Grading for Proficiency in the World of 4.0 GPAs

Can Standards Based Grading be Effective in the Secondary School?

Teacher with graded papers
PeopleImages / Getty Images

What does an A+ on a test or quiz mean to a student? Mastery of skill or mastery of information or content? Does an F grade mean a student understands none of the material or less than 60% of the material? How is grading used as feedback for academic performance?

Currently, in most middle and high schools (grades 7-12), students receive letter grades or numerical grades in subject areas based on points or percentages. These letter or numerical grades are tied to credits for graduation based on Carnegie units, or the number of hours of contact time with an instructor. 

But what does 75% grade on a math assessment tell a student about his or her specific strengths or weaknesses? What does a B- grade on a literary analysis essay inform a student about how he or she meets skills sets in organization, content, or conventions of writing? 

Standards-Based Grading System

In contrast to letters or percentages, many elementary and intermediate schools have adopted a standards-based grading system, one that uses a 1-to-4 scale. This 1-4 scale breaks down academic subjects into specific skills needed for a content area. While these elementary and intermediate schools use standards-based grading may vary in their report card terminology, the most common four-part scale denotes a student's level of achievement with descriptors such as:

  • Excels or above grade level (4)
  • Proficient or at grade level (3)
  • Approaching proficiency or approaching grade level (2)
  • Well below proficiency or below grade level (1)

A standards-based grading system may be called competency-based, mastery-basedoutcome-basedperformance-based, or proficiency-based. Regardless of the name used, this form of a grading system is aligned to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English Language Arts and Literacy and in Math, which was established in 2009 and adopted by 42 out of 50 states. Since this adoption, several states have withdrawn from using CCSS in favor of developing their own academic standards.

Framework Details Grade-Level Skills

These CCSS standards for literacy and for math were organized in a framework that details specific skills for each grade level in grades K-12. These standards serve as guides for administrators and teachers to develop and implement the curriculum. Each skill in the CCSS has a separate standard, with skill progressions tied to grade levels.

Despite the word "standard" in the CCSS, standards-based grading at the upper-grade levels, grades 7-12, has not been universally adopted. Instead, there is ongoing traditional grading at this level, and most middle and high school use letter grades or percentages based on 100 points. Here is the traditional grade conversion chart:

Grade Conversions

Letter Grade


Standard GPA



































Below 65


The skill sets outlined in the CCSS for literacy and math can be easily converted to four point scales, just as they are at the K-6 grade levels. For example, the first reading standard for grade 9-10 states that a student should be able to:

"Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text."

Standards-Based vs. Letter Grades Debate

Under a traditional grading system with letter grades (A-to-F) or percentages, a score on this reading standard may be difficult to interpret. Advocates of standard based grading will ask, for example, what a score of B+ or 88% tells a student. This letter grade or percentage is less informative about a student’s skill performance and/or subject mastery. Instead, they argue, a standards-based system would singularly assess a student's skill to cite textual evidence for any content area: English, social studies, science, etc.

Under a standards-based assessment system, students could be assessed on their skill to cite using a 1-to-4 scale that featured the following descriptors: 

  • Score 4: excels in citing strong and thorough textual evidence -explicit and inferential OR needs no support;
  • Score 3: proficient at citing strong and thorough textual evidence -explicit and inferential OR needs minimal support;
  • Score 2: approaching proficiency at citing strong and thorough textual evidence -explicit and inferential OR needs moderate support;
  • Score 1: below proficiency at citing strong and thorough textual evidence -explicit and inferential OR needs extensive support and/or reteaching.

Advantages of a 1-4 Scale

Assessing students on a 1-4 scale on a particular skill can provide clear and specific feedback to a student. A standard by standard assessment separates and detail the skills, perhaps on a rubric. This is less confusing or overwhelming to a student when compared to a combined skills percentage score on 100 point scale.

A conversion chart that compares a traditional grading of an assessment to standards-based graded assessment would look like the following:

Letter vs. Standards-Based Grades

Letter Grade

Standards-Based grade

Percentage grade

Standard GPA

A to A+




A- to B



3.0 to 3.7

C to B-

Approaching proficiency



D to C-

Below Proficiency




Below Proficiency

Below 65


Standards-based grading also allows teachers, students, and parents to see a grade report that lists overall levels of proficiency on separate skills instead of composite or combined skill scores. With this information, students are better informed in their individual strengths and in their weaknesses as a standards-based score highlights the skill set(s) or content that need(s) improvement and allows them to target areas for improvement. Furthermore, students would not need to re-do all of a test or assignment if they have demonstrated mastery in some areas.

Equality of Opportunity

An advocate for standards-based grading is educator and researcher Ken O'Connor. In his chapter, "The Last Frontier: Tackling the Grading Dilemma," in Ahead of the Curve: The Power of Assessment to Transform Teaching and Learning, he notes:

"Traditional grading practices have promoted the idea of uniformity. The way we are fair is we expect all students do to the same thing in the same amount of time in the same way. We need to move… to the idea that fairness is not uniformity. Fairness is equity of opportunity" (p128).

O'Connor argues that standards-based grading allows for grading differentiation because it is flexible and can be adjusted up and down as students confront new skills and content. Moreover, no matter where students are in a quarter or semester, a standard based grading system provides students, parents, or other stakeholders an assessment of student understanding in real time.

Importance of Student-Teacher Conferences

That kind of student understanding may take place during conferences, such as the ones Jeanetta Jones Miller explained in her article A Better Grading System: Standards-Based, Student-Centered Assessment in the September 2013 edition of the English Journal. In her description of how standard based grading informs her instruction, Miller writes that "it’s important to set up appointments to confer with each student about progress toward mastery of course standards." During the conference, each student receives individual feedback on his or her performance in meeting one or more standards in a content area: 

"The evaluation conference provides an opportunity for the teacher to make it clear that the student’s strengths and areas for growth are understood and the teacher is proud of the student’s efforts to master the standards that are most challenging."

Another benefit to standardized based grading is the separation of student work habits that are often combined in a grade. At the secondary level, a point penalty for late papers missed homework, and/or uncooperative collaborative behavior is sometimes included in a grade. While these unfortunate social behaviors will not stop with the use of standards-based grading, they may be isolated and given as separate scores into another category. Of course, deadlines are important, but factoring in behaviors such as turning an assignment in on time or not has the effect of watering down an overall grade.

To counter such behaviors, it may be possible to have a student turn in an assignment that still meets a mastery standard but does not meet a set deadline. For example, an essay assignment may still achieve a "4" or exemplary score on skills or content, but the academic behavior skill in turning in a late paper may receive a "1" or below proficiency score. Separating behavior from skills also has the effect of preventing students from receiving the kind of credit that simply completing work and meeting deadlines has had in distorting measures of academic skill. 

Arguments Against Standards-Based Grading

There are, however, many educators, teachers and administrators alike, who do not see advantages to adopting a standards-based grading system at the secondary level. Their arguments against standards-based grading primarily reflect concerns at the instructional level. They stress that the transition to a standards-based grading system, even if the school is from one of the 42 states using the CCSS, will require teachers to spend immeasurable amounts of time on extra planning, preparation, and training. In addition, any statewide initiative to move to standards-based learning may be difficult to fund and manage. These concerns may be a reason enough not to adopt standards-based grading.

Classroom time can also be a concern for teachers when students do not reach proficiency on a skill. These students will need reteaching and reassessment placing another demand on curriculum pacing guides. While this reteaching and reassessment by skill does create additional work for classroom teachers, however, advocates for standards-based grading note that this process may help teachers to refine their instruction. Rather than add to continuing student confusion or misunderstanding, reteaching may improve later understanding.

Perhaps the strongest objection to standards-based grading is based on the concern that standards-based grading might put high school students at a disadvantage when applying to college. Many stakeholders -parents, students teachers, guidance counselors, school administrators-believe that college admissions officers will only evaluate students based on their letter grades or GPA, and that GPA must be in numerical form.

Combining Letter and Standards-Based Grading

Ken O'Connor disputes that concern suggesting that secondary schools are in the position to issue both traditional letter or numerical grades and standards-based grades at the same time. “I think it’s unrealistic in most places to suggest that (GPA or letter grades) are going to go away at the high school level,” O’Connor agrees, "but the basis for determining these might be different." He proposes that schools might base their letter-grade system on the percentage of grade-level standards a student meets in that particular subject and that schools can set their own standards based on GPA correlation. 

Renowned author and education consultant Jay McTighe agrees with O'Connor, “You can have letter grades and standards-based grading as long as you clearly define what those (letter-grade) levels mean.”

Other concerns are that standards-based grading can mean the loss of class ranking or honor rolls and academic honors. But O'Connor points out that high schools and universities confer degrees with highest honors, high honors, and honors and that ranking students to the hundredth of a decimal may not be the best way to prove academic superiority.

Northeast Pushing to Change Grading System

Several New England states will be at the forefront of this restructuring of grading systems. An article in The New England Journal of Higher Education Titled directly addressed the question of college admissions with standard based grading transcripts. The states of Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire have all passed legislation to implement proficiency or standards-based grading in their secondary schools. 

In support of this initiative, a study in Maine titled Implementation of a Proficiency-Based Diploma System: Early Experiences in Maine  (2014) by Erika K. Stump and David L. Silvernail used a two-phase, qualitative approach in their research and found:

"...that benefits [of proficiency grading] include improved student engagement, greater attention to development of robust interventions systems and more deliberate collective and collaborative professional work."

Maine schools are expected to establish a proficiency-based diploma system by 2018.

The New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) and the New England Secondary School Consortium (NESSC) met in 2016 with admissions leaders from highly selective New England colleges and universities and discussion was the subject of an article "How Selective Colleges and Universities Evaluate Proficiency-Based High School Transcripts" (April 2016) by Erika Blauth and Sarah Hadjian. The discussion revealed that college admissions officers are less concerned with grade percentages and more concerned that "grades must always be based on clearly specified learning criteria." They also noted that:

"Overwhelmingly, these admissions leaders indicate that students with proficiency-based transcripts will not be disadvantaged in the highly selective admissions process. Moreover, according to some admissions leaders, features of the proficiency-based transcript model shared with the group provide important information for institutions seeking not just high-performing academics, but engaged, lifelong learners."

A review of the information on standards-based grading at the secondary level shows that implementation will require careful planning, dedication, and follow through for all stakeholders. The benefits for students, however, could be worth the considerable effort.

View Article Sources
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Bennett, Colette. "Grading for Proficiency in the World of 4.0 GPAs." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Bennett, Colette. (2023, April 5). Grading for Proficiency in the World of 4.0 GPAs. Retrieved from Bennett, Colette. "Grading for Proficiency in the World of 4.0 GPAs." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).