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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response

College and Career Readiness

July 2019


What research is available on the use of standards-based grading with alternative education or at-risk learners in grades 6–12?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and descriptive studies on the use of standards-based grading with alternative education or at-risk learners in grades 6–12. In particular, we focused on identifying resources related to academic achievement and graduation rates. For details on the databases and sources, keywords, and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

American Youth Policy Forum. (2011). Building competency-based pathways: Successes and challenges from leaders in the field (A forum). Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This forum provided an overview of competency-based pathways to education and described programs that have successfully utilized these pathways to move all students to success in high school and beyond. Speakers highlighted how innovative learning environments that base student advancement upon mastery of measurable learning objectives have been effective for different types of students in both traditional and alternative education settings. Lindsay Unified School District in California began its move to competency-based education four years ago and beginning this Fall will have a competency-based approach in place for grades K-11 where students progress based upon mastery of identified ‘measurement topics’ rather than by grade level. Through system-wide reform, Lindsay Unified has redefined its curriculum, and has implemented a comprehensive assessment system as well as a new grading system. Diploma Plus enrolls over 3,400 students at 29 alternative high schools across the country and serves a population of over-age, under-credited students and other youth off-track for high school graduation. Using a competency-based approach to bring students to graduation, Diploma Plus students are placed into and promoted through three phases where they learn content and skills at an appropriate level, regardless of their age or previous credit accumulation. Panelists addressed key considerations for building the capacity to provide competency-based pathways to high school graduation, and made recommendations for how state and federal policies can enable the necessary conditions for implementing these pathways.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Iamarino, D. L. (2014). The benefits of standards-based grading: A critical evaluation of modern grading practices. Current Issues in Education, 17(2). Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This paper explores the methodology and application of an assessment philosophy known as standards-based grading, via a critical comparison of standards-based grading to other assessment philosophies commonly employed at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels of education. Evidenced by examples of increased student engagement and more thorough comprehension of course materials, standards-based grading is illustrated as an effective replacement for conventional points-based grading. The analysis also identifies and responds to common issues and concerns inherent in the application of standards-based grading, and includes a review of relevant literature and research in support of standards-based grading as a progressive and successful alternative to more conventional assessment philosophies.”

Pate, A., Lerner, J. B., & Browning, A. (2012). Beyond the numbers: Data use for continuous improvement of programs serving disconnected youth. Washington, DC: American Youth Policy Forum. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This publication is a series of in-depth case studies to examine how three programs which serve a disconnected youth population are utilizing data as a tool for continuous program improvement and ongoing accountability. The report features the following programs: (1) Roca, an organization in Massachusetts which engages the highest-risk youth in Chelsea, East Boston, Revere, and Springfield through transformational relationships (intensive relationship building) and moving them into educational, employment, and life skills programming; (2) Our Piece of the Pie, a youth development agency operating in Hartford, Connecticut offering a relationship-centered approach to help young people access and attain a mix of the educational, employment, and personal skills that contribute to their success; and (3) Diploma Plus, a national network of public schools which engages students through performance-based system that includes competency-based assessment, supportive school culture, and a future focus on postsecondary/career education. ‘Beyond the Numbers’ investigates three programs with a proven record of success with the disconnected youth population and catalogues their elements of success in data collection and use to effectively engage this population. The report distills the key lessons learned both for practitioners and policymakers aiming to improve outcomes for the disconnected youth population and raises important policy questions concerning financing, data sharing, and the standardization of outcomes.”

Pollio, M., & Hochbein, C. (2015). The association between standards-based grading and standardized test scores in a high school reform model. Teachers College Record, 117(11), 1–28. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Background/Context: From two decades of research on the grading practices of teachers in secondary schools, researchers discovered that teachers evaluated students on numerous factors that do not validly assess a student’s achievement level in a specific content area. These consistent findings suggested that traditional grading practices evolved to meet the variety of educational stakeholder expectations for schools, teachers, and students. Purpose/Objective: The purpose of this study was to examine the role of standards-based grading in a high school reform by assessing the relationships between differing grading approaches and standardized test achievement. Setting: The study examined student performance from 11 high schools operating in a large metropolitan school district. Population/Participants: The sample of students included two cohorts of 1,163 and 1,256 11th grade students who completed an Algebra 2 course and the state standardized test. Intervention/Program: Each of the high schools implemented a locally designed reform known as Project Proficiency. A key component of the reform included utilizing standards-based grading to assess student proficiency of the content. Research Design: This study utilized a non-equivalent control group design and quantitative analyses to compare the association between classroom grades and standardized test scores. Data Collection and Analysis: The data for the study included the students’ final grades, standardized test scores, and basic demographic information. Findings/Results: Results indicated that the rate of students earning an A or B in a course and passing the state test approximately doubled when utilizing standards-based grading practices. In addition, results indicated that standards-based grading practices identified more predictive and valid assessment of at-risk students’ attainment of subject knowledge. Conclusions/Recommendations: The article demonstrates the benefits of using standards-based grading in reforms attempting to improve the academic performance of secondary schools, but also notes how restriction of grades to mastery of standards will challenge educators’ perception of their abilities and students’ efforts. The article also notes the methodological limitations of prior grading research and suggests the need for more robust studies assessing grading practices, student achievement, and school performance.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Priest, N., Rudenstine, A., Weisstein, E., & Gerwin, C. (2012). Making mastery work: A close-up view of competency education. Quincy, MA: Nellie Mae Education Foundation. Retrieved from

From the abstract:Making Mastery Work: A Close-Up View of Competency Education highlights the work of ten schools participating in the Proficiency-Based Pathways Project (PBP). Led by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and developed to build broad understanding of the implementation of mastery-based approaches to teaching and learning, the PBP schools profiled in the report are located in rural, suburban, and inner-city regions in New England. You can find out more about the eleven schools at the Competency-based Pathways wiki including resources, links and tools. The report’s authors, Nora Priest, Antonia Rudenstine and Ephraim Weisstein, examine several issues through the collected experiences of the participating schools including: the creation of a transparent mastery and assessment system, time flexibility, curriculum and instruction, leadership for competency education development, and the role of data and information technology in a competency-based education model.”

Stump, E., Doykos, B., & Brache, M. R. (2018). Proficiency-based high school diploma systems in Maine: Getting to graduation (Supporting students in high schools implementing standards-based education and proficiency-based graduation requirements). Gorham, ME: Maine Education Policy Research Institute, University of Southern Maine. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “In the 127th Maine State Legislative Session, ‘An Act to Implement Certain Recommendations of the Maine Proficiency Education Council’ (S.P. 660—L.D. 1627) was passed into law as Chapter 489. This amended the chaptered law passed in 2012, ‘An Act to Prepare Maine People for the Future Economy’ (S.P.439—L.D.1422), requiring public school districts to implement proficiency-based high school diploma requirements and standards-based education systems. Beginning in 2012, the Maine Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs has annually requested that the Maine Education Policy Research Institute’s (MEPRI) work plan include empirical research studies designed to compile data, examine progress and explore impacts regarding implementation of this state policy within school districts across the state. This work has furthered the understanding of perceptions in the field and implications of proficiency-based diploma policies within the state, national and global context as well as the implementation in local schools and school administrative units. In 2017-2018, Phase VI of this ongoing research includes two separate research studies examining the impacts of implementing proficiency-based diploma systems within the immediate and wider contexts of public schooling in Maine. One of these studies focused on case studies of high schools to examine the practices, challenges and facilitators as well as the perceptions of high school educators and administrators about meeting the needs of students and their district’s requirements for earning a proficiency-based diploma. This report describes the updates to current related literature, methodology and findings from the case study research involving Maine high schools. Findings from this case study research indicate that, as part of the school and district work to implement a proficiency-based system, all case study schools were establishing definitions of proficient, aligning curricula and assessments to common content area standards, and building interventions to remediate with students struggling to demonstrate proficiency. Although specific practices, approaches and perceptions of this work varied among educators and across schools, diligent effort to create a transparent system that benefitted students was evident in all case study schools. Educators and administrators shared that challenges included uncertainty about state-level rules, defining proficient, needing resources to support all students, misalignment with standardized tests, and communication through grading practices. Also, participants in this study indicated that transition to a proficiency-based education system could raise expectations for lower performing students, offer greater professional collaboration, and provide more clarity regarding academic standards.”

Sullivan, S. C., & Downey, J. A. (2015). Shifting educational paradigms: From traditional to competency-based education for diverse learners. American Secondary Education, 43(3), 4–19. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “In pursuit of innovative educational opportunities, district administration piloted competency-based education in their alternative program. This qualitative study used semi-structured interviews with school personnel to document perspectives of the programmatic shift. Analyses found local and national mandates, a catalyst, and a common moral purpose to be key factors for change. Challenges included: effective communication among all stakeholders; finding adequate time to develop and implement an alternative educational approach; and difficulties with alignment between two systems of accountability. Successes included increased teacher and student engagement and an increase in the academic rigor of the program. Evidence suggests successes far surpassed challenges.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Townsley, M., & Varga, M. (2018). Getting high school students ready for college: A quantitative study of standards-based grading practices. Journal of Research in Education, 28(1), 92–112. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Some high schools are moving towards standards-based grading in an attempt to produce consistent grading practices; however, the change’s impact on college readiness is not clear. The purpose of this study was to explore the effect of high school’s grading practices as it relates to ACT scores and grade point averages (GPAs). Existing data were collected from two comparable high schools using different grading practices in a Midwestern state as determined by state department of education-provided demographics: enrollment, socioeconomic status (as defined by percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunch), and ethnicity. Stepwise multiple linear regressions were used to determine if GPA and the method of high school grading practices, standards-based grading or traditional grading, used predict ACT scores. The findings revealed GPAs remain unchanged and ACT scores may be negatively impacted when high schools utilize standards-based grading practices. In addition, traditional grading practices were a small factor combined with GPA in predicting ACT scores.”

Additional Organizations to Consult

CompetencyWorks –

From the website: “CompetencyWorks is an online resource dedicated to providing information and knowledge about competency-based education in the K–12 education system. Drawing on lessons learned by innovators and early adopters, CompetencyWorks shares original research, knowledge, and a variety of perspectives through an informative blog with practitioner knowledge, policy advancements, papers on emerging issues and a wiki with resources curated from across the field.”

Diploma Plus –

From the website: “Diploma Plus seeks to develop, implement, and sustain, in partnership with school districts and communities, innovative educational approaches that provide rigorous and student-centered alternatives for ALL YOUTH, in order to nurture their power as learners and enable them to complete high school college- and career-ready.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • Alternative education grading

  • “At risk students” grading

  • “Competency based education” nontraditional education

  • Diploma Plus

  • “Standards-based grading” grading “high schools”

  • “Standards-based grading” grading “junior high schools”

  • “Standards-based grading” grading “middle schools”

  • “Standards-based grading” nontraditional education

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2004 to present, were included in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Midwest) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.