Standards-Based Assessment

Standards-Based Assessment (SBA) is a method of evaluating student skill mastery. SBA is intended to help students, families, and teachers understand how students are doing as they work on developing their skills. It is not an assignment-based or productivity-mindset way of understanding what children can do.

Traditional grading does not consistently describe student skill. “ABCDE” grading drives students toward “A,” and leaves no room to differentiate exceptional skill levels, and can inadvertently create conditions of comparison and judgment that are counterproductive to learning.

“Why…would anyone want to change current grading practices? The answer is quite simple: grades are so imprecise that they are almost meaningless.” – Robert Marzano 

Research-best practices-based descriptions are used to report a student’s skill for each standard required by the Virginia Department of Education and the Arlington Public Schools. An example of Performance Level Descriptors (PLDs) are:

Meets Standard The student consistently demonstrates mastery of the standard.
Approaching Mastery The student is in the process of mastering the standard.
Developing Mastery The student demonstrates initial understanding of the standard with support.
Insufficient Evidence The teacher does not have evidence to determine a student’s mastery level for this skill.

For each standard, in each grade level, teachers create and use meaningful, clear benchmarks students will reach to show they have met the standard established by Virginia and Arlington.

Journey Toward Mastery

Schools in Arlington, like all in Virginia, are tasked with ensuring that all students master the skills and acquire the content knowledge outlined in the Virginia Standards of Learning, or SOL.

SBA differs from traditional “grading” by eliminating problematic “Fail” and “zero” indicators. Instead of starting from “zero,” students begin with the accurate description of “no evidence,” meaning students simply have not yet reached that part of the learning. Most students will move through “Developing” and “Approaching” as they learn and develop their skills.

In fact, many students will spend much of their time during the course of learning at the “Approaching” stage, as they are developing skills and content knowledge.

Once a student meets the standard of skill established by Virginia and Arlington, the student’s skill is reported accurately as “Meets Standard.”

Because every student is unique, SBA accepts any demonstration of skill as valid, so teachers use a wide array of student work examples, artifacts, conferences, and analyses to meaningfully understand each learner. Teachers seek to create authentic learning experiences and to help students create demonstrations of their skills within authentic contexts.

This “omnimodal” assessment method allows any student to demonstrate skill mastery in any way. It accounts for student uniqueness and promotes nonjudgmental, noncompetitive learning, and conforms with the standards-based instructional methods we use in APS, such as with the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Units of Study.

Mastery Reporting

Student’s highest demonstration of skill is continually recorded, and that demonstration could come from any valid source: Perhaps one student did really well on a quiz. Perhaps another was able to verbally relate mastery of a subject during an individual teacher conference. Perhaps yet another showed genuine mastery through building something meaningful. Because all expressions of skill mastery are valid in omnimodal assessment, we do not report “grades” on “assignments” or “tasks,” but describe the current, accurate level of mastery for each standard, however that skill was demonstrated.

At the end of each quarter, a comprehensive record of mastery levels are sent home, giving families an opportunity to see growth over time. One of the advantages of SBA is that students who took longer to reach “Meets Standard” than others are not penalized. In traditional grading, mathematical averages and calculations are used to create a numerical “score,” which does not accurately represent a student’s skill. In these mathematical systems, students who take longer to reach mastery receive lower “grades” or “scores” than students who begin with a high level of mastery. This has the inadvertent effect of discriminating against students who need more time or have unique ways of understanding.


Both the literature on assessment and our educational philosophy in APS values each unique child. Standards-Based Assessment eliminates unhealthy, stressful, and inaccurate extrinsic motivation frameworks like traditional grading in favor of accurate, low-stakes reporting of student skill mastery.


“The Case Against Grades” by Alfie Kohn:

“The Case Against Rewards and Praise” by Harvard Education Letter:

“The Case Against Grades” by Michael Thomsen:

“Self-esteem based on external sources has mental health consequences,” American Psychological Association:

“A is the Best One” by Caroline Greig

“Standards-based grading made my kid average” by Lisa Westman