Standards-Based Grading in Chemistry

By | July 13, 2010

I’ve really been challenged this past week to think about the way that my students are assessed. Occasionally, a student in my class is able to earn an A without having a firm understanding or mastery of the material. While I use formative assessment techniques frequently to assess the progress and pacing of the class as a whole, I didn’t have a method or means of tracking individual student progress long-term. Worst of all, struggling students don’t know where to begin when reviewing or retaking tests.

Standards-based grading to the rescue! Most commonly used in math, standards-based grading is a method to grade students based not on participation, or arbitrary points accumulated, but on a demonstration of understanding of concepts. A student’s grade on Topic X reflects their most current level of understanding of X. My impressions of standards-based vs. traditional assessment:

Standards-Based Traditional
Grades communicate what concepts a student understands and doesn’t understand Grades frequently communicate how promptly assignments are turned in, and how quickly a student understands a given concept
Understanding matters, so there is incentive to learn the material When “points” matter, there is no incentive to not cheat on small assignments

The concept of grades as a means of communication of understanding is the primary reason I want to adopt a standards-based approach from now on. There are many great blogs out there that discuss the standards-based grading, but I am debating the best method of implementation in my class.

My draft of chemistry standards is here. I start with 10 big questions that I attempt to address in my course, and tried to fit the typical chemistry topics into those questions. It is much more spiraled than Chris Ludwig‘s draft, and I am not sure at this point which approach will be a) easier for students to understand, and b) easier for me to organize in a grade book. I think my approach lends itself to a portfolio assessment.


Chris Ludwig on July 13, 2010 at 1:32 pm.

Looking at our lists of chemistry standards, I think we both might have problems translating our lists into usable gradebook categories because of the focus on specific concepts.

Rather than having students studying all the concepts at once at their own pace or as their interest dictates, I think you will agree that we will probably discuss the topics in a logical progression. This is going to create lopsided grade entry into the gradebook. For example, if I have a standard on thermodynamics, that standard might not even be addressed until near the end of the school year, if I use my current pacing guides. That would mean that the gradebook entry for that and maybe many other standards would sit empty until we discussed that topic in class. The grade at any particular moment in time would be due to only a few standards, particularly at the beginning of the year.

I’m really thinking now about your comment that my biology standards might work for chemistry as well. They are not tied to specific content, but instead include multiple skills that might apply to any topic being discussed. That would give students several gradebook entries at once, including, but not limited to, the content knowledge we want them to learn. It would also give the teacher (us) more flexibility in how we assessed content knowledge, if it is not so strictly codified in our standards. I think some of the experienced SBG’ers can weigh in on this too, but I’m going to go for flexibility and simplicity as much as I can this year as I begin to use SBG.

Thanks for the conversation!


me on July 13, 2010 at 1:57 pm.

I agree with you about the lopsided gradebook. My use of “overarching” questions was an attempt to address it, in that students revisit the same main ideas in different contexts, but there are still gaps.

Do you think a self-assessment, such as portfolios or a journal, would be useful? I am reading this article again from JChemEd ( and it may fit better with science. Let me know what you think of the article.



Chris Ludwig on July 13, 2010 at 3:48 pm.

I like the portfolio idea. I tinkered last year and more recently with integrating Mahara ( into my Moodle site so that students could keep digital portfolios but the Moodle crashes when I do. My goal is fix it so students could have another avenue to collect project data, reflections, and products as more evidence of mastery of the standards.


me on July 14, 2010 at 12:36 am.

I have Google Apps for my classes next year, so Google Sites may be an option. I need to explore that a little more. Mahara looks interesting, but I would need to see it in action to really know if it is appropriate.

How about Livebinders?



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