Standards-Based Grading and the Common Core

For the final week of our class, we were given the opportunity to choose a topic of our choice to research based on the work we have done in this class. Below is the prompt we were given:

For this assignment, you have the "choice" of creating a project of your own from any of the educational initiatives that we have covered in this course or choose a new educational topic you would like to learn more about.

Now, it is your turn to create your own project based on your interests. The goal is to give you time to continue learning about a topic you feel that you want or need to learn about.

Topics you may want to revisit or learn more about:

  • Teacher Evaluation

  • Student Growth

  • Implementing the Common Core in the Music Classroom

  • Music Curriculum Design

  • Teacher Tenure

  • National Core Music Standards

  • Value-Added Model

  • Other topics can be studied upon my approval

I chose to do my project on the implementation of standards-based grading in my classroom. Here is my response:

The system of standards-based grading functions on the belief that a student’s academic grade should reflect only what they know and are able to do. Supporters of standards-based grading believe that many of our traditional grading practices are unfair, inconsistent, and inaccurate, not clearly communicating student achievement. Standards-based grading is meant to address these issues by removing factors from the academic grade that could artificially inflate or deflate students’ scores.

History in Our District Our district is in the midst of a transition to standards-based learning, grading, and reporting. This transition began at the end of the 2008-2009 school year as then Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, Dr. Susan Meade, was directed by the Ankeny Board of Education to begin the study and implementation of standards-based grading and reporting. A committee was put together during the 2009-2010 school year to learn about standards-based grading and reporting practices using Ken O’Connor’s book, How to Grade for Learning. The committee consisted of students, parents, teachers, and administrators. This committee and other sub-committees continued to work with Ken O’Connor and other research throughout the 2010-2011 school year, developing philosophy statements and guidelines. In 2011-2012, the group expanded and continued to refine the philosophy statements and guidelines, presenting an implementation timeline to the Board of Education. After 2012, the committee continued to grow and expand as the district grew and transitioned into a two high school feeder system.

Guiding Principles The district has provided a wealth of resources for the general public and teachers in learning about the transition to standards-based grading and reporting. The district has identified six guiding principles for what standards-based grading and reporting should look like in our classroom:

  1. Course grades will accurately communicate only academic achievement of the standards.

  2. Extra credit and bonus points will not be included in students’ academic grade.

  3. Students will engage in independent learning/homework as a component of the Ankeny Instructional Framework.

  4. Students are expected to complete all required work by due dates.

  5. All students will have multiple and varied assessment opportunities to demonstrate achievement of the standards.

  6. Zeros will not be assigned for missing evidence. An I (for “Insufficient Data”) will be recorded when a student has not submitted required evidence of learning.

These guiding principles are designed to “provide students, parents, and teachers more accurate information about exactly what students should be learning and what they actually have learned as a result of instruction.” (from Standards-Based Practices - Guiding Principles)

During the 2013-2014 school year, we were encouraged to pick one of these guiding principles each semester and experiment with its implementation in our courses. Our 6-12 Instrumental Music PLC decided to implement all six principles, as we believed many of the standards-based grading and reporting practices aligned with our teaching. I will walk through our implementation of each of these guiding principles.

1. Course grades will accurately communicate only academic achievement of the standards. The biggest piece to this principle is the removal of behavior from the course grade. This means there cannot be scores for things such as work habits (missed/late assignments), participation, social development, attendance, or organization. That is not to say that we do not report on these behaviors. Our district is working on a variety of different ways we can still communicate these behaviors using a variety of different reporting tools. We do not include behaviors in the academic course grade. Because of this, the course grade only communicates academic achievement of the standards.

For us, this meant the power standards that were developed as part of the K-12 Music Department’s curriculum review in the 2011-2012 school year. The power standards for 6-12 Instrumental and Vocal Music are the same and listed below:

The student will be able to:

  • Rhythm/Beat/Meter Competency

    • Dictate a performed rhythm (play and/or write)

    • Perform a given rhythm with characteristic tone

    • Identify a performed rhythm

    • Identify meter

    • Maintain a consistent pulse

    • Breathe in time with proper technique and in musically appropriate places in performance

  • Tonal Literacy

    • Perform a major scale with characteristic tone

    • Identify do through key signatures

    • Identify tonal center

    • Dictate a performed tonal sequence

    • Perform a tonal sequence with characteristic tone

    • Identify a performed tonal sequence

    • Identify a harmonic sequence

    • Perform a harmonic sequence with characteristic tone

  • Expression

    • Identify, label, define, and perform dynamics articulation and tempo marking

    • Make expressive decisions based on historical context, genre and style

  • Ensemble

    • Apply learned musical performance, literacy, and critical thinking skills to the music- making process with various sizes of ensembles

We took each of these power standards and laid them out in a matrix with the vertical axis being each individual power standard and the horizontal axis representing each grade level from sixth through twelfth grade. Within this matrix we then identified what each power standard would look like at each grade level. Our district divides up the school year into two eighteen-week semesters, each with three six-week grading periods. We developed a similar matrix with the vertical axis showing each of these grading periods and the horizontal axis showing each grade level. Teachers at the specific grade levels were charged with identifying what they wanted assessed in each of those grading windows (ex: technique builder in Bb). Teachers of specific instrument families were then charged with finding etudes or exercises in the students’ lesson materials that fit the criteria of the grade level assessments. A third matrix was created with this instrument- and grade-specific information.

Rubrics were developed for these assessments based on ballots for solo performance for wind and percussion instruments. The rubrics identify seven categories of performance (tone quality/breath support, technique, rhythm, articulation, expression, posture, and preparedness) each with four possible levels of performance (exceeding the standard, meeting the standard, making adequate progress, not making adequate progress). The rubrics list specific criteria for each level and each category.

I believe the next step for us is to begin identifying what each of the four possible levels of performance looks like for each of the power standards listed above. We will also need to better identify how we are going to teach and assess those skills in the ensemble setting.

2. Extra credit and bonus points will not be included in students’ academic grade. The philosophy behind this principle is that extra credit or bonus points artificially inflate a students’ academic grade. These extra points do not accurately reflect what a student knows or is able to do.

This was an easy principle to implement as we were not already awarding extra credit or bonus points. Because students are not graded on each individual lesson, but rather their assessments within the lessons once every six weeks, a student does not need “extra credit” to “make up” for a missed lesson. Also, with our vertical teaching model, the vast majority of the lessons involve a teacher getting a student for a lesson. It is impossible to miss a lesson unless the teacher forgets to get the student.

3. Students will engage in independent learning/homework as a component of the Ankeny Instructional Framework. The Ankeny Instructional Framework refers to the Gradual Release of Responsibility from Teachers to Students. Our district also identified four major purposes for homework:

  • Building fluency

  • Applying knowledge

  • Reviewing and practicing past learning

  • Extending learning across disciplines

If the purpose of our homework is to build fluency or review and practice past learning, it is considered formative in nature and should not be included in the course grade. We should, however, be providing descriptive feedback to students on the formative work they are doing. If the purpose of our homework is to apply knowledge or extend learning across disciplines, it is considered summative in nature and can be included in the course grade.

This is a place where I believe our PLC needs to grow and get better. We find that the vast majority of our sixth grade and ninth grade students practice on a regular basis. This likely due to the major transition that happens in both of those years (6th grade begins middle school and band every other day. 9th grade begins high school, band every day, and integrates with the marching band.). In the other grade levels, practice begins a steady decline. We do not require practice logs or anything of that nature. We are working to do a better job of demonstrating the correlation of practice to success on the assessments and in decoding music in rehearsals and lessons. We are also working on teaching students strategies for effective practice as opposed to just a set amount of time spent daily on the instrument.

4. Students are expected to complete all required work by due dates. This is teachers and parents biggest fear about transitioning to a standards-based grading model. Because behaviors (attendance, work habits, participation, etc.) are not included in the academic grade, the fear exists that students will not complete required work on time. However, if we are providing frequent, timely, descriptive feedback to students, they see the value of completing both formative and summative work promptly without the penalty of a grade.

This guideline continues with the philosophy that a course grade should accurately communicate only a student’s academic achievement. If the grade is lowered because work was not submitted on time, the grade is artificially deflated. It no longer accurately reflects what the student knows and is able to do. Again, we still report on the completion time of work, we just do it separate from the course grade. This also ties in the belief that we should not punish students who take longer to learn or demonstrate knowledge than their peers.

Implementation of this guiding principle is best described in correlation with the last guiding principle below.

5. All students will have multiple and varied assessment opportunities to demonstrate achievement of the standards. The philosophy for this guiding principle is that all students should learn the content of our courses, not just the students who are able to do so within the given timelines. We should give students a variety of different ways to demonstrate their knowledge of content or their ability to perform a certain skill.

Any time a summative assessment is given, students will be given multiple attempts to demonstrate achievement on that summative assessment. If a student performs poorly on their six-week assessment in their lesson, they will have the opportunity to retake that assessment. We are allowed to attach an “opportunity cost” that does not effect the course grade, but can discourage students from not preparing for the initial assessment. Because our six-week assessments are based on a variety of tonal centers, if a student wishes to retake an assessment, they must first demonstrate proficiency in that tonal center. This usually means submitting SmartMusic assignments from the Foundations for Superior Performance technical exercises in that tonal center. These SmartMusic assignments do not factor into a student’s course grade, but they are required before a student can retake an assessment. The retakes are always offered at full credit.

6. Zeros will not be assigned for missing evidence. An I (for “Insufficient Data”) will be recorded when a student has not submitted required evidence of learning. This principle ties directly into the first and fourth guiding principles. If a student does not submit required work, we are required to put an “I” into the grade book. We are allowed to determine how this “I” effects a student’s overall course grade. For many teachers, one “I” means an “I” for the overall course grade. An “I” functions the same as a failing grade for academic eligibility rules. Students are required to complete all required course work.

The philosophy behind this guiding principle is that a zero mathematically distorts a student’s course grade. Depending on how a teacher’s grade book is setup, one zero can have drastic effects on an overall grade. Rather, by using an “I” for specific assignments or standards, we are communicating clearly what a student has failed to demonstrate in terms of what they know and are able to do.

Implementation Implementing these practices has been a work-in progress for both our professional learning community and our school district. We currently use Infinite Campus as our student information system, and it is not setup well to handle the guiding principles for our system of standards-based grading and reporting. Because of this, several teachers have become frustrated with the implementation. Work is being done with collaboration between our district and Infinite Campus on making it a more effective communication tool.

Moving forward as a professional learning community, I believe we need to further unpack our power standards. Right now, our teaching and assessments focus on the individual performance of students in relation to rhythm/beat/meter competency and basic tonal literacy. I want to see us spread out into the expressive and ensemble skills. I would also like to see us begin to align those power standards with the new National Core Arts Standards.

I think standards-based grading and reporting fits well into the field of music education. Our world is skill-based as demonstrated by the National Core Arts Standards and how our work aligns with the Common Core State Standards. If we clearly articulate the skills we want our students to have, choose literature and methods that help us teach those skills, accurately assess our students’ ability to demonstrate those skills, and provide frequent, timely, descriptive feedback on their practice, we can easily implement standards-based grading effectively in our classrooms.


Burton Hable

Burton Hable is an instrumental music educator from Central Iowa. In 2013 he helped open Centennial High School in Ankeny, the first time in forty years that a school district in Iowa expanded to two high schools. He served there through 2018 as Assistant Director of Bands: conducting the 10th Grade Symphonic Band, directing the varsity Jazz Collective, co-directing the Centennial Marching and Pep Bands, teaching music theory, and providing individual and small group lessons to brass students in grades 6-12 at Prairie Ridge Middle School, Northview Middle School, and Centennial High School. During his tenure in Ankeny, enrollment in band grew from 450 to nearly 700, the jazz program expanded from four to seven ensembles, and ensembles under his direction were invited to perform at Iowa State University, Harper College, and the Veterans Day Parade in New York City.