What local parents need to know about new grading standards in FM area schools

Shift from letter grades puts the focus on areas that have been mastered and those that need continued work

Many teachers are also working on student-centered learning and moving toward standards-referenced grading, which allows for a conversion back to a letter grade for grade point average calculations. iStock / Special to On the Minds of Moms
Getty Images/iStockphoto

For generations, school-aged children (and their parents) have measured academic progress the same way, with a single letter grade of A, B, C, D or F. It was a simple way of knowing if you were passing, failing or something in between.

But times are changing, and if you’re a parent of a child in an area school district you’ve probably already noticed that. In recent years, schools everywhere have shifted to something called standards-based grading. The old A, B, C-letter grades have given way to something equally simplistic — 4,3,2,1 — but the philosophy behind this new grading system is more nuanced and less rigid than the one many of us grew up with.

The focus is on learning.

“As we think about the traditional letter grade system, it is very subjective and can include reduced grades for late assignments, absences, extra credit or other behaviors of students,” explained Dr. Liann Hanson, Fargo Public Schools director of standards based education. “The traditional grading system does not tell us what areas of the learning students have mastered and what areas they need to continue to focus on.”

Understanding the approach

A quick explainer for those new to the topic: Students today have a prioritized set of standards known as Essential Learning Outcomes, or ELOs. These standards define what students will learn in multiple content areas. They emphasize critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, collaboration and communication.


When it comes to measuring success, “4” means advanced, “3” means proficient (the student has met expectations), “2” means progressing and “1” means not yet. There are a few unique features with this approach:

  • Students have multiple opportunities to demonstrate proficiency.

  • Grades aren’t penalized for practice attempts early in the learning process.

  • Students can demonstrate proficiency in different ways.

  • There’s a priority on behaviors like being responsible, respectful and safe, and those are reported separately from the number grade.

  • There’s still homework, but it’s considered practice. Perfection isn’t the aim.

“Standards-based grading supports learning and fosters a growth mindset,” said Heather Sand, director of curriculum and instruction for West Fargo schools. “Through research we know that experiencing failure is a big part of the learning process, and that students need to experience failure to build resiliency.”
With traditional grading, Sand explained, receiving a low or failing score on the first assessment in a subject could create a “hole” that a student couldn’t get out of and would essentially shut down the motivation to work and learn: “It doesn’t matter that they were ‘slower’ or needed to be ‘retaught’; we are measuring whether or not they achieved the goal that was set,” she said.

Another change with grading and students assessments today is the ability for parents to be an active part of the process. Technology has allowed for dashboards where parents can log in and see exactly how their student is coming along. This allows parents to know the areas in which their child needs more support.

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Local educators explained the new standards-based grading being used in area schools. Special to On the Minds of Moms

Education in context

Standards-based education has been building momentum since the early 1980s, when a landmark report known as “Nation at Risk” was published, sparking concern that the nation’s schools were failing. The report highlighted new federal education goals and led to education reform.

Then came No Child Left Behind in 2001, which also contributed to the ways in which schools assess student achievement and progress. It required states to adopt standards, along with a way to measure those standards. While there are certain requirements states must comply with, they also have some freedom within the framework.

For area school districts, they say it’s been a journey to get to where they are today. There have been ups and downs.


“The only drawback that we continue to work on is that it is different from how the parents were graded when they went to school,” Hanson said. “We will continue to communicate with parents and students on these progress reports.”

It’s a similar situation in West Fargo and Moorhead.

“We still have more to learn in regards to providing clear feedback for our students and parents on what the standard score represents,” said Dr. Jeremy Larson, assistant superintendent for learning and accountability for the Moorhead School District.

Adding to the challenges has been the booming growth of area schools.

Sand noted that West Fargo has experienced tremendous growth over the last decade. That has meant a lot of new teachers each year, new buildings and the need to reconfigure professional learning communities. And yet, student performance “continues to be top-notch.”

“Many districts would use these external factors as an excuse for slides in scores and struggling programs, but the team here just works harder to achieve our mission of educating today’s students for tomorrow’s world,” Sand said.

A local look

Area districts are all on track with expectations around standards-based grading, although each has taken a slightly different approach to get there.

In Fargo, standards-based grading has been in play at the elementary level for quite some time, but middle school and high school remained under a traditional grading system until last year. That’s when standards-based grading was introduced at the 6th grade level, the first year of middle school in the Fargo district. Those students will carry standards-based grading with them through the remainder of middle school and high school, and eventually the entire district — all grades — will be included.


“We will continue to adjust and evolve as standards change and as we use data to guide instruction and learning,” Hanson said.

In West Fargo, the schools are using standards-based grades in K-8. The district started with K-3 and then rolled efforts up to grade 8, achieving that goal in the fall of 2019. Sand said they are now working on proficiency scales to clarify the prioritized standards at the high school level.

In Moorhead, middle school has been transitioning to a standards based grading format over the past 5 years, though the standards-based grading system began before that at the elementary level with a change in report cards. The elementary schools went to a trimester reporting based on skills and attributes that a student needed to be successful in a given grade level. According to Larson, this includes both social/emotional skills as well as grade level standards and benchmarks.

At area high schools, many teachers also are working on more student-centered learning and are moving to something called standards-referenced grading. While colleges across the country have been working with standards-based grading for decades and education leaders say there is not a negative impact on college admissions, “standards-referenced grading” allows for a conversion back to a letter grade for grade point average calculations.

“This will allow the process of a standards-based learning environment to prevail, while still providing an overall GPA for our students and families,” Sand said.

A quick explainer of standards-based education

For students

● Essential Learning Outcomes (ELO) are clearly defined and aligned with state standards.

● Students demonstrate proficiency through multiple opportunities.


● Students are empowered to monitor their own progress toward the ELOs.

For parents

● The grade report is in a format that can be easily understood.

● Parents are aware of exactly what their child knows, is able to do, and next steps for progress.

● Parents know in what areas their child needs more support.

For teachers

● Teachers know exactly where students stand in their progress toward ELOs and what support needs to be provided

● Teachers of the same courses have aligned expectations and standards


● Assessment results help teachers determine when students need extra help and when they need more challenging work

( source: Fargo Public Schools)

The upgraded educational standards being used in area schools is intended to provide more information about what areas of learning students have mastered and those that need additional work. iStock / Special to On the Minds of Moms
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Mary Jo Hotzler is the editor of On the Minds of Moms magazine and chief content officer at Forum Communications Company. She lives in Fargo with her husband, two boys and two cats. In her free time, Mary Jo enjoys interior design and amateur woodworking.
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