How to Transition to a Standards Based Environment

Vikram Somasundaram

There is a growing movement towards Standards Based Learning across the country, a burgeoning sense of excitement among teachers within the community. Making this change is a BIG step and not a simple one.



So what is Standards Based Learning (henceforth SBL)? 

Simply put, SBL is a system of assessment focused on mastery of a set of standards or expectations. Each student in an SBL classroom is working on this set of standards, and progress is measured by how far along they are on mastering each of these standards.

Right away, a few key differences emerge from a traditional classroom. For one thing, the focus isn’t on grades anymore! All that matters is the student’s individual learning profile – which standards they are experts on, and where they need help. This shifts conversations from “what grade did I get” to “what do I still need to learn or master?” fostering a growth mindset in students.

In an ideal SBL environment, credit is awarded whenever and however mastery is demonstrated. So... if a student wants to show their understanding using a diorama, while another wants to write a paper, that’s perfectly acceptable! There isn’t the same emphasis on deadlines either - the goal isn’t how and when work is done, but that it is done well. 

Last but not least, SBL enables differentiation of instruction to a new degree. Having a clear set of expectations alongside data on exactly how each student is progressing towards each expectation allows for very high resolution identification of where the student needs help. Implemented correctly, there is far more insight teachers, students, and even parents can draw about each student’s needs in an SBL environment.

What you’ll need to implement SBL in your school or classroom

Here’s a brief (non-exhaustive) list of things needed to implement SBL:
-    A clear set of standards or expectations – generally the starting point would be local state standards for your grade level and subject
-    Clear communication to students about what mastery looks like for each standard – a great starting point is a rubric for each standard with levels of achievement (e.g., mastery, achieving mastery, developing mastery, improvement needed), and clear definitions of what each level looks like, ideally with examples!
-    Assessments built around specific standards or expectations – most of the time this can be done by tweaking assessments you already have to align with standards, if they don’t already
-    Changing mindsets – regular communication and working with your students and your colleagues to help them transition to new ideas like de-emphasizing grades and not prioritizing strict timelines
-    More specific feedback for each standard, rather than just a grade
-    A system that can support all of this logistically – SBL creates a lot of data to track, organize, visualize, and share (full disclosure: this is what the team at Edusight and I have built)

Transitioning to SBL – steps to take

In its ideal form, an SBL classroom would not produce grades. The challenge is how to transition from a traditional environment to a grade-free yet data-rich SBL environment, and how to bring all your stakeholders with you?

Here are some steps to start:
-    Decide how you want to convert SBL data to grades – a sudden change of an entire system is shocking to everyone (nobody likes change), so chances are you will need some kind of transition mechanism to still award grades to students. 
o    Some schools determine which standards are high priority for each subject, and award more points for mastery in those relative to others; some schools pre-set grade levels corresponding to levels of mastery, and use an average (usually a mean or a mode); still others might blend both approaches and add an element based on the number of standards mastered. None of these is perfect since SBL isn’t designed to produce grades – you should work with your team to decide what’s best for you
-    Prioritization of standards –there is only so much time in the school year, and with teachers already stretched incredibly thin for time, it’s not realistic to cover every single standard in a year for every student. A solution is determining which standards are “priority standards”, based on factors like how foundational they are for continuing on in future grade levels and relevance to other subject matter, and focusing on guiding students to mastery on these core standards.
-    Teacher PD –for even the best prepared, this is a huge transition. Investing in LOTS of PD for teachers, constant communication and check-ins during the transition period, resources for assessment, training, and support will be critical.
-    Ongoing community engagement– students and parents are not used to not receiving grades, and seeing the level of detail SBL will bring. They will also need to be guided through the transition –holding town halls inviting parents to your school or classroom in the beginning, and addressing any fears or concerns in a timely and transparent manner is a must. In time the parent teacher conference discussions will become much richer, alongside improved engagement!

Debunking Common Oppositions to SBL
-    Under SBL, if two students achieve mastery on the same set of standards, who has the higher grade? If neither does, how do we decide who has the higher GPA?
o    In a transition model, this would depend on the algorithm you set up to produce a grade. In an ideal SBL environment, there would be no grades to begin with, and the key idea is it doesn’t matter! We don’t care as much about how students perform relative to each other as we do about their performance relative to the set of standards. SBL encourages you not to compare students at the surface, but rather dig deeper and identify what their learning is comprised of – a true growth mindset in favor of superficial increase in a high-level number. (Note: higher grades might mean more learning in today’s world, but it’s not always the case. More mastery in SBL ALWAYS means more learning).
-    If students can submit work any time, in any medium, how is that fair to kids who complete work faster and first?
o    Learning is not a race. Mastery is about learning well, not fast. SBL allows the students who master things faster to move on to other topics and learn, without penalizing those who might need more time or different approaches to learn. The objective, again, is mastery learning, not meeting deadlines. We want to teach students to do a task well rather than to do it fast.

Why SBL is Here to Stay

The ideas behind SBL have existed for decades – various elements have floated around under different names and types of implementations. But now, for the first time, there’s strong reason to believe we can make it work for the long haul.

The adoption of the Common Core State Standards created a common framework across the country, and even if it’s not universally adopted or loved, the highly engaging conversation created as a result is having an effect. Today there are far more a resource for teachers to create assessments and share, and it’s far easier to build a community across the country around critical skills and standards.

Technology infrastructure and implementation are much stronger than they’ve ever been – access to broadband, wi-fi, and mobile devices in classrooms makes it easier than ever for teachers to capture data on student learning and give real-time feedback. Solutions to help teachers are constantly evolving and growing, and the focus on user-centric design and building simple, effective products is stronger than ever.

We’re in a better position to transition to a Standards Based Learning world than ever, and more and more teachers across the country are embracing the change. To enable this change, my team and I at Edusight are building a standards based portfolio to help K-12 teachers showcase all aspects of student learning. With Edusight, teachers can tag evidence of learning – grades, notes, and photos – to standards for each student, and share progress with students and parents.

Our goal is to make SBL a reality, and to make the transition as simple as possible for K-12 teachers across the country.


To learn more about Edusight, visit us at or contact Vikram Somasundaram, Co-Founder and CEO at [email protected]
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Issue 18.3 | Winter/Spring 2017

Southeast Education Network

Our Mission: to reinvigorate the spirit of American education