Standards-Based Grading: A Necessity in Future Assessment Practices

During Week 5 of our Foundations of Music Education I: Philosophy and History course, we also needed to write a paper on a topic that could be relevant to music education as a whole. The prompt for this second paper was as follows:

Choose one contemporary and/or controversial topic to discuss that is or might be relevant to music education writ large. Remember that the first paper centered on one of your own teaching practices; this paper is geared toward our field as a whole rather than your own personal practice or experience. Of course, your personhood and your work as a music educator will inform the topic you select. Answer any one question below or establish your own inquiry:

  • Why is the topic you named important (or not) to consider as a relevant or hot-button issue in the field of music education?

  • How might this issue affect teacher education in the near and not-so-near future?

  • Given your topic of choice, whose voices are prioritized or muted? Why?

  • How might your chosen topic upend, cause dissonances, or transgress hegemonic practices in music education today?

In your paper, cite relevant literature from the field of music education, education, social sciences, gender studies, musicology/ethnomusicology, etc. This paper needs to be interdisciplinary in terms of where you glean your sources. Remember to keep returning to music and music education as home base.

As a reminder, here is a link to the rubric used for grading the paper. This time, I earned all 20 points!

Standards-Based Grading: A Necessity in Future Assessment Practices

Grades ought to only reflect a student’s knowledge and skills.  This is a philosophical issue the author established during a Live Classroom as well as a paraphrase of how Heflebower et al. (2014) define standards-based grading.  The topic of standards-based grading is a rising issue in education as a whole, primarily due to a focus on assessment, feedback, and how they affect student learning.  Hanley and Montgomery (2005) view this refocusing as a paradigm shift called postmodernism.  Marzano (2000, 2007) and O’Connor (2007) established that grading practices would be most effective when they provide accurate, specific, and timely feedback designed to improve student performance.  When a student’s achievement is only communicated as a single letter grade, effective feedback is lost.

Standards-based education focuses on the specific knowledge and skills that all students are expected to be able to demonstrate (Heflebower et al., 2014).  While this practice of identifying specific knowledge or skills as standards is not new to the practice of teaching, not all grading practices report solely on a student’s demonstrated knowledge and ability.  David Conley (2000) found there to be little relationship between a student’s grade and level of proficiency.  Multiple studies have also shown different grading practices between teachers of the same course within the same school (Cizek, Fitzgerald, & Rachor, 1995; McMillan, Myran, & Workman, 2002).

The implementation of standards-based grading practices is also an issue in music education.  At a cursory glance of syllabi for schools in the Charlottesville, Virginia area, music educators grade students on class participation, practice logs, playing tests, performance attendance, preparation, attitude, rehearsal behavior, technical advancement on the instrument, and projects.  Students can also receive extra credit for taking private lessons, performing outside of the school program, providing service to the band, musical accomplishments, and leadership roles.  While some assignments were graded against rubrics detailing musical skills such as tone quality, intonation, technique, rhythm, and musicianship, these assignments are typically averaged together into a singular grade for an assignment like a playing test.  Many of these items do not fit Marzano (2000, 2007) and O’Connor’s (2007) criteria for providing accurate, specific, and timely feedback designed to improve student performance.

To implement standards-based grading practices, teachers need to first identify the knowledge and skills that all students are expected to demonstrate (Heflebower et al., 2014).  However, because it is possible that there are more standards than can be taught in the available instructional time, Heflebower et al. (2014) suggest prioritizing standards that are “most essential” (p. 16) and spending time ensuring student mastery of these prioritized standards.  Prioritized standards should have endurance (lasting beyond a class), leverage (crossing over many domains of learning), readiness (important to subsequent content), and the ability to be assessed (Heflebower et al., 2014, p. 18; Ainsworth, 2003).

Next, teachers need should create proficiency scales for each prioritized standard.  A proficiency scale shows how learning progresses for a student on a given standard (Heflebower et al., 2014).  For example, assuming performing a major scale is a prioritized standard, a student performing a major scale may progress from being unable to play the scale to playing the scale multiple octaves with no mistakes with gradations of proficiency between the two levels of proficiency.  These proficiency scales will be used to inform teaching and improve learning through assessment, “not to sort and select students or to justify a grade” (McTighe, J., & Ferrara, S., 2000, p. 1).  In a standards-based system, the goal is for all students to demonstrate mastery of all prioritized standards.  Thus, if students are unable to demonstrate mastery on an assessment, instruction may need to be adjusted and additional assessment opportunities need to be provided.  Students need multiple and varied opportunities to demonstrate the knowledge and skills identified in a prioritized standard (Heflebower et al., 2014). 

Perhaps the most difficult part of implementing standards-based practices is communicating meaningful grades to students and parents.  Principles of standards-based grading dictate that course grades will only communicate academic achievement of the standards (Ingebrand, 2013).  This means that behaviors like participation, work habits, organization or social development are not included in the course grade.  Extra credit or bonus points are also not included in the course grade, and zeros are not assigned for missing or late work (Ingebrand, 2013).  Traditionally, an overall grade for an assignment or grading period is determined by finding the average, median, mode, or trend score of the body of student work (Heflebower et al., 2014).  Each of these methods of calculation can artificially inflate or deflate a student’s overall grade depending on the body of student work. For example, if a student did not demonstrate mastery on a series of assessments but had participated in all concerts, their calculated grade could potentially hide their poor performance on assessments.  In a true standards-based grading system, teachers would communicate each prioritized standard as a separate grade using proficiency scales.

In addition to the authors and researchers cited above, music educators and music education researchers have also proposed transitioning to a standards-based system.  Asmus (1999) advocates a process where music educators identify and prioritize standards, using assessment to ensure effective instruction, enhance student learning, and communicate program effectiveness.   Conway (2002) discusses creating knowledge- and skills-based music curricula.  An instrumental music professional learning community in Ankeny, Iowa transitioned to a standards-based system (Hable, 2017) by going through the process advocated by Heflebower et al. (2014).

Courses in music are excellent candidates for implementing standards-based practices.  The National Core Arts Standards list eleven standards that can be taught and assessed across a broad spectrum of music courses (National Core Arts Standards, 2014).  Conway (2002) describes listing developmental skills or benchmarks as part of her curriculum writing process.  Hanley and Montgomery (2005) look to answer questions about the incorporation of skill- and knowledge-development in designing music curricula. 

A student’s knowledge and skills should be the only basis for grade reporting.  As administrators focus on effective methods of assessment and feedback, music educators can use standards-based practices to demonstrate student knowledge and ability as well as instructor- and program-effectiveness.  These demonstrations could serve in addition to or in place of ensemble performances as justification for music education programs.  These justifications can be grounded in the existence of the National Core Arts Standards and state art standards as music educators begin the process of prioritizing standards.  Proficiency scales for these prioritized standards provide effective means for accurate, specific, and timely feedback to be communicated to students, parents, and administrators.  By removing behavior and other extemporaneous criteria from academic grades, educators can more accurately communicate students’ knowledge and skills.


Ainsworth, L. (2003). Power standards: Identifying the standards that matter the most. Denver, CO: Advanced Learning Press.

Asmus, E.P. (1999). Music assessment concepts: A discussion of assessment concepts and models for student assessment introduces this special focus issue. Music Educators Journal, 86(2), 19-24.  

Cizek, G.J., Fitzgerald, S.M., & Rachor, R.A. (1995). Teachers’ assessment practices: Preparation, isolation, and the kitchen sink. Educational Assessment, 3(2), 159-179.

Conley, D.T. (2000, April). Who is proficient: The relationship between proficiency scores and grades. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA.

Conway, C. (2002). Curriculum writing in music. Music Educators Journal, 88(6), 54-59.

Hable, B.W. (2017). How to: A standards-referenced instrumental music program. Retrieved from

Hanley, B., & Montgomery, J. (2005). Challenges to music education: Curriculum reconceptualized. Music Educators Journal, 91(4), 17-20.

Heflebower, T., Hoegh, J.K., Warrick, P., Hoback, M., McInteer, M., & Clemens, B. (2014). A school leader’s guide to standards-based grading. Bloomington, IN: Marzano Research.

Ingebrand, S. (2013). Ankeny fair and consistent grading practices guiding principles. Retrieved from

Marzano, R.J. (2000). Transforming classroom grading. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Marzano, R.J. (2007). The art and science of teaching: A comprehensive framework for effective instruction. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

McMillan, J.J., Myran, S., & Workman, D. (2002). Elementary teachers’ classroom assessment and grading practices. Journal of Educational Research, 95(4), 203-213. Retrieved from

McTighe, J., & Ferrara, S. (2000). Assessing learning in the classroom. Washington, DC: National Education Association.

National core arts standards. (2014). Retrieved from

O’Connor, K. (2007). A repair kit for grading: 15 fixes for broken grades. Portland, OR: Educational Testing Service.


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.