This is my third year using Standards Based Assessment, and I’m hooked.


Reason #1: My students have a clear, measurable goal for my classinstead of a GPA goal.

Throughout my entire school career, my goal was to earn a 100. An A. A 4.0. Or higher, if I was allowed extra credit! No matter what subject, the objective was the same: perfection. But what did perfection get me??

When I switched to Standards Based Grading, my students traded in their goal of perfection (or passing) for a progress goal on the path to proficiency. Instead of aiming for a 100they were aiming to perform at Novice High on the ACTFL Proficiency Scale. They had to learn about the Proficiency Guidelines and to learn what the differences are between a Novice and an Intermediate. They had to understand how we learn language and what is needed to progress from sub-level to sub-level.

Finally! We had a mission. And the mission was possible for everyone!

How to make the switch to standards based grading in language classes and why I LOVE it!!

Reason #2: My students’ grades reflect their performance in the language, not their performance as a student.

In my old grading system (quizzes, tests, homework, classwork, projects, participation), students could earn high grades by simply being a good and responsible student, and all the language ability in the world could not keep a ‘slacker’ student from achieving a high grade. The frustrated teacher in me liked this because I liked rewarding students that worked hard and “punishing” students that didn’t. “See! You have a D because you never turn in your work!”. But that is not just. My course is called “Spanish”; not “Work Habits”. My students’ grades should reflect their ability to interpret and produce the language.

My categories are now Reading Comprehension (25%), Presentational Writing (25%/20% depending on level), Listening Comprehension (25%), Presentational Speaking (20%/15% depending on level), Culture (5%), and Work Habits (5%). I do not grade Interpersonal Speaking. More on Work Habits below.

*NOTE: I later changed the category weights, and I eliminated the culture category.

Reason #3: The grades that my students receive carry meaning; they are not just arbitrary numbers.

When my students receive an assignment, there is a word written on the top of it: “Advanced”, “Proficient”, “Developing”, “Emerging”, “Beginning”, or “No Attempt”. This word is their score, and it communicates to them how their performance on the assignment matches up with the standard for that skill in the course, and it corresponds to a letter/number grade (because my school was not set up for a true standards based grading system, in which there are no numbers). You can download the Performance targets rubric that I use for my students here.

Align your Spanish class grades to ACTFL proficiency sub-levels so that students' grades have real meaning. Standards Based grading in language classes

Each word corresponds to Advanced/A/95%, Proficient/B/85%, Developing/C/75%, Emerging/D/65%, Beginning/F/55%, and No Attempt/F/50%, and to ACTFL proficiency levels. For an example, please see this document that I created by combining the ideas of about a million different brilliant minds (it’s free!):

REASON #4: I have fewer Fs and Ds, but not fewer As.

Most students have As and Bs because I am focused on their proficiency and I know that if my students are getting Cs and Ds on assignments, it’s not because they are lazy and not doing their work but because they don’t understand the material. When I work with students to bring up their grades, we are working on input; we are working in the language–not scrambling to finish assignments. Typically, my students’ grades go UP as the year goes on instead of down.

Why does it matter that I have fewer Fs and Ds?

Because Fs and Ds suck, that’s why. Because low grades ruin students’ lives. They take away opportunities. They give students an identity that I don’t want to give them. Fs and Ds are the worst, and historically they have very little or nothing to do with a students’ command of the content.

I have fewer Fs and Ds because my students are progressing on the path to proficiency; because I am doing things in class that improve linguistic proficiency, and my students are responding. Fewer of my students earn Fs and Ds because we are a team, and our team is working.

Reason #5: Nomenclature communicates place on the path to proficiency; not a completed task.

Even though my students are well aware that an Advanced is the same as an A and an Emerging is the same as a D, I have found that this simple change in language has a profound impact on students’ mindset. It inspires students to work to meet the standard; to push up to the next level.

An “F” communicates “FAILURE”–an ending–whereas a “Beginning” shows that there is hope and that the student is just at the beginning of the journey. Students WANT to jump to the next level. If they’re Developing, they want to be Proficient. If they’re Proficient, they want to be Advanced! I also like it because students know that they cannot improve their grades by doing extra credit or handing in missing assignments. They have to perform better in order to improve their grade, and so they look for ways to improve their proficiency in order to bring up their grades. It is FANTASTIC!!

Best of all, I have students re-take my course BY CHOICE after they have failed to move on to the next level (D or F). Instead of battling with me about repeating the course, we arrive at a mutual agreement that the student needs more time soaking in the language in order to meet the standard necessary to move on to the next level. I think that that is the most wonderful testimony to the hope that this grading system gives them. My students do not believe that they have failed; instead, they believe they need more time in the language to become proficient. I LOVE IT!

To start using standards based grading in your language classes, set proficiency goals for your students in each level and consider what meeting, exceeding, or not meeting each goal looks like


The great conundrum caused by Standards Based Grading, of course, is how to hold students accountable for anything but summative assessments. Some schools issue two grades for their students: one for their content performance and one for their behavior/study habits. I wish this were the case for me! My solution is the Work Habits category. It’s only 5% of my students’ grades, and it includes formative assessments, participation, attendance, behavior, work completion, etc. It’s a catch-all. It is such a low percentage that it has almost no affect on their final grade, but it’s something. It’s a grade that I can point to at Student Led Conferences or mention in a phone call to show their parents tangibly how “studious” their child has been.

I believe that it is very important that even an extremely low grade in Work Habits (namely, an F) not bring the students’ overall grade down more than a single letter. In most situations, students’ progress on the path toward proficiency has already suffered because of their poor work habits, and so adding on additional punishment simply to ‘stick it’ to them is really not necessary. For that reason, if you have the ability to weight categories at ZERO (where you can keep a record of assignments but they have no impact on the final grade in the course), I say–GO FOR IT!

31 replies on “5 reasons I love Standards Based Grading

  1. Agree with you 100%, Martina. This year I have changed my grading system to make students’ grades more aligned with their ability. Grades these days are so meaningless. It’s quite a change for most of my students who are still concerned about “how many points” something is worth. My response is: “I don’t do points. I do learning.” I’m trying to make them see that the activities we do are part of a process to learn the material before they can finally show what they know during the assessment at the end of the unit.

    1. I love that quote! And I think that it is so appropriate for the system–it’s not about points, it’s about what they have learned and can prove that they have learned!!

  2. Do you find that you have fewer grades in your gradebook then? We have a standards based gradebook, but not really. We’re just linking assignments to standards. I would like to move more towards real standards based grading and performance assessments. I’m trying to figure out logistically how it would work. We are required to enter at least 2 grades per week. if I understand what you wrote correctly, a student who does not attempt an assignment receives a 50%? Also, you wouldn’t count off for late work then, correct? I would be really interested in discussing this more and maybe seeing some of your assessments. Also, an explanation of how you do this with TPRS would be great.

    1. Hi Kelly,
      Yes, I have WAY fewer grades in my gradebook–usually just one or two per week (we are required to have one). Often, one of those grades is a Citizenship grade. Any assignment that is not completed (due to absence, off-task, etc.) or not completely sufficiently receives a 50. This is a concept that comes from Scott Benedict, among others–when 0 is the bottom of the 100 point scale, an F that equals 0 is almost impossible to bounce back from. By making the F worth 50, it is much more similar to a 4 point scale (as is used in universities). If a student has a 0 and a 100, his/her average is still an F, since traditionally 60 is needed to earn a D. That’s not a true reflection of the student’s performance. If s/he has a 50 (F) and a 100, the average is a C, which is much more accurate. I do not take off points for late work, and honestly I don’t have any assignments in the gradebook that can be turned in late, since they are all summative assessments completed in class. If students hand in classwork or homework late, that work habit is reflected in his/her citizenship grade. Hope that helps! I’d love to talk with you more about it…what specific questions do you have about how I do wit with TPRS?

      1. Martina: I am finally getting to read some of this and think. What do you do about a student who has been out for a longer period of time—say a week because of the flu or something?

      2. I have him or her do any assignments that are able to be completed outside of class, or a version of in-class assignments (for example, translating a story). Some of those assignments will have been in the Citizenship/Work Habits category, so they are graded for completion. Other are not graded, but I explain that they must be done before the student can take the unit assessment so that s/he is prepared.

  3. I just would like to know a bit more about what your assessments look like. Do you have them retell or rewrite stories? How do you combine storytelling in class with performance assessments later on? I guess I just need to get away from the idea of “tests” and move to “assessments” instead. They really can look like anything as long as they’re accurately reflecting students’ understanding and achievement of the content and standards. I just want some ideas of how you make sure your assessments do that.

  4. I’m just starting to make a plan for transitioning to a proficiency-based classroom next year, and am stuck on the grade categories and weights. I definitely want to get away from the traditional HW, tests, projects categories, but haven’t settled on another choice. How is the Reading/Writing/Speaking/Listening/Culture breakdown working out for you? And how did you decide on the percentages?

    Love reading your posts and ideas!

    1. LOVE it. Although I have modified it slightly and haven’t checked to see if my most recent post update matches what I’m doing now. I think that my favorite thing about it is that it has made me design much better assessments: I am assessing something that has real value; I know what that is, my students know what that is, their parents know what that is, and our administrators know what that is. I’m not assessing whether or not they memorized a vocab list the night before; I’m assessing to what degree they are able to understand or produce the language. I decided on the percentages based on what smarter people than I have done. Most recently, this is what I had: Reading 30%, Listening 30%: I taught levels 1 and 2 and students interpret language before they produce it, so this reflects what we do in class and what is reasonable for me to expect of them. Writing 20% because we do this a lot and this is the first form of production that my students can do well. Speaking 15% because this skill takes a long time to develop (as with a baby), and so it is not reasonable for me to make it a large percentage of the grade since my students aren’t ready to be great speakers yet. They need more input before they can output well! Citizenship 5% so that I have something to hold over the kids’ heads and talk to their parents about at conferences with regard to being a good or bad student. I eliminated Culture because frankly, I don’t care whether my students remember facts about a country or not, as long as they can understand what I’m talking about when we discuss it in class and can contribute ideas to the conversation. Other teachers might want to tease that out, and that’s totally cool. It just depends on what you want to make your students responsible for knowing and what you want to communicated to their future teachers.

      1. Thanks for your reply! I’m very excited (and nervous) to implement this more authentic grading system, and even more excited for the shift in attitudes toward learning and language that this could promote.

        However, I’m very nervous about weighing the listening (and to a lesser extent, reading) portion so heavily, because I don’t feel that I have established clear, reliable, accurate assessments. I wouldn’t want a student’s grade to depend so much on a skill I am not prepared to consistently and fairly assess.

        What I’ve settled on so far: 40% Writing/Speaking, 25% Listening/Reading, 15% Vocabulary, 10% Grammar, 10% Culture. This is for introductory Spanish at the middle school (1A and 1B). I know the interpretive skills precede writing and speaking, but I feel more comfortable with the more objective direct evidence that written and spoken skills provide. Let’s hope this goes well!

      2. thank you very much for posting your ideas and implementation of the grading system. Like many many teachers I assume, we have heard about proficiency grading and read a lot about it but have not started with it yet.
        So, how have you structured your classwork and book work(if you give them) to reflect the categories? How often are you assessing for a grade that can be put in the gradebook?
        Do you find that with this system you are able to assess more often with something meaningful?

      3. Yes to the last question; I put 1-2 formal assessment grades in the grade book each week. Everything else (classwork) goes into the “Work Habits” category which accounts for 5% of their overall grade. Some teachers make it a category worth 0% of the overall grade, but not all grading programs allow that 🙂

  5. Hi Martina,
    I love your site and use many of your ideas in class. A colleague and I have had many spirited and respectful conversations about performance based assessments. I am 100% on board, and so is he to a large extent. But, as high school teachers, he argues that we do have the responsibility to prepare kids for college and life, or rather, hold them responsible in terms of their grade when it comes to not turning in work, not completing hw, etc. I tend to argue your point, I teach Spanish, not Life Habits, but I do see his point that I am trying to cultivate responsible citizens and prepare them to succeed in jobs and college. Do you have a response to this line of thinking?

    1. I agree that we have a responsibility to cultivate responsible citizens and prepare them for future academic and professional success, and it is very important that we hold kids accountable for their behaviors (personal and scholastic) in our classes. I would contend that if you are not able to give a separate work habits grade and academic grade (as some schools allow–2 grades from each teacher), then the work habits/behavior needs to be supported and managed in other ways. Some examples might be calling home, assigning lunch detentions to complete missing work together, working with coaches and administrators to restrict privileges or add creative consequences, etc. This is more burdensome for the teacher, but I think that it produces better results.

  6. My grading categories directly reflect the ACTFL standards – interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational. Culture & communities are woven into the assessments and class activities. Thanks for this article and thread. Also, check out some of the recent ACTFL publications on this – there are ideas for assessing interpretive effectively.

  7. LOVE! Thank you for writing this and sharing the proficiency targets. I’m struggling with this and trying to move my large district to teaching and grading for proficiency.

  8. What do your assessments look like on a weekly basis? I’m struggling to grasp proficiency and use it in our block scheduling. There simply isn’t enough time when I only see each class 3 times a week!

    1. There are no more than 2 short summative assessments per week. If you look at my Spanish 1 scope & sequence document (search ‘what to teach in spanish 1 and 2), you will see that there are very few, very short assessments in each unit.

  9. Hi Martina. I changed my grade categories to mimic what you wrote about in this post, and I have been so happy with it. I have one question though. I am using your Somos I curriculum, and there are very few speaking assessments done in the beginning? How would you defend that when I have few to no grades in that area? Are there things that you give them a grade for in speaking that I can try? Thank you as always for your help! Shannon

  10. How do you decide what goes into the gradebook. Do you just put in assessments or also practice activities?

    1. Assessments only in all of the categories except work habits; everything that is not an assessment goes in work habits category (5% of overall grade) and is typically entered as a completion grade

  11. I have been researching and contemplating standards-based grading for awhile now, and your blog posts have given me the confidence to do so. However, I have one question about how you enter the grades into your grade book. For example, if my students read a short story and complete an analysis activity over it, I would enter this assignment in my grade book as the standard category that it assesses, such as “Literature Analysis”. If we then read another short story and complete another analysis activity, then this assignment would be entered as its own separate grade in the grade book. Would it be acceptable to use a short description (such as the short story title) to differentiate between each activity? I’m concerned about making my gradebook too vague, but maybe I am thinking this through incorrectly? I hope this makes sense. Thank you for any insight!

    1. Yes, typically assignments are named and then placed in a category (at least in all the gradebooks I am familiar with!). So a reading assessment would be named by the story or the unit it went along with and then plopped in the reading comprehension category.

  12. I really love the descriptions you have for the Performance Targets Rubric! What do you use if you teach a student that goes above Intermediate Mid? Do you reset the scale for students who go higher?

    1. I set the scale for each course. No matter how far above what I set as proficient for the course, they are advanced! Until they hit a new scale for the next course.

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