Standards-Based Grading has been phasing into the school systems in Utah, and other areas of the country, much to my dismay. And while I’ve been complaining about it to my husband for the last few years, it’s only been this school year that he’s sat up and taken notice. There are three reasons why I believe Standards-Based Grading is failing our children, both figuratively and literally.

 In order to understand why this grading system is failing our kids, let me first share with you parts of a letter I received at the beginning of the school year from the principal of my sons’ middle school: “In the past, elements such as turning assignments in on time, participation in class, preparation, and behavior in class have been factored into the academic grade. These factors are not a true representation of a student’s academic knowledge. We believe students’ grades should be determined by how well they have mastered the standards.”

 The letter goes on to explain how grades will be assessed under the Standards-Based Grading system: “Formative Assessments can include paper/pencil tests, reports, essays, projects, presentations, and even a conversation where students can clearly show that a standard is mastered. Students will have a lot of practice before an assessment and will be able to retake assessments to reach mastery for that quarter. For each assessment, a student’s score will correlate with a proficiency scale of 4, 3, 2, or 1.”

 Some might think that this new way of grading, based on academics alone, is wonderful! In fact, this method, at least in middle school, allows the children to test and retest until they have mastered the concept. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Or does it?

 How, then, is Standards-Based Grading failing our children?

 Children with Challenges

 First, if you happen to have a child or children with a learning disability, an anxiety disorder, or any kind of mental illness or situation that creates academic challenges for your child then perhaps you’re like me . . . hating standards-based grading. You already know what it’s like to go online everyday and watch how your child can have excellent or really good grades on daily assignments. Or perhaps your child is getting by by the skin of his or her teeth on assignments, and then tanking on assessments. 

 With the old system, failing on assessments wasn’t as big of a problem. There are a variety of reasons why this population of kids performs poorly on assessments, while doing well on assignments. And as parents we do our very best to help our kids, advocating for 504’s and IEP’s in order to build in supports and goals to help our child succeed in school. 

Standards-based grading, however, fails this population of kids, literally and figuratively. These kids literally fail their classes because the assessments take up almost all of the grading for the class. Standards-Based Grading figuratively fails these kids because this kind of grading takes into consideration the average child, who tests under ideal circumstances. And I think we all know that this doesn’t apply to every child. While a 504 or IEP might help some children out, it can takes years of fighting a school to get a 504 or IEP in place, during which time the child is failing his classes.

What then are the long-term implications of this kind of failure? No scholarships and no acceptance into the college or university of choice when a child may deserve such honors and acceptance, but performance specifically on tests is affected by their unique challenge.


The second way Standards-Based Grading is failing our kids is the mindset of continual test retakes until the concept is learned. While this sounds good in theory, this retake philosophy, I’ve discovered, is only allowed in middle school and is then discontinued once kids hit high school, where few teachers allow retakes. This sends a mixed message to the kids about how testing works and the habits they create in kids in middle school. 

The other challenge I’ve seen with the idea that retakes provides an opportunity to gain mastery, is that instead of kids gaining mastery and confidence, too many retakes can lead a child to feel they are stupid, thus lowering self-esteem. Instead, it’s recognizing that a child is struggling with testing and building supports before a test is taken so he or she can perform well the first time, rather than retake over and over again. 

Current Emphasis and its Impact on the Future

Finally, take this idea of weighting grades with ninety to a hundred percent of the grade based on assessments and retiring the idea that assignments, preparation, class participation, and behavior have little to no value. This is where my husband finally sat up and paid attention to my anger over this kind of grading. While evaluating academic performance is absolutely important, I believe schools are molding our future employees and leaders. What message are we sending when we tell our children that a final grade is the ONLY thing of value? 

In the last few years that Standards-Based Grading has been in effect I have heard my children tell me over and over that doing assignments isn’t important because they don’t get credit for it. And while teachers and administrators may claim that the assignments given are still important in order for kids to know the information on the exam, that’s not the message kids are receiving. 

Standards-Based Grading is teaching our children that only the big stuff counts. The regular, everyday tedious work doesn’t count, so don’t bother doing it. Don’t bother creating a habit of doing regular homework, because you won’t be rewarded for it. Kids are learning to do the minimum now because that’s the grade they are being given for assignments—the minimum. 

If doing the minimum is what’s being reinforced, how will that translate into the kinds of employees these kids will become in the future? We’ll end up with employees that won’t know how to do habitual, tedious work because at school the only reward given was in cramming for the big stuff.

And what about class participation and behavior that’s barely being given a grade anymore? Why participate and behave if there’s no real reward for doing so? We’re already seeing a generation of youth attached to digital devices. Now we’re teaching them in school that participation isn’t worthwhile? Behaving doesn’t get you anything rewarding? What kind of logic is that? What kind of workers are our kids going to be once they graduate? 

I think I’ve made it clear I’m not on the band wagon for Standards-Based Grading. I was never on the wagon. I’m afraid of the down-the-road consequences when this wagon runs out of control and off the road.  As a mother of kids with challenges, that wagon is already off the road and I’m having to deal with the consequences. I’m just hoping educators and leaders of our nation will realize the dire mistake they’ve made and do something about Standards-Based Grading before it’s too late. 


Robin Glassey

is a mother of four boys, three of whom have ADHD and RAD.