student. If a student has 2 "almosts" and 2 "got its", my gradebook rounds up to a "got it" when the median falls in between. 

Whenever I present on SBG, I always say, "do what works for you and your students!" I completely understand the rationale for most recent and I buy into it in most cases where I see it used. For me and my students, I want to turn that "I don't know if I did this right" to "I have got this down!" Using the median grade for a target helps me do that. 

Good luck with the big switch!

Lauren Stewart


Andrew Berg | Wed, 02/03/2016 - 10:21

The author stated her reasoning for using the median score, i.e., she didn't want students putting off mastery until the last assessment.  It sounds like you would be more comfortable with the "Most Recent" score option from the second column of the "Choose your Flavor" chart.  I think I would too, for the reasons that you stated.  Either that or a weighted average of some sort.

Good luck!

Andrew Berg

Melanie Shedd's picture
Melanie Shedd | Mon, 06/05/2017 - 10:35

Would you be willing to share your standards for your Chemistry class?  

Leo Lafond | Mon, 08/06/2018 - 07:11

Hi Lauren

     My school is in the process of using standard based grading. Would you be willing to share your standards for your Chemistry class? This would really help me (us) getting a head start on the process.




     Leo Lafond

Brooks School

North Andover, MA

Lauren Stewart's picture
Lauren Stewart | Mon, 08/06/2018 - 09:37

Hi Leo,

If you check out my personal blog, , I have posted my learning targets and some more SBG resources there over the years. I think what I have up is a little outdated so I will try to update them sometime this week. I use the AMTA Modeling Instruction curriculum in case you are confused by the order. 

Good luck!


Leo Lafond | Mon, 08/06/2018 - 14:28

Awesome Lauren. I really appreciate the help. Can I get back to you if I have questions?