Building a Standards-Based Foundation

The education field is in the beginnings of a revolution I never imagined I’d witness while still a practicing teacher.  Classrooms, schools, and even entire districts are shifting their grading procedures toward standards-based grading and reporting.  This is a great end goal for any school or district.  There is no better way to inform on student attainment of standards than to report the student’s current standing in relation to the specific learning we have for them.  When teachers report out standard by standard, or learning target by learning target, all vested parties know where they are on the path to standards mastery.

However, the reporting of student attainment of standards cannot be where we start.  Long before we can have meaningful conversations about the reporting, we need to talk about standards-based learning and assessment.  It doesn’t matter what you report out if, at the foundational level, you’re not dealing with the standards on a daily instructional and assessment level.  This is what Tom Schimmer refers to as having a standards-based mindset.  Do you know what your standards are?  Do you have them broken down into meaningful chunks of learning for your students?  Do you communicate them to your students? Are your learning activities aligned to them?  Do your assessments measure student attainment?

When we build this system from the ground up we must start with a solid foundation.  Teaching and learning are aligned when teachers and students are both clear on what the learning intention is.  Neither side has to guess what is supposed to be learned or taught.  The learning expectations can be clearly communicated, in student-friendly language, to provide all students with a clear idea of their destination.  But in order to accomplish this teachers have to get in and grapple with their standards.  They need to work in groups and figure out what exactly are the standards asking kids to know and do.  It is through this process of deconstruction that teachers develop a shared understanding of what the standards mean.  And once this vision is arrived at, it matters less who a student’s teacher is because everyone is headed toward the same destination.  

Once teachers have developed a shared vision of the standards the next step is constructing assessments that will measure student attainment of them.  These assessments are used formatively during learning to promote student success, and summatively after learning to certify student achievement.  I don’t think I can stress enough that these assessments aren’t just about determining who is right and wrong.  Assessments have to be built to inform both the teacher and student about the current state of understanding and, if developed well, illuminate what the next steps may be.  Well-designed assessments not only reveal who knows the correct answers they also tell us where students went wrong.  Diagnostic assessments that tell teachers and students where and how students ended up in the weeds allow both to make adjustments to teaching and learning.

Now with clear learning targets and sounds assessments we next need to provide effective feedback to students, as well as teach them how to self- and peer-assess.  Effective feedback doesn’t provide students with the answer.  Instead it provides students with an indication of what their strengths and weaknesses are, along with some direction as to what comes next.  Offering students feedback empowers them to take the next steps in their learning.  

These foundational practices provide the validity to standards-based grading.  If they are carefully implemented within a classroom, school, or district the transition to a standards-based report card becomes a logical next step.  Without them we put teachers in the situation where they lack the necessary knowledge and skills and, in an effort to be compliant, they take their traditional practices and force them into something that appears to be standards-based but in reality is not.

So as we continue this educational revolution, let’s keep in mind the strong foundation we must build before we are truly able to realize the power of standards-based grading and reporting.  Anything less than that is a disservice to teachers, students, parents, administrators, and communities.

#atisummer2017 #atibyod

Ken is addressing this topic in his session at the ATI Summer Conference Deconstructing Standards and Developing Learning Targets. Ken Mattingly as writes at

Ken Mattingly

Ken Mattingly, a science teacher at Rockcastle County Middle School in Mount Vernon, Kentucky, has 18 years of experience in sixth and seventh grades and holds national certification in early adolescent science. He has worked on implementing classroom assessment for student learning practices in his classroom for the past seven years, and led the implementation of standards-based grading in his school. During the past two years Ken has worked with multiple school districts across Kentucky to help develop a vision of balanced assessment, promote transparency in grading practices, and shift the teacher and student focus to the learning instead of the grade.


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