Reflections on the 2016 Drake University Educational Leadership Symposium

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The Drake University School of Education hosted their annual Educational Leadership Symposium, entitled: Standard Based Grading: From the Front Lineson Tuesday, June 7, 2016.

As more schools in Iowa continue to transition to standards based or referenced grading (SBG) principles, each district may encounter unique challenges.  This symposium brought together four leaders who have been successful in implementing SBG in their districts. 

The following speakers shared their insights at the Symposium:

  • Garnet Hilman, Instructional Coach, Caruso Middle School
    Why Should I Change How I Grade?
  • Matthew Smith, Chief Schools Officer, Des Moines Public Schools
    Leadership Interrupted: What It Truly Means to be a SBG Leader
  • Matt Townsley, Central Office Administrator, Solon Community Schools
    SBG Snags and Solutions
  • Jill Urich, Chief Academic Officer, Ankeny Public Schools
    Standards-Based Learning: I Used to Think…Now I Know…

Our first presenter was Matthew Smith of the Des Moines Public Schools. He started the conference by creating the context for why our schools needed to make the transition to aligning assessment to standards of performance, citing Ken O’Connor (a.k.a. “The Grade Doctor”) who said,

“We need to transition our schools from a culture of grading to a culture of learning.”

To accomplish this, Matt maintained that our classrooms needed to shift from being teacher-centered to being a rigorous student-centered environment. He argued that learning in a teacher-centered classroom is often passive and minimally engaging for the student; whereas, learning in a student-centered classroom is much more active, engaging, and motivating. Learning in such environments, if facilitated appropriately by the teacher, is more challenging and meaningful. He used the graphic below to illustrate how such a shift could occur and how it would work.


Within the context of our prevailing letter grade system, students have been ranked and sorted into categories of performance based on the average of their numerical percentages across multiple assessments. This grading system, on the surface, appears relatively fair, simple, and easy to comprehend. It also carries the advantage of being the system so many people grew up with and as we all know, innovation in education moves at a snail’s pace.

Why is this system flawed? Matt offered several examples; however, perhaps the best way to truly understand the flaws is to imagine learning in such a system from the perspective of the student. In such a system, Matt asked us to consider whether students are more likely to ask the teacher for help in improving their level of learning or improving their grade. The answer is obvious.

We can’t fault our students for being so grade-driven. So many important areas of their lives are impacted by the grades they earn in school: college admissions, scholarships, internship opportunities, career opportunities, parental and peer approval and praise, etc. The list continues ad nauseum. We can’t fundamentally change this reality. Instead, we must more carefully examine the root causes that led to such a strong fixation on grades over learning. Matt referenced Rick Wormeli who said,

“Examine your pedagogy. What we are doing is less effective than we think it is.”

Therefore, until we change our instructional practices as educators, we will not create the change necessary to build a culture of learning instead of one of grading. The leverage in such a shift appears to lie in viewing learning as a process of continual improvement, where mistakes are expected and even encouraged. As educators, we need to focus more on the process than the results. If the process works, the results will follow. The process is working when our students are able to safely “fail forward” and learn from one another.

According to Matt, “What we lead in our buildings is a manifestation of who we are and what we believe.” He used the slide below to really encourage us to critically examine our belief system regarding the purpose of education and learning.


What do we believe about the learning of our students? Do we believe all students can learn and achieve success? If so, does our grading system align with this belief or does it leave some students behind? Where are the gaps between our beliefs and our practices? How can we close these gaps?

An unspoken reality our schools must also confront is that a good grade doesn’t always equate to high-level learning. The pathways that students must take to arrive at an “A” in one course often diverge greatly from those that must be taken in another course. How much time do our students spend trying to learn the “rules of the game” in order to earn an “A” in course 1 and then learning different rules for courses 2-8? Of course they will be more grade-focused when so much time must be spent trying to gain clarity and understanding within such a fragmented system.

What is really needed is to bring our grading systems into alignment. Our schools need to de-emphasize point accumulation in favor of mastery of learning targets and standards. Otherwise, a student may earn a certain grade but be unable to communicate what they learned or failed to learn that led to their earning a particular grade, or more importantly,  why the learning is important in the first place.

Matt argued that what was really needed was “standards-based leadership that connects the why to a trajectory of success for all students.” He made a compelling argument that education needed to shift to become more student-centered, ensuring that all students clearly understand what learning targets and standards they will be expected to demonstrate in the course, how they will be expected to demonstrate their learning, and why the learning is important within the broader context of the course and society as a whole.

Most of all, Matt drove home the point that a broken grading system is really an issue of equity and social injustice. Paraphrasing, he described how standards-based education is less about changing an “A” to a “2” and more about “righting the ship of social injustice that has pervaded our society for decades.”

According to Matt, by its very grading practices, our  system of education is broken. It is broken because it permits those most at risk to slip through the cracks and fail courses or move on to future courses without adequately learning the material. It is broken because it reinforces point accumulation over passion for learning. It is broken because it ranks and sorts students, creating winners and losers based on random grading algorithms that vary by course. Within such a system, success mostly goes to the successful. Those that earn good grades continue to earn good grades. Those that struggle continue to struggle, and the system leaves many students behind.

Next up was Garnet Hillman, an Instructional Coach at Caruso Middle School in Deerfield, IL. Her presentation focused on how to actually change our grading systems. She began her presentation very powerfully by noting, “Change evokes fear and heightens anxiety. People are inclined to ask, ‘Is it going to be worth it?'”

To counter this, Garnet asked us to consider the need for change within the broader scope of why we are educators. What is our aim? However, to Garnet, more important than our “what” is our “why.” Quoting Simon Sinek, she noted,

“People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.”

According to Garnet, our “why’s should be showing all the time.”

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This really made me think. Why am I an educator? Do my students know why I am an educator? Do my colleagues? Do my administrators? Do I? That last question is a doozy. I believe sometimes we can become so consumed by getting through the mundane tasks of each day or each class period, we can easily lose sight of the bigger picture of why we became educators in the first place.

By this reasoning, everyone should know why we do what we do. We should also seek to understand the “why’s” of those around us. To what extent are our “why’s” congruent? How do they diverge? By seeking to better understand those around us, we create connections with one another. The roots of the trees of our belief systems begin to fuse together. A forest emerges from the trees. A path forward presents itself as we then begin to assess the degree to which our beliefs align with our actions. The change is less scary because there is a more clear understanding about why the change is needed and how the change will serve to improve the forest as a whole.

Make no mistake, change is needed. Our current grading system isn’t working and doesn’t align with what we know to be educational best practice. According to Garnet, we see this very clearly every time we announce an assignment in class. Among the first questions students will ask is, “Is this graded? If so, the next question is “How many points is this worth?”

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While our first inclination may be to become frustrated when our students continually ask these questions, we must instead look inward. When our students ask the same questions over and over, the blame lies in the system of learning we have created in our classroom, not on our students. Somehow, our classroom has established a focus on grades over learning.

To shift the focus, Garnet provided several strategies, including:

  1. Create and communicate a clear purpose for grading. Students should clearly understand how the learning is reflected within the grade.
  2. Ensure classroom grades are accurate by clearly aligning them with desired learning targets and standards. To ensure alignment, clear criteria for learning must be communicated to students and referenced as evidence when assigning a particular grade.
  3. The process of assigning grades must be meaningful. Grades are communication, not compensation. Students should be able to communicate why they earned a particular grade in terms of specific learning targets and standards they have demonstrated, not points they have been awarded.
  4. Grades should empower students. When students are given multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery of a particular learning standard and criteria to meet the standard are clearly communicated, students begin to see grading as a way to diagnose their level of learning, make adjustments, and ultimately, increase their level of learning. They come to understand that learning growth, not point accumulation, is the only true pathway to a better grade.

In fact, Garnet made a convincing argument that we should quit using the word points in education. Such terminology only reinforces the perception that school is a game that students either win or lose. Such dichotomous thinking creates a systemic barrier to nurturing a growth mindset within our students. Instead, Garnet advocates for using the word levels to create a perception that learning is ongoing and there is always room for growth and continual improvement.

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Garnet concluded with a discussion about what learning outcomes we really want for our students and what our role as educators should be to ensure those outcomes become reality. Ultimately, the true leverage lies in seeing ourselves more as learning facilitators as opposed to teachers of content. The word teacher has an embedded, historical connotation of learning happening to students, rather than with students.

We can achieve such a shift through simple changes in our practices. Instead of grading every assignment, we can instead resolve to give students quality feedback on every assignment. When a grade is given, students often see the learning as complete. When feedback is given in the absence of a grade, students begin to think of learning as more of an ongoing process of continual improvement, without a final destination. Change the process, change the result.

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Our third presenter was Jill Urich, Chief Academic Officer for the Ankeny School District. Jill’s approach was to really view standards-based learning from the perspective of being a leader. She shared several examples of this using the approach of “I used to think…Now I know…”

For example, implementing a standards-based learning approach is not always easy. Various stakeholder groups may express strong opposition to such a change. From the point of view of school leader, the fear of opposition can present a real challenge to making any change in education. Jill shared that she used to think about “getting over the hump” in the standards-based implementation. However, now, she is more focused on “leading through standards-based experiences and finding ways for her learning to create meaning for others.”

This pivot required a different approach, one that embraced the responsibility of modeling the mindset and being a part of the change process. Jill began to understand that, rather than simply talking about moving to a standards-based approach, she needed to become standards-based. She immersed herself in the process so others could see the value of the approach, not as some abstract idea, but as a real process of being, doing, thinking, and learning.

From this perspective, Jill began to appreciate the need to think systemically to create the leverage necessary to motivate and sustain the change over time. Within this framework, she identified four elements that provided the best leverage to improve the system.

Mindset / Purpose

Jill shared that before she really got into the work, she used to think that everyone would just support the move to a standards-based grading system. She believed this because she herself could see how much it could benefit students. The reality was very different. There was pushback. Not everyone was supportive of the change. Not everyone assumed good intentions. Not everyone trusted those leading the change. Not everyone had a growth mindset.

What she learned from this experience was that it is important to ask stakeholders questions and learn more about what is important to them prior to rolling out a new initiative. By doing this, they can work together to bridge gaps between divergent opinions, allowing more voices to shape better ideas. Change is best embraced when stakeholders have some level of voice in the change process and when people believe the change is happening with them, not just to them.

With regards to standards-based grading, Jill has learned to embrace the messiness that came with implementing it. She realized that learning would continue after the system was implemented. Mistakes would be made. Adjustments would occur, allowing the system to improve. In addition, even as a primary leader of the change, Jill realized she was not an expert and never pretended to be. Leaders are often most effective operating within the system, making mistakes along with everyone else. It is in this humility and willingness to “get messy” that followers emerge.


Jill shared that she once assumed that as a leader, others would automatically follow her lead. The reality; however, is that not everyone is eager follower. There are so many pathways for people to become better, more capable leaders. However, most people aren’t trained how to become better followers. This is unfortunate. Without followers, a leader will find it nearly impossible to be a leader.

Jill also noted that informal culture is much more important than formal culture. In essence, the degree of followership in any organization is reflection of the culture and climate of the system as whole. Within this context, it becomes crucial for leaders to understand that not all followers in a system operate the same way. Only a select few are your “first followers.” These are the ones that believe in you and eagerly follow what you are doing as a leader without needing much prompting or reassurance. Others require a little more convincing before they will follow. They want to see the evidence and research that supports the change. Given sufficient supportive evidence, they also will become followers.

Organizations would operate somewhat smoothly if these were the only types of people a leader were to encounter. However, we all know other types of people exist, and in some organizations, prevail. These people are often toxic and bring negativity into the system, impeding progress.

The real leverage, Jill suggests, lies with those in another group: those that haven’t made up their mind…yet. These people will create the critical mass of that will either move the system forward or cause it to stagnate or even regress. These are the people the leaders and positive followers must engage in order to move the system forward.

To do this, it becomes crucial to not view people in this group as being interchangeable. All have different reasons for their indecision. It is crucial then for the leader to seek to understand why these people are hesitant to embrace the change and follow the leader. This requires the leader to seek out opportunities to engage these people in genuine conversation and dialogue. People appreciate being heard and asked for their ideas and opinions. Cultivating positive relationships with these people should help the leader sustain change and keep the system moving forward.

Jill stressed that it is also important to provide people with multiple entrance ramps for people to implement new change. Too often, people believe implementing change is “all or nothing.” The reality is that implementing second order change, such as moving to a standards-based grading system, takes time. People have different levels of comfort with such large-scale change. Some are comfortable diving in head first while others are only want to dip their toes in the water. To give these people the courage to test the waters, Jill suggests encouraging them to consider trying “one new thing.” This could be to quit grading homework, or stop offering extra credit, or start allowing reassessments. Any step forward is a step in the right direction.

Process and Structures

Jill talked at great length about how systems thinking was a vital component for implementing any change, including a move to standards-based grading. Too often, whether as district administrators, building principals, or classroom teachers, we limit our thinking to the comfort of the walls of our offices or classrooms. This type of isolationist thinking has a minimal impact improving the learning conditions for the students in our system. 

In relation to standards-based grading, Jill believes it’s important for leaders need to get out of their offices and for teachers to visit other classrooms. Once we begin to think about learning systemically, we begin to understand why change is needed.

For example, what is it like to be a learner in our system? What does a “typical day” look like for a student? Are we creating opportunities for students to make connections between learning in different classes? How aligned are the learning conditions, assessment practices, and instructional approaches across all their classes?

For administrators, are there clearly established expectations for teachers? Do they know what is “tight” and what is “loose?” Jill maintained that it was crucial that administrators clearly define the expected learning cycle for students in order to bring the system into alignment. She believed it was just as important for teachers to engage in conversations about the learning process as it was to process data and analyze results.

She also shared that meaningful changes starts from a shared vision and is only achieved once all components within the system are aligned to ensure the change becomes reality. An oversight in just one area may cause the change to fail to come to fruition.

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Research, Data, and Third Points

Jill shared that a common critique of implementing standards-based grading is the perception that there is no research to support it. The reality is that there is much research to support the move to standards based grading.

Jill  recommended several resources for administrators to engage in this work, including Learning by Doing (Du Four et al) , School Systems That Learn (Ash & D’Auria), Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching (Danielson), Implementing Change Through Learning (Hord & Roussin), Visible Learning (Hattie), Focus: Elevating the Essentials (Schmoker), Seven Strategies of Assessment for Learning (Chappuis), Grading From the Inside Out (Schimmer), and A School Leader’s Guide To Standards-Based Grading (Heflebower, Hoegh, & Warrick).

She also mentioned there are many great books by: Thomas Guskey, Ken O’Connor, and Rick Wormeli on the topic of standards-based grading.

Jill finished her presentation be appealing to why the need for standards-based learning is so vitally important. It’s an issue of equity. Not all student arrive in our classrooms with the same advantages, prior experiences, and learning abilities. We must respect each student as a unique learner, meet them where they are at, and provide appropriate scaffolds and supports in order to help them achieve learning growth and mastery.

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In the midst of all this work, Jill stressed the importance of maintaining perspective and a focus on other passions beyond the workplace. The best leaders are able to look outside the system they work within and see a bigger picture. Healthy work-life balance is crucial to sustaining oneself as a leader over the long-term.

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Our last presented of the day way Matt Townsley, Central Office Administrator for the Solon Community School District in Solon, IA. Matt began his presentation by advocating that we begin to give our students the same level of feedback about their performance relative to a standard in our core academic courses as they receive in athletics, music, art, jobs, etc. How can we expect our students to view learning as relevant when it operates on a different system of feedback and evaluation than world outside the classroom? Do our students know our standards for performance? Do they understand the learning targets?

The Solon CSD is very unique. While other districts have piloted or implemented standards-based grading in a few classrooms, buildings, or grade levels, few have adopted the approach systemically across the entire district. The Solon CSD is 100% standards-based.

This movement was led primarily by Matt. He cited a great deal of research and literature that supported moving to becoming a standards-based district.  Solon also dared to be different. An elementary principal was moved to become their high school principal. They approached the change systemically as opposed to a more fragmented approach of piloting SBG in pockets of isolation across the district. This ensured better alignment of work based around a shared vision. Standards-based grading was implemented from the mindset of aligning the learning journey of a student over time, across all buildings.

Why make the change? For one, the way in which points equate to learning is very arbitrary. Teachers are given a great deal of autonomy to design their system of grading. This keeps teachers happy, but creates confusion for students. In such a system, students spend a great deal of time trying to understand and achieve success (by point accumulation) in possibly 8 or more different grading systems over the course of the day. Each system operates with different rules and expectations. Grades are weighted differently in each class. Some classes award points for daily work while others do not. Some courses offer extra credit while others do not. Some courses allow late work with or without various penalties, while others do not allow late work. Some courses permit reassessment, under various rules, while others do not.

Imagine this experience from the perspective of the student. They know that an “A” doesn’t mean the same thing in every class, yet our society still views grades as reliable indicators of a student’s learning ability and potential. With such an emphasis on grades, how can we expect our students to understand their level of learning, diagnose learning gaps, and make the necessary adjustments to ensure maximal learning growth?

Matt advocated that teachers must think differently about grading. In his opinion, the only think that should factor into a student’s grade is their performance relative to a learning standard. Other variables, such as behavior, attendance, participation, etc. must be eliminated from factoring into a student’s grade. Matt argued that when these variables are included, students are rewarded for non-academic behaviors, and the purpose of the learning is watered down.

He also encouraged teachers to view their grade books as not written in stone, but rather as thermometers communicating a student’s current level of understanding. Therefore, grades are not a final destination, nor a signal for the learning to cease. He believed this was not so much about offering “retakes” as it was about providing students with multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery. Furthermore, a standards-based grading system does not permit students to “opt-out” of learning by failure to turn in work, make up assignments, etc. Instead the grading system is built around learning standards as opposed to chasing points and students are expected to demonstrate mastery of learning for all standards. Time is flexible, but the learning is not.

Lastly, high schools are often the most resistant to implement standards-based grading out of fear of what it would mean to abandon traditional letter grades in terms preparing students for the collegiate experience. While these concerns are somewhat legitimate, Matt also appealed to our sense of doing right by our students in terms of educational best practices in this slide:


Overall, I learned a great deal about standards-based grading and I am very thankful to the Drake University School of Education faculty for hosting this symposium and to the presenters for sharing their learning and experiences with those in attendance.

~Brad Hurst






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