Standards-Based Grading: A Discussion Series

I picked this up this weekend at the IEA-RA in Rosemont.  I hope to drop some excerpts for discussion throughout the summer.


Also, I’ve been negligent to this site for some time.  I apologize for that.  Some feedback as to what you’d like information on or topics for discussion would be warmly welcomed.  I also recommend for your consideration.

From Practical Solutions for Serious Problems in Standards-Based Grading

An excerpt from Chapter 2:  Grading Policies That Work Against Standards… and How to Fix Them (by Thomas Guskey, PhD Georgetown College)

Reform initiatives based on standards offer educators a lot of advantages.  By providing consensus about what is important for students to learn and what skills they should acquire, standards give direction to educational improvement efforts.  Standards also bring focus to curriculum revisions and help guide the development of new forms of student assessment.

To realize the true benefits of standards-based reforms, however, educators must view the improvement process systemically.  In other words, they must take into account all aspects of the organization that might impinge on those reforms.  This is especially true with regard to standards-based grading and reporting, where organization factors at the district, school, and classroom levels can profoundly influence implementation efforts and significantly affect results (Guskey, 2001).  The most carefully articulated curriculum, best-aligned assessments, and most thoughtful standards-based grading and reporting system would make little difference if organization policies stand in the way of hteir implementation (see Lieberman, 1995).


This chapter describes five school policies that impose procedural barriers to the implementation of standards-based reforms in grading and reporting, along with specific strategies for correcting them.  These policies all relate to how student achievement and learning progress are summarized and then communicated to parents, students, and others.  Although grading and reporting are seldom mentioned in discussions of curriculum revision or assessment development (Guskey, 2000), they have powerful influence and can prevent even modest success in any standards-based reform.

I’m going to skip the section on Grading “on the curve” because I think this is a practice that is rarely used anymore.

Policy #2:  Selecting the Class Valedictorian

Although teachers today generally understand the negative consequences of grading “on the curve” and most have abandoned the practice, many fail to recognize other school policies that yield similar negative consequences.  One of the most common is the selection of class valedictorian.  There is nothing wrong, of course, with recognizing excellence in academic performance.  But in selecting the class valedictorian, most schools operate under the premise that there should only be only one.  This often results in serious and sometimes bitter competition among high-achieving students to be that “one.”  Early in their high school careers, top students analyze the selection procedures and then, often with the help of their parents, find ingenious ways to improve their standing in comparison to their classmates.  Gaining that honor requires not simply high achievement; it requires outdoing everyone else.  And sometimes the difference among top-achieving students is as little as one-thousandths of a decimal point in a weighted grade point average.

Ironically, the term “valedictorian” has nothing to do with achievement.  It comes from the Latin, vale dicere, which means “to say farewell.”  It is the person selected to make a farewell address at the commencement ceremony.  The first reference to the term appeared in the diary of the Reverend Edward Holyoke, president of Harvard College in 1759, who noted “Officers of the Sophisters (senior class members) arbitrarily selected the classmate with the highest academic standing to deliver the commencement address.

Shortly thereafter, colleges and universities moved away from competitive ranking procedures to identify honor students and, instead, adopted the criterion-based Latin system, graduating students cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude, meaning “with honor,” “with great honor,” and “with greatest honor.”  In turn, most also altered their procedures for selecting the commencement speaker.  Depending on the institution, the “valedictorian” might be selected by a vote among high-achieving graduates, elected by the entire graduating class, or appointed by the faculty based on a system of merit that takes into account not only grades but also involvement in service projects and participation in extracurricular activities.  Only high schools maintain the competitive practice of choosing the single graduate with the highest grade point average.


More and more high schools today resolve this problem by naming multiple valedictorians.  Similar to the Latin system used in colleges and universities, this honor is based on rigorous academic criteria rather than a ranking of classmates.  West Springfield High School in Fairfax County, Virginia, for example, typically graduates 15 to 25 valedictorians each year (D. Smith, personal communication, April 13, 2007).  Every one of these students has an exemplary academic record that includes earning the highest grade possible in numerous honors and Advanced Placement classes.  Instead of creating additional, arbitrary criteria in order to discriminate among these high-achieving students (considering, for example, their academic record from middle school or even elementary school), the faculty at West Springfield decided that all should be named valedictorians.  And believing that their purpose as educators is to develop talent rather than simply to select it, they take great pride in these results.  All of the valedictorians are named t the graduation ceremony, and one student, selected by his or her fellow valedictorians, delivers the commencement address.

Some might object to a policy that allows multiple valedictorians, arguing that colleges and universities demand such selection and often grant special scholarships to students who attain that singular distinction.  But current evidence indicates this is increasingly rare.  Duke University, for example, recently rejected 58 percent of valedictorians who applied.  The University of Pennsylvania rebuffed 62 percent.  Ninety-one percent of applicants to Harvard University were rejected, including one of every four applicants with perfect SAT scores (Marcus, 2006).

In reviewing admission applications and making decisions about scholarships, colleges and universities today are far more interested in the rigor of curriculum students have experienced (Bracey, 1999).  In fact, an index composed of the number of Advanced Placement courses taken, the highest level of math studied, and total number of courses completed has been shown to be a much stronger predictor of college success than grade point average, class rank, or standardized test scores (Adelman, 1999).  The rigor of the academic program experienced by the valedictorians from West Springfield High School has helped them gain admission and win scholarships to many of the most selective colleges and universities in the nation.

Recognizing excellence in academic performance is a vital aspect of any learning community.  But such recognition need not be based on arbitrary criteria and deleterious competition.  Instead, it can and should be based on clear models of excellence that exemplify our highest standards and goals for students (see Guskey & Bailey, 2001).  Educators should take pride in helping the largest number of students possible meet these rigorous criteria and high standards of excellence.

That’s a good place to stop for now.  Please leave a comment of consider this as a topic for discussion in a future #roe33chat / among colleagues / or professional reflection.


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