Demystifying Standards

The following four-part essay was created by Gregg Palmer, former principal of Searsport District High School, in 2008.

Part I

Starting with the graduating class of 2010 (currently our sophomore class) the high school committed to creating a fully standards-based educational program. This change will soon be the law of the land, as the state of Maine will be passing a new high school graduation bill aimed at having all students leave high school having met all standards laid out in Learning Results ? the state's prescription for what all students should know and be able to do when they exit high school. While there will be a time line for all high schools to comply, SDHS chose to be ahead of the curve and have our system in place, now.

An easy way to think about standards is as an itemized list of what you want students to know and be able to do. In the past (and it's still the case for our current juniors and seniors), your report card would simply say, for instance, biology followed by a grade that fell between 0 ? 100. Now, instead, students will receive a separate grade on a series of standards for that same biology course. Instead of just needing to get one, general grade above a 70 for the course, students have to be proficient in each of 7 standards in biology. Where's the improvement in student learning?

Imagine, for a moment, that you're making a pizza for a cooking class at the Regular School for Pizza Making. The learning target is to make a good tasting pizza. So you make the pizza and your teacher sits down and eats a slice. “Well,” she says, “that's a pretty good tasting pizza. You pass.” Great, you think, but a friend of yours is attending a different school across town, called the Standards-based School for Pizza Making. Your friend also had the same assignment, to make a good tasting pizza pie. However, at the standards-based school, he had to meet 4 specific standards:

  1. fresh toppings that hold their natural flavors to the maximum extent possible
  2. crisp crust on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside
  3. savory cheese blends
  4. original, home made sauce that magnifies and works in concert with the overall flavor

Without going any further, who do you think will make the best tasting pizza and why? It's likely that in your answer to this imaginary situation, you've explained why we moved to standards.

If we itemize the learning objectives for each of the various content areas (English, science, math, social studies, foreign language, health & P.E, the arts) then students will increase their skills because they'll need to be concerned with each of the most important aspects of the class, and not just one, overall grade that might hide specific weaknesses. I might be a good writer, for instance, but very bad at punctuation. In the old system, I might still pass the class because my good writing scores would hide my weaker punctuation scores. Not anymore. Now I would have to be both a good writer and a competent grammarian. Add to that list another 5 ? 7 standards that I would also have to focus on and you get the idea.

The second pizza maker will create the better tasting food because they have to concentrate on every important aspect of pizza making. They can't hide a poor sauce with an excellent crust.

So whatever else you hear about standards, at their most fundamental level they're an itemized list of learning objectives created so that no student slips through any academic crack. They're more difficult because of the reality of having more skills and understandings being focused on in a more intensive way. Our goal is to have all our students leave the high school with increased options and confidence to accomplish whatever they set their minds to do.

Part II: Grading and Cut Points

Standards themselves don't necessarily demand any particular grading system, but there are grading schemes specifically designed to best represent student progress in meeting standards.

When you look at the standards-based report card you see several standards for each subject area (math, science, English, social studies, health, and physical education). A student needs to meet the standard on each of these (or earn a 3.0) by the end of the course or during interventions in the summer or that carry into next year, if necessary. While this is harder than getting an average score of 70 in a course, our new system will push students to be better prepared to go on to post-secondary opportunities after high school.

The challenge we faced over the past several years was to create a system that remained fair and clear for students. With the help of an intensive study of the research, including Robert Marzano's book Transforming Classroom Grading and with guidance and facilitation from The Mitchell Institute, the grading system currently in use was developed over the course of two years, follows best practice, and has functioned well and as predicted.

In this letter, I'd like to discuss one aspect of our new system around an educational phenomenon known as “cut points.”

Cut Points

Cut points are the scores that a school system or testing organization (like the College Board who creates the SAT exam) creates to show levels of student learning.

In a traditional system there are 101 cut points, 70 of which (0 ? 69) all mean failure. Cut points are so important because a student will have demonstrated that they have or have not met learning goals depending on which side of these cut points they fall. If you get a 69, you fail where a 70 means you pass. This distinction shows how important it is that there is a real difference between these two cut points. In fact, you could say that a student's future rests on the distinction between the single point that separates these two numbers.

Because of this we should be very clear about the difference between a 69 and a 70 so students understand exactly what is expected from them and what they have to do in order to pass then go on to pursue their hopes and dreams. No student who ever gets a 69 should ever shrug his or her shoulders, when asked why they got that number versus a 70 and say they have no idea.

If we have to be very clear about these two cut points, then we should be equally clear about the difference between a 22 and a 23, or between an 87 and an 88, or between any two numbers in this scale.

The problem is that schools have no clear reasons for these single cut point differences. They remain a mystery to students, parents/guardians and, to be honest, to the schools that issue the grades. It comes down to this idea: the difference between any two consecutive numbers in a traditional 0 -100 scale is not about a difference in the quality of the work an individual student has completed so much as it's about ranking the students in order to sort them in relation to one another.

Another way of saying this is that a traditional grading system is designed to compare and sort, where a standards-based system is designed to be clear and specific about levels of individual learning.
One way to prove this is to give an essay to two teachers in the same traditional school and ask them to assign a grade. What do you think the odds are that these two teachers will take this essay and assign it the exact same grade? The answer is that odds are they would never give the same grade, ever.

Imagine having 101 home made muffins and a set of numbers on cards (0 through 100) and having to put card number 100 in front of what you think the best muffin is, and card number 0 next to the one you think is the worst, then arrange all the other muffins using the rest of the numbers. This system is efficient when it comes to sorting and ranking, but as soon as the baker asks you to explain the significant differences between the muffin you assigned number 51 versus muffin number 52 you would be at a loss. Or, like the two essays, what if someone blindfolded you and a friend and had you each take a bite out of one of the muffins and asked you where you thought it ranked on the 0 ? 100 scale. Would the two of you pick the same number? Probably not.

Our new system has, by comparison, only seven cut points, represented in the following chart:

Does Not Meet the Standard

Partially Meets the Standard

Meets the Standard

Exceeds the Standard


2.0 or 2.5

3.0 or 3.5

(4.5 Honors Option)

In this system teachers should nearly always, 100% of the time, score the two essays the same. Not only that, the student(s) who wrote them should score them the same as well, and so should their parents. Why? Because the system is designed to be clear and specific about what a student has to do and show in order to score at any one of the seven cut points. Not only are there a list of descriptors in each column explaining to students what the work looks like if it is at this level (which doesn't exist in a traditional 0 ? 100 scale), but the students get these “rubrics” before starting their assessments, so before they ever have to begin the work they know exactly what they have to do to earn each level of learning (and the grade that goes with it).

In the standards-based grading system, you could select any of the 101 muffins and look at the descriptions of what a muffin that Does Not Meet, Partially Meets, Meets, or Exceeds the standard looks, tastes, and smells like. If those lists are specific enough, you and I would consistently grade the muffins the same. What we couldn't do, using this new system, is efficiently sort and rank the muffins in a long line, 0 ? 100. And when you think about it, why should we do that? What does it matter how they compare to one another? Isn't it more important that the baker understands where each, individual muffin scores on meeting the standard so he or she can become a better cook and have all of his or her muffins be good tasting?

Again, a standards-based system like ours only cares about how each, individual student achieves ? where they fall on the rubric and how to improve to the next level ? not about comparing classmates, which is a traditional practice that can be deceiving . You and I and ninety-nine other people could all be part of the class of 2010, for instance, and while you might be ranked number one and I might be number sixty-six, maybe you as the valedictorian still have significant skill deficits (and the class itself is weak, overall), or vice versa; maybe student number sixty-six has excellent skills (and the class itself is strong, overall) but a traditional system would not give you or anyone else that information.

Instead, our new system cares about individual student ability and progress. Your progress, my progress individually, and that we both end up better academic students in the end.

Part III: Grading and Trend Analysis

The last letter discussed cut points and how they're used in a traditional versus standards-based system. In this letter we'll consider the traditional act of averaging scores versus the standards-based practice called trend analysis.

Again, we arrived at this practice through an intensive study of the research, including Robert Marzano's book Transforming Classroom Grading and with guidance and facilitation from The Mitchell Institute.

Trend Analysis

All schools use some system to take a collection of students' grades and calculate those grades in order to demonstrate whether learning has or has not occurred. While averaging is the traditional method, trending is the way of calculating students' grades in a standards-based system.

When you think about trending think about a light bulb model of learning. The idea is that whenever you're just starting to learn something new (say you're learning how to fly fish) you might have a hard time, at first, showing to the outside world that you're learning though you are. Someone gives you lessons on how to cast using a fly rod. For a week or more you have no ability to show that you're learning during the lessons, but in that time you are figuring it out, putting together the motions and requirements to cast, studying so that there is a lot going on in your brain though you haven't put it all together yet. Then, one day, the light bulb goes on for you and you think (or say), “ah! I get it.” Suddenly you can show your progress and soon are becoming a better and better fly fisherman.

Trending would not penalize you as heavily for your early mistakes as would a traditional system that uses averaging. Instead, trending looks for the steep increase in learning that happens once the light bulb goes on. Teachers in this system want to see the trend of that learning and show, through the grade you earn, that in the end you did learn the knowledge and/or skill. If the early mistakes counted as heavily as your final demonstrations of learning, you could still fail even though you had mastered the skill by the end of the experience. You might be an expert at casting a fly rod, but the teacher in the traditional system would fail you because your final success wasn't enough to balance out those early failing grades. Trend analysis would instead give you a very good grade because the calculation would detect the trend of your learning and would see that in the end you did master the art of casting a fly rod and would not count as heavily your early learning mistakes that are, in truth, a natural part of the learning process.

Imagine you were learning your multiplication tables. On the first day of class the teacher gave you a test, on which you scored a zero. Four more assessments occurred on the multiplication tables between then and the last day of school in June. Here are your scores: 0, 40, 60, 80, 100. In a traditional system that averages scores, you would have a 56 and would fail, though in the end you had perfect knowledge of your multiplication tables. In trend analysis (assuming this particular standards-based system was for some reason using a 0 ? 100 scale) you would score nearer a 90. Again, what real learning occurred and which system better measured it? Like with the fly fishing, you struggled early on to learn the idea and pattern behind multiplication, but once the light bulb went on your scores quickly increased. Trend analysis cares about that learning pattern and that in the end you knew your stuff. Averaging doesn't care. It weights each score equally ignoring the pattern of mastery you exhibited.

To some extent it comes down to what theory of learning you believe in, but research strongly suggests the light bulb theory behind trend analysis is how a human being truly learns, so we think that our grading practices should reflect that.

The process of trending suggests teachers use an assessment pattern of more frequent checks on student learning around any particular learning goal and/or skill, versus a less frequent, “high stakes” pattern (only giving a few assessments). Teachers want to assess often enough to detect the learning pattern and record it. At the end of this process of more frequent measurement a high stakes test then becomes a fair way for a student to demonstrate they've learned.

Searsport District High School uses trend analysis to measure progress toward meeting all standards.

Part IV: Interventions

The last two letters discussed grading in a standards-based program. There is another aspect of a standards-based education that's critical to its success, and that is a timely, directive, systematized set of interventions.


Interventions are structures and dedicated resources that are designed to help students meet standards whenever the student(s) need additional support beyond the regular program. Interventions can be skill based, effort based, and/or social/emotional based.

Why are interventions crucial in a standards-based program while considered optional in a traditional program? First you have to consider that in most traditional schools there is an unstated belief at work that time is constant while learning is variable. What this means is that students are given a limited amount of time (175 days per year, 6 ? hours a day) during which they can learn everything the teacher requires of them. Starting in early September the clock is set to ticking and when that last day of school in June arrives the alarm rings and students in these systems put their pencils down and know that some of them will make it academically and some will not (meaning that the learning is variable), but the time is up and and that can't be changed (so time is constant).

In a truly standards-based program the opposite is true, so that learning is constant while time is variable. When students in this system sit down in September, they look at the categories of Does Not Meet, Partially Meets, Meets, and Exceeds the standards for each learning goal, and they know that before they're done with the particular level of education they're currently at (1st, 2nd, 3rd, or 4th year of high school) they will have all standards in the Meets or Exceeds categories (meaning that learning is constant). Until that happens, time will continue to expand (so time is variable).

How can time expand? The answer is that it expands through interventions. It is incumbent on the system and on students and parents to commit (thus the interventions are directive) to meeting all standards and accept that it's everyone's responsibility to make this happen and that no one can give up, ever, until that happens. It is also assumed that the worst option for meeting standards is repeating a course, a technique that has proven to be ineffective. Interventions instead create support as close to the real learning time (thus the interventions are timely) as is possible in order to make sure all students meet all standards without course repetition. The interventions have to be well coordinated and fit together in a logical way that everyone can see and understand (thus the interventions are systematic).

Furthermore, standards-based schools believe that the reasons students aren't meeting all learning goals the first time out don't matter so much as the fact that it isn't happening. The interventions are not a punishment but support to learners and represent a collective commitment to the learning. In this system points are not deducted for late work. Instead, students are immediately entered into the system of interventions. Teachers don't need to distinguish the reasons for late work or work that is not up to meeting the standard (he's lazy; she ran away from home; he's been sick; she's a behavior problem). Students don't get extra points for perceived positive (but non-academic) qualities, and they don't lose points for the opposite perception. There is no extra credit. All that matters is that a student is or is not meeting each standard based on specific criteria in the rubrics. Interventions are critical to a commitment to have all students meet all standards.

While the explanation for all our interventions, and a flow chart, are attached a brief description of the different categories of interventions is given below.

Skill-Based Interventions

Skill-based interventions are for when students cannot meet all standards because they lack basic skills necessary for some content area work at certain levels of the curriculum. Examples at SDHS are the Reading is FAME literacy program in which all freshmen participate in order to increase reading levels; numeracy (using Agile Mind software) for basic math skills intervention; and writers' workshop for writing skills intervention. All of these interventions are in addition to students' regular coursework (so a freshman student takes both English and Reading is FAME).

Sometimes a student needs a significant adjustment in schedule in order to focus on fewer courses, for instance, that includes more direct guided study help. These kinds of more intensive interventions, based on skill development, are part of the system of interventions. Also included are some alternative structures like for instance, at SDHS, a program titled Project SUCCESS.

Effort-Based Interventions

Often students have the skills and abilities to meet standards but just need additional time and/or instruction beyond the normal time provided in the course(s); again, this is evidence of time being variable in a standards-based system.

At SDHS, during the regular school day, we have lunch time academic interventions and also LABS for every grade level, which is dedicated time when both students and their core grade level teachers are free to work together on interventions around technology, organization, study skills, etc. and also when direct help is available to every student for each core course.

SDHS also has three after school effort-based interventions (still considered as mandatory for all students who want to stay on track for graduation with their class) including Block 5 (from 2:10 ? 3:00 with grade level core teachers and/or teams when direct help and instruction is given), Guided Study (from 2:10 ? 3:00 for students don't need any additional instruction or help but only a quiet room to complete work), and Academy (from 2:10 ? 4:00 for six days at the end of each quarter that combines direct, core teacher instruction and help with quiet rooms for work completion) and also including a summer Academy that happens during the month of July.

Social/Emotional Interventions

Some students may have the skills necessary to meet all standards, but face significant social/emotional barriers to their success. For these students, an intervention plan may need to include alternative structures (like Project SUCCESS or Job Corps) or counseling, or other individualized approaches that are included in the overall system of interventions. Special student assistance teams will convene to create a plan for interventions that will also conclude with these students meeting the standards.

Gregg Palmer, Principal, 2008

This Center for Best Practice is a collaboration between the Maine Department of Education and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, made possible by the contributions of the Maine schools that share their stories.