Bump & Space: Reporting Letter Grades from Standards Based Assessments

The Problem

For a teacher beginning the process of Standards Based Grading (SBG), one of the biggest mental and practical road blocks is the answer to the question, “How am I going to take all these standard based scores and turn them into grades for students?” Here is what my grade book looks like at any given time:

From Blog Photos

All my grades are on a five point standard-based scale (5=Outstanding, 4=Good, 3= Competent, 2=Approaching Competency, and 1=Unacceptable), where a 3 represents a satisfactory passing grade for the end of the year (whereas a two is satisfactory wt the beginning of the year). Therefore, a 60% is a solid grade in my class, and cannot correspond to a 60 on the transcript, which is a failing grade. Likewise, it is extremely rare that a student will be excellent across all my standards, so a 90% or above is essentially impossible. Yet every nine weeks, I have to provide my students with a numerical percentage grade which goes on their transcripts that must correspond to a traditional grade scale.

In an ideal world, we would just give students and parents direct, unmediated feedback in terms of how students preform on various standards so students can have an honest assessment of their strengths and areas where further growth is required. The unfortunate reality though, is that the overwhelming majority of teachers must report a letter or a number grade multiple times throughout the year.

The solution I will propose here can work in one of two ways:

  1. Teachers only report grades based on standards on some finite scale throughout the marking period, and convert standards to a final numerical grade at the end of the marking period (which is what I do in my classroom)
  2. Teachers convert each convert each individual assignment to a traditional number or letter grade, which allows for teachers to try out SBG without completely changing everything they do.

For teachers who are new to SBG or who might want to start by just getting their feet wet, I would recommend starting with the latter option, though I think the former is a more logical implementation of SBG as a system of assessment and reporting. There are other solutions to this problem out there which do the job simply and effectively, more abstractly, or that aim to ensure motivation and high expectations across the board, all for the first situation, but I’ve yet to see anything that can work for both.

The Solution

The Bump and Space system below was shared with me when I was a student teacher by a 30+ year teacher from Classical High School in Providence, RI, whose names escapes me, sadly. He used this to convert rubric grades from essays to letter grades in his gradebook. While at first glance it will seem rather unscientific and arbitrary, he said he had never had a student complain in the years he used it so long as he took the time to explain it to students. I have had the same experience. Further, and more important, I have found that in the end it has always given me a fair and true assessment of where students preformed relative to each other. Here is the process, followed by examples:

  1. Determine the total number of standards based points all students earned for the marking period or assignment
  2. Determine an appropriate level of rounding or grouping of scores
  3. Remove outliers (which are nearly always students who have numerous missing assignments because of attendance issues)
  4. Create a frequency bar graph all students/ scores
  5. Look at the bar graph and identify the bumps and the spaces
  6. The bumps will tell you the number of points for an A, B, etc.
  7. The spaces will tell you where the cutoff should be between an A-/B+, B-/C+, etc. If there are not obvious spaces, look for smaller bumps
  8. Identify the range of scores for a letter grade
  9. If necessary and/or desired, decide within each range what grades get plusses and minuses. Also if necessary, convert from letter grade to numerical grade
  10. Preform a common-sense check to make sure that your grades make sense given students’ performance on the task

And that’s it. Having done this for seven years, it still sounds ridiculous to me, but trust me, it works. Here are two examples:

Example 1: Individual Assignment Grades

  1. This writing assignment was assessed on a 1-5 scale for 5 standards.  Therefore, possible scores ranged from 5-25.
  2. Step 2 is usually unnecessary on an individual assignment.
  3. The outliers in this case are the zeros, which were removed.
  4. Here’s the graph I ended up with:
    From Blog Photos
  5. I see bumps 10, 15, and 22 points.
  6. I decide to make 10 my C, 15 my B, and 22 my A. (Note: this assignment was at the beginning of the year, so I was okay with students in the 2 range.  By the end of the year, I would have made the decision to consider the 10 a D or F).
  7. Because there was not a wide distribution creating many spaces, I look at smaller bumps for the scores for plus and minus grades. I decide on the following thresholds: A/B = 19 and B/C = 12.5, C-/D+=9 (we do not have a D+ grade).Identify the range of scores for a letter grade
  8. I end up with the following chart of scores: 0-7=F, 8-9=D, 10-12=C, 13-19=B, 20-25=A
  9. (I don’t have plusses/minuses)
  10. I plug these in with names and a common sense check pans out.

Example 2: Marking Period Grades

  1. From a marking period with 500 total points during the third quarter of the year, I export my point totals from my grade book to a spreadsheet
  2. I round to the tens place
  3. Students who earned less than 100 points, meaning they averaged below a 1 which is the lowest possible score for a completed task, are removed. Those students earn F’s.
  4. Here’s the graph I ended up with:
    From Blog Photos
  5. I look at the graph and see there are bumps at 240 points, 330-350 points, 400-410 points. I note there are not many spaces in this situation.
  6. Based on the bumps, I decide to make 240 points my D, 270 points my C, 340 points by B, and 405 points my A.
  7. Because there was not a wide distribution creating many spaces, I look at smaller bumps for the scores for plus and minus grades. I decide on the following thresholds: A/B = 375 and B/C = 300, C-/D+=255 (we do not have a D+ grade).
  8. I end up with the following chart of scores: 0-239=F, 240-254=D, 255-299=C, 300-374=B, 375-500=A
  9. (I don’t have plusses/minuses)
  10. When I put the grades back with names, a common sense check tells me this system works.


Does this actually work?
Yes. It sounds very counterintuitive, or at least very unscientific, but in the end I have found it always gives me a fair ordering of students. Granted, I wish I didn’t have to give grades that only serve to make it easy for others to compare students, but that is my reality.

Is it fair for students who earned different number of points to have the same grade on their transcript?
I haven’t taken any statistical courses since AP Stats in HS, so I wont get into the technical argument here (though I’m sure it would be easy to make), but i don’t think there is any teacher who would claim that there grading system is so accurate and specific that the difference between a handful of points is actually meaningful. By placing the grade cutoffs in the spaces, it ensures that no one ever misses a higher grade by one or two points.

Why can’t you just simplify this and do something based purely on reporting how students did on each standard like all the teachers you linked to earlier?
Two reasons. First, there is a cumulative whole of writing that is more than the sum of its component parts. No one would break down War and Peace into its various components and only talk about those; we do this for students because it is helpful for them to see where they need to improve. But at the same time, we need to help students understand that the collective whole of their writing has meaning beyond the individual parts. Similarly, students need to understand that if spelling is poor, it lessens the overall affect of the piece as a whole. The second reason is that in the history classroom, I need to asses both students’ skills and content knowledge. Whereas I will assess certain skills multiple times throughout the year using a true SBG method, the unfortunate reality of teaching a survey history course is that students will not have opportunities return to certain content area; I simply have to move on to teach evereything necessary for the state exams.

Are all standards created equally?
I do not believe they are, and I think this would probably be true for most humanities teachers. While i do grade every piece of writing I assign for spelling and grammar, in my history class, I emphasize this less in my grades because i do not provide spelling and grammar instruction. This system makes it really easy to weight certain standards.


4 thoughts on “Bump & Space: Reporting Letter Grades from Standards Based Assessments

  1. Stephen, thanks so much for this detailed and descriptive post! This issue of grading is one that I’ve always been somewhat uneasy about as it can often incentivize the wrong things and push students away from thinking about their learning to only thinking about their self-interest. I sounds like your system herel authentically keeps the students’ focus on learning, and I really like the way in which you adapt repeatable standards into a form that meets the external expectations for A-F grades.

    I wonder if you’d be willing to share the standards, and in particular the language you use to characterize them, for your classes. Are these standards set term-by-term or have you established a set for the whole year that then reappear in a variety of different assignments and contexts?


    1. Thanks for the kind words and the questions, Nate.

      Sure – I have a list of the standards in this post. I assess the skill standards (the writing and historian ones) throughout the year on multiple assignments. For these standards, I raise the stakes slowly throughout the year (the bump and grade system does this by default). I wish I could just assess on where they are at the end of the year, but we give students credit-baring grades quarterly and I would not want to set benchmarks since different students start and advance differently.

      The essential understanding ones (which need a lot of work), I assess in certain units. My curriculum map for this coming year is here, which touches on the historian and understanding standards; the writing ones are for every piece of writing throughout the year, and are shared by all humanities classes in my school.

      I should mention, that while the writing and understanding standards are in student friendly terms, I still need to do the work of translating the historian skill standards.


      1. Thanks! Those posts are terrifically helpful — particularly the one on standards.

        I’ve been working to be more attentive about articulating — both for myself and my students — the learning outcomes (a wonky phrase, I know) that will come about as a result of my class. For the most part, those are focused on writing, research, and historical skills, all of which have a degree of overlap, of course. So, FYI, here’s what I included in my syllabus about “historical/historian skill standards”:

        1. Understand the broad, global trends, patterns, and dynamics that have shaped human history and helped to create our present world.
        2. Explore the myriad influences that cause historical events and trends and understand how to systematically analyze them; the most significant of these will be the political, social, and economic categories.
        3. Evaluate the significance of specific events, general trends and vast movements within the context of their own time period.
        4. Learn to analyze and organize historical events, eras, and processes through what Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke refer to as “The Five C’s of History”:
        o Change over Time
        o Context
        o Causality
        o Contingency
        o Complexity
        5. Further our analytical skills, our oral and written expression, our abilities to weigh evidence and recognize bias, and ultimately reach substantiated conclusions.
        6. Further develop our skills of reading and interacting with texts historically. These specialized approaches involve focusing on authorship, the historical context of a document, subtexts in documents, the intended audience of a document, and the like. Vital in developing this skill is also beginning to understand the different types of sources historians use (primary, secondary, tertiary) and how historians approach these texts in different ways.
        7. Develop an understanding that historical analysis and being a historian is not about memorization and repetition of the “right” answer; nor is history “an endless parade of names and dates.” Rather, we’ll work to develop a critical eye that strives to understand the ways in which we as contemporary readers play a role in shaping our understandings of the past and how an active engagement with the material helps us construct this meaningful understanding.
        8. Gain an understanding and appreciation for the philosophy and practice of history, which includes some of the following questions:
        • What is history?
        • Why is it worth studying?
        • Why is history not all the same and why do historians disagree with one another?
        • How do different historians look at and interpret the world?
        • What tools do historians use to:
        o Read and interpret documents?
        o Evaluate other sources to determine if they are valid?
        o Organize their information?
        o Write argumentative essays and articles?
        o Research new subject material?
        This list is by no means exhaustive. However, I hope it conveys the very important point that history is much more than names, dates and battles. In fact, while those are the building blocks of history, in actuality it is the skills and craft of history where the subject gains its value and becomes a fascinating pursuit. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that while we are learning about the events, people, patterns and trends of the past, we are simultaneously learning about how that past has been crafted and created by the historians who have written about it so that we can develop and refine those same skills.

        As is evident in a few of those points, I’ve been pretty deeply influenced by Sam Wineburg and his ideas re: historical thinking. Hopefully my more consistent communication of these on a daily basis will help make students aware that these are the focal point of the class, which might help break them of their fact-accumulation addictions. We’ll see.

        Thanks again!


  2. I’ve begun using SBG this school year and didn’t even realize that I was going to have this problem until after I entered the first grades in the gradebook. I originally started with a 4 point scale but think that until my students and I get more comfortable with it I will translate it to a 10 point scale in the grade book. It seems like a cop out but I guess even baby steps forward are still baby steps.


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