What is the Difference between Standards-Based Grading (or Reporting) and Competency-Based Education?

November 11, 2014 by
Matt Townsley

Matt Townsley

Here in Iowa, competency-based education is gaining traction at the state and grassroots level. In fact, the Iowa Department of Education has launched a multi-year CBE collaborative. Needless to say, it’s an exciting time to be an educator in the Hawkeye State!

Meanwhile, a core group of Iowa schools have started to implement a standards-based grading philosophy in middle and high schools. Because of these two movements in our state, standards-based grading and competency-based education are often times incorrectly presented as synonymous practices. As a member of Iowa’s CBE task force and through my work as a district administrator in a system that has embraced standards-based grading K-12, I’ve been in a position to think about and discuss these two topics extensively. When area schools hear about our grading and reporting practices, we are often asked how our system relates to those working towards competency-based educational models. While many of the ideas overlap, I felt compelled to tease out these two education terms in order to honor their similarities and differences.

What is standards-based grading? 

Standards-based grading “involves measuring students’ proficiency on well-defined course objectives.” (Tomlinson & McTighe, 2006). (Note: Standards-based reporting involves reporting these course objectives rather than letter grades at the end of each grading/reporting period.)

The visual below compares traditional grading with standards-based grading practices.

Traditional Grading System Standards-Based Grading System
1. Based on assessment methods (quizzes, tests, homework, projects, etc.). One grade/entry is given per assessment. 1. Based on learning goals and performance standards. One grade/entry is given per learning goal.
2. Assessments are based on a percentage system. Criteria for success may be unclear. 2. Standards are criterion or proficiency-based. Criteria and targets are made available to students ahead of time.
3. Use an uncertain mix of assessment, achievement, effort, and behavior to determine the final grade. May use late penalties and extra credit. 3. Measures achievement only OR separates achievement from effort/behavior. No penalties or extra credit given.
4. Everything goes in the grade book – regardless of purpose. 4. Selected assessments (tests, quizzes, projects, etc.) are used for grading purposes.
5. Include every score, regardless of when it was collected. Assessments record the average – not the best – work. 5. Emphasize the most recent evidence of learning when grading.

Adapted from O’Connor K (2002).  How to Grade for Learning: Linking grades to standards (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

In our district, secondary teachers are required to abide by the following grading guidelines:

  1. Entries in the grade book that count towards the final grade will be limited to course or grade level standards.**
  2. Extra credit will not be given at any time.
  3. Students will be allowed multiple opportunities to demonstrate their understanding of classroom standards in various ways. Retakes and revisions will be allowed.
  4. Teachers will determine grade book entries by considering multiple points of data emphasizing the most recent data and provide evidence to support their determination.
  5. Students will be provided multiple opportunities to practice standards independently through homework or other class work. Practice assignments and activities will be consistent with classroom standards for the purpose of providing feedback. Practice assignments, including homework, will not be included as part of the final grade.

** Exceptions will be made for midterm and/or final summative assessments. These assessments, limited to no more than one per nine-week period, may be reported as a whole in the grade book.

Parents and teachers have commented positively after watching a short five-minute video explaining standards-based grading that was used to convey these ideas prior to our implementation dating back to the 2012-13 school year.

What is competency-based education? 

Under a competency-based education system, “learners advance through content or earn credit based on demonstration of proficiency of competencies” rather than seat time. (Source: Iowa Department of Education CBE Pathways.)

With so many definitions of CBE available, I settled on principles of competency-based education from Iowa’s Guidelines for PK-12 Competency-Based Pathways as a reputable framework, because they were adapted from International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL). I’ve included the CBE Pathways principles and their descriptors below.

A. Students Advance upon Mastery 

  • Students advance to higher-level work upon demonstration of mastery of standards rather than according to age or seat time.
  • Students are evaluated on performance and application.
  • Students will master standards and earn credit or advance in content at their own pace.
  • They will work through some standards more rapidly while taking more time to ensure mastery on others.

B. Explicit and Measurable Learning Objectives that Empower Students

  • The relationship between student and teacher is fundamentally changed as students gain understanding of what working with standards requires and take ownership of learning, and as teachers provide the appropriate supports for learning.
  • The unit of learning becomes modular.
  • Learning expands beyond the classroom.

C. Assessment Is Meaningful and a Positive Learning Experience for Students

  • Schools embrace a strong emphasis on formative assessment as the unit of learning becomes modular.
  • Teachers collaborate to develop understanding of what is an adequate demonstration of proficiency.
  • Teachers assess skills or concepts in multiple contexts and multiple ways.
  • Attention is on student learning, not student grades.
  • Summative assessments are adaptive and timely.
  • Assessment rubrics are explicit in what students must be able to know and do to progress to the next level of study.
  • Examples of student work that demonstrate skills development throughout a learning continuum help students understand their own progress.

D. Rapid, Differentiated Support for Students Who Fall Behind or Become Disengaged 

  • Educator capacity, and students’ own capacity to seek out help, will be enhanced by technology-enabled solutions that incorporate predictive analytic tools.
  • Pacing matters. Although students will progress at their own speeds, students who are proceeding more slowly will need more help, and educators must provide high-quality interventions.

E.  Learning Outcomes Emphasize Application and Creation of Knowledge

  • Competencies will include the standards, concepts, and skills of the Iowa Core as well as the universal constructs (creativity, complex communication, collaboration, critical thinking, flexibility and adaptability, and productivity and accountability).
  • Lifelong learning skills are designed around students needs, life experiences, and the skills needed for them to be ready for college, career, and citizenry.
  • Expanded learning opportunities are created as opportunities for students to develop and apply skills as they are earning credit.

What are some ways in which standards-based grading and competency-based education are similar?

In both systems…

  • Students learn specific standards or competencies based on a pre-determined rubric.
  • Students take more ownership of their learning, because it (learning) is communicated rather than “Project 3” or “Worksheet 4-2.”
  • Using assessments in formative ways is the norm rather than exception.

These two systems may be similar in some contexts. For example, learning outcomes could emphasize application and creation of knowledge in a classroom that uses a standards-based grading philosophy, but, by definition in a standards-based system, this may or may not be the case. Similarly, experiences could be designed around students’ needs and life experiences in a standards-based grading classroom, but it is not necessarily the norm.

What are some ways in which standards-based grading and competency-based education are different?

In a competency-based system…

  • Students advance to higher-level work and can earn credit at their own pace. (In a building, district, or classroom using a standards-based grading philosophy, this is not necessarily the case. Students are likely required to complete x number of hours of seat time in order to earn credit for the course.)
  • Learning expands beyond the classroom. This may or may not take place in a standards-based grading philosophy. For example, in a competency-based system, a student who learns a lot about woodworking over the summer may earn credit when he or she returns to school the next year. Similarly, students are encouraged to learn outside the classroom so that they can demonstrate competencies at their own, rapid rate.
  • Teachers assess skills or concepts in multiple contexts and multiple ways. (This may or may not be the case in a standards-based grading classroom; however, it is non-negotiable in competency-based education.)


A standards-based grading (SBG) philosophy is similar, but not synonymous with, the idea of competency-based education (CBE). SBG is a way of thinking about grading and assessment that more clearly communicates with parents and students how well learners currently understand the course objectives/standards/competencies. CBE is a system in which students move from one level of learning to the next based on their understanding of pre-determined competencies without regard to seat time, days, or hours. A competency-based system may utilize a standards-based report card to communicate student learning; however, the two educational terms are not, by definition, the same.

About the Author

Matt Townsley joined the Solon Community School District (Solon, IA) central office administrative team in 2010. Prior to his current role, he taught high school math for six years in the same district. Currently, Matt is pursuing a doctorate in school improvement at the University of West Georgia. One of his articles, "Redesigning Grading—Districtwide" was published in the December 2013 issue of Educational Leadership. He regularly presents at conferences and leads professional development on the topics of formative assessment and standards-based grading. He can be reached at @mctownsley on Twitter.

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  1. Comment by Kara Haughian 9:06 am, April 21, 2016

    Quick question: Our district has a SBR and we are discussion some changes that need to be made. What do you do with kids that move up grades but aren’t “progressing” or “meeting” standards? Are those the students’ needs being met through Response to Intervention (RtI)?

    Also, how did you make sure the SBR was a success with staff and parents? I’ve read A Repair Kit for Grading by Ken O’Connor and Developing Standards-Based Report Cards by Thomas R. Guskey and Jane M. Bailey. Developing Standards-Based Report Cards is a great book with some great ideas of how to approach this difficult task. How did you get teachers on board with this philosophy when they believe traditional grading is best?

  2. Comment by Joe Sukut 8:31 pm, May 9, 2016

    Our Staff at Senior High is exploring new ways to determine student achievement other than the traditional grading methods. Several of our staff are experimenting with Standards Based Grading. At our last PLC meeting those teachers shared their methods and strategies. This really got the attention of many staff members. I’m looking forward to continue the discussion.

  3. Comment by Chris Sturgis 8:13 pm, June 1, 2016

    Hi — Sorry for the delay in responding. Somehow I missed your comment. These are great and really big questions.

    The question about kids that aren’t progressing takes some time to unpack. It’s also a questioning challenging the field right now. First of all its important to become adept at thinking about performance levels (or students skill levels) and grade levels. Students might not be progressing because they don’t have pre-requisite skills. Thus we are expecting something they can’t do until we help them build their pre-requisite skills. Second, there needs to be adequate instructional support offered so that students can get extra help — even on a daily basis. Most competency-based schools have some type of Flex hour for students to get help. Third, there are different reasons that students aren’t progressing. Some might be special education issues or the problem of lack of pre-requisite skills mentioned above. However, it’s often related to habits of work. We recommend developing your strategy about habits of work before you implement standards-based grading so that teachers are comfortable coaching students around the habits.

    In terms of engagement of parents and staff: For teachers, it’s important to unpack the traditional grading system. There are lots of resources on the web about this. You can also find a short summary in the paper we did on grading (https://www.competencyworks.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/CW-Progress-and-Proficiency-January-2014.pdf). However I recommend videos by Rick Wormelli. For parents, some educators recommend giving parents the opportunity to talk in smaller groups or one to one so they have a chance to understand why the new system is important. We also recommend doing community engagement about why it is important to move to a personalized, competency-based system way before you start the changes in grading. You can find some information about that in the paper on implementation (https://www.competencyworks.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/iNCL_CWIssueBrief_Implementing_RampingUp_v3_web.pdf).

    One other piece of advise — Think carefully about all the things that need to be in place before you launch standards-based grading. Often people think it is an entry point to competency-based education — and it is only in that you have to put the infrastructure in place to make it work well.

    I doubt this really got to all your questions — but I hope some of the resources will prove helpful. — Chris

  4. Comment by Tyler Haslam 6:08 pm, July 19, 2016

    I just happened to be re-reading Assessment for Learning, by Richard Stiggins. He says:

    “I can think of at least five possible reasons why students might not have learned:
    1. They lacked the prerequisites needed to achieve what I expected of them.
    2. I did not understand the target to begin with, and so could not convey it appropriately.
    3. My instructional methods, strategies, and materials were inappropriate or inadequate.
    4. My students lacked the confidence to risk trying–the motivation to strive for success.
    5. Some force(s) outside school and beyond my control (death in the family, for example) interfered with and inhibited learning.”

  5. Comment by bailey 2:21 pm, November 17, 2016


  6. Comment by Chris Sturgis 4:10 pm, November 17, 2016


  7. Comment by Ron W. Skilton 6:03 am, January 4, 2017

    I understand that we all want our children to be prepared for higher education after high school and for the greater “Game of Life”. However, we all also know that individuals (including students) can not and will not be experts in all competencies and or standards. Do you fans, I am not, of standards and competency programs in our high schools also expect a major league baseball player or NFL football player to be able to play every position up to the top professional standards of the top MLB or NFL players?; if you do you are of course not living in reality in my opinion. A student, in my opinion, should not be expected to be competent in every competency and or standard as it puts to much pressure on the student and may “turn off” a student to take a desired career or life path in the greater game of life… High School, in my opinion, is met to be an introduction to the “Game of Life” by experiencing all that education has to offer, not to be experts in everything or in every player position in just four short years. Here is a question for you. If competency and standards based programs are so good and best practice, why have not all our top universities in the U.S.A. changed to this type of grading or education? I will tell you why, again. Every individual (including students) can not be an expert in all fields of study or even all components of a single field of study. An honorable Judge in a courtroom says I will take it under advisement… This means of course that the Judge is not fully competent and must check with his law library and other resources to become competent, in real time, to properly adjudicate the case. ABCDF GPA grades are just fine in my book, to include extra credit! I currently have a public high school student learning under competency based education and my student now has a cumulative GPA, for the year, of 3.64 and would not graduate given that a single competency is to low in one area of one class. Come on people! Happy New Year!…Ron

  8. Comment by Anthony Palma 9:19 am, February 13, 2017

    Yet another article that uses a false dilemma fallacy to convince those to abandon traditional grading methods. “Criteria for success may be unclear.” Come on! This may be true in some classrooms, but is certainly not a product of the traditional grading system. Not a single bullet point, of the 5 given, has to be true. As an academic, the author needs to be more academically honest. Of course, the author got these from Ken O’Connor as if that carries any weight. I’ve read O’Connor’s book and it too lacks academic honesty.

    I agree with Ron W Skilton, and will add that if standards based grading or competency based education are in fact a better system, where is evidence supporting the system?

  9. Comment by Chris Sturgis 3:19 pm, February 15, 2017

    Hi Anthony — Your concerns are all noted. I’ve been in the middle of trying to find evidence about the value of the traditional grading systems (every teacher has their own, points, zeros, averages, and passing kids on even if they don’t learn). So far no luck. But I have found bits and pieces that are summarizing research on grading.

    What does the research say about standards based grading in grades K-12?

    A Century of Grading Research: Meaning and Value in the Most Common Educational Measure

    As for your note about evidence that CBE is effective (no one here would argue that a grading system alone would bring big improvements to a school) — we are seeing some indications that schools improve when they move to competency-based education but there hasn’t been any formal evaluation that would allow us to have confidence. And state accountability doesn’t really help us identify the benefits. And at some level we are still working through the kinks. However, I do think the bottom line is — how does anyone improve unless they take the risk to try something. The stance that your statement suggests that one has to have evidence before trying to improve seems problematic to me. No doubt though — we do need to make sure our students are learning.

  10. Comment by Pablo & Thomas 11:38 am, February 22, 2017

    Standard base grading is an unnecessary complication for teachers who have applied competence based assessments all along. Have you ever wondered why such innovations are always proposed by education specialists who never taught grammar? It’s the revenge they are seeking against their grammar teachers that motivates them to create such models. The result of such grading is that the standard, the bar, could always get lower and lower and lower and lower…… ad infinitum.

  11. Comment by Chris Sturgis 1:35 pm, February 22, 2017

    Hi — That’s such an interesting insight. We agree without calibration across the school and district there is a risk that expectations of what is proficient can be lowered. Lowering standards has certainly shown its head within the traditional system as well. That’s why we always emphasize teachers working together to review student work together to guard against the lowering of standards.

    I think the standards-based grading is pretty limited if it is always designed around course or grade level standards. It doesn’t recognize what teachers and students do when learning is taking place below or above the grade level. It’s just too ridgid. I’ve been visiting a number of schools that are looking at continuums of learning rather than only grade-based standards.

    I’m also struck by your description of grammar teachers. I haven’t heard that term in a long time — most of the classrooms I’ve visited talk about building language and literacy skills. Certainly grammar is one part of that. But these teachers perceive themselves as teaching students, not teaching grammar. I wonder if your school has put all the pieces into place to truly take advantage of a standards-based grading approach. I get a feeling from your content that it may be missing some pieces — so it really doesn’t work as it should.

  12. Comment by brianna 9:30 pm, April 9, 2017

    Standards based grading has brought my grade down so much! I have been an A+ student my whole life, and now since a 3 is a 90% but you can only get a 4(100%) “by going above and beyond” my grades are in the low 80s!! I have been getting letter grades my whole entire life, and to suddenly change that into something that doesnt make any sense and has no proof of success is just wrong and unfair! I am seriously considering changing schools because of standards based grading because my principals say “it’s not going anywhere so get used to it”. It says it’s supposed to help students, but it only brings up the “dumb kids” and brings down the “smart kids”. I’m so done with it and I can’t take it anymore. I have complained to my school on multiple accounts that this system is unfair and doesn’t do any good and they say maybe I’m not trying hard enough and then just brush off the complaint?!?! I can’t be expected to go “above and beyond” for all classes because the regular load is hard enough. And what I also don’t get is why your final grade is based off of the last grade the teacher puts into the grade book (this weird trend system). For example if I get 4s on everything then get a 2 on the last thing, then the teacher is going to give me a 2 as a final grade in that class. The administration says that if that happens then The teacher can go into the system and change your grade, but if it they have to do all that extra work for each kid then what is the point of this new standards based grading in the first place? That doesn’t make any sense and I literally want to find the person that made this system and ask them why? Just why would you have to go and make my life harder than it already is?

  13. Comment by Vanessa Morales 9:15 pm, January 19, 2018

    We are used to teach the standard base learning where students are in need to finish worksheets and pakets rather then being involve in their own learning with more creative and presentational. The students will become critical thinkers and higher achievers if we let them work in groups towards creating something and use the material learn in real context making real life connections and experiences.

  14. Comment by Anthony Math 7:12 pm, July 26, 2018

    I am about to implement SBG in my HS math classes in 2 weeks. I have been pondering this idea for 20 years, since my MEd classes. Education should be all about learning and nothing else. PERIOD. For 20 years I’ve been telling students to, “Finish that assignment” or “Re-take that test” or “Do that special project for 5% more”, in order to get them to pass. The problem is that all of these exhortations are actions, or things to “do”. What I really want to say is, “Tell me what you know about sequences, because you haven’t learned that well enough, yet.” or “You really understand standard deviation. Now can you find me a real-life example where the standard deviations of related data sets has a clear meaning and explain it to me (or the class)?”

    I saw several comments that defended the idea that education is about “doing” rather than “learning”. I would argue that every HS student that wants a 4.0 (or better?!?!) should be planning to LEARN everything (history, English, math, science, PE, foreign language, etc) at the HS level, not at the professional level. Mastery of content is not about passing a test, but understanding something to the point where we can use it in an unfamiliar situation (Depth of Knowledge 3 or 4) and be creative. Learning (and teaching) are not about memorization and repetition, but about becoming creative and empowered by what we study.

    I am grateful fro this article and have picked up several ideas that I hope will make my classes more successful this year.

    Blessings on our teaching!

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