Using Learning Scales to Grade and Assess Student Understanding!

by - January 20, 2020

*This post may contain affiliate links. If you purchase anything from one of these links, I may earn a small commission*

Using Learning Scales changed how I planned, graded, and assessed my students. I was given the book several years ago by a teacher who was retiring Formative Assessment and Standard Based Grading by Robert Marzano and something about it made so much sense to me. It took me awhile to work through how exactly I could effectively use these strategies in my classroom, but once it clicked, it made a huge difference for me and my students. I better understood how to determine what students needed, and students better understood how to understand where they were at in terms of working toward mastery of a learning target.

Before I go into how exactly I made this work in my Language Arts classroom, I am going to have to give you a crash course in Learning Scales, Standards-Based Grading, and assessment. I will try to keep it brief, though if you purchase Marzano's book, you will get a better and fuller picture of how exactly this works (this is in no way sponsored, I just genuinely got a lot out of this book!)

1. Learning Scales

For lack of a better analogy, think of a Learning Scale like a ladder. At the top of the ladder is whatever criteria would achieve mastery for a particular standard. In effect, this is the Learning Target. This is where you want your students to end up. In order to meet the Learning Target, your students have to start at the bottom of the ladder. If the ladder has four rungs, each rung should represent the next step of achieving mastery (meeting the learning target).

At level 0, the student is brand new to the concept. They have no understanding of it whatsoever. They are standing on the ground looking up at the top of the ladder.

At level 1, students are capable of understanding some basic concepts of the learning target with help from the teacher. In other words, if the teacher is not sitting with the student helping them understand basic vocabulary associated with the learning target, then they are at level 1.

At level 2, students are capable of independently understanding foundational-level concepts related to the learning target. For example, they can recognize and describe relevant academic vocabulary terms and basic concepts.

At level 3, students are capable of independently performing the learning target as prescribed in the learning target.

At level 4, students are capable of independently providing critique, creating their own, or analyzing multiple examples as it relates to the learning target. Note: this level does not mean that a student is working "above grade level," this is simply an extension of the learning target.

Below is an example of a Learning Scale that my school district created for a specific standard in 7th Grade Language Arts:

If you look closely at this scale, it begins at the bottom of the page and works upward toward the learning target, which is "Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text."

At level 1, students can partially achieve level 2 and 3 skills with help.

At level 2, students can independently recognize or describe the relevant academic vocabulary terms such as cite, inference, analysis, explicit, implicit, textual evidence. They can also recognize how it is important to cite evidence when justifying an analysis, explain how to make an inference, draw an inference, and summarize a text.

At level 3, students can independently cite several pieces of evidence to support a specific analysis of a text both explicitly and inferentially.

At level 4, students can independently view choices of evidence chosen by other people and determine their validity and strength in justifying their argument. So at this level, the students are extending their learning by critiquing the citation choices of other people and determine if they were good choices or not, and making suggestions for better ones.

Learning Scales can be created for any learning target. All you have to do is ask yourself what skills are necessary in order for students to achieve mastery of the learning target.

If you are familiar with Bloom's Taxonomy, it is similar:

For the purposes of making a connection between Bloom's (above), and Marzano's Learning Scales, the purple and blue at the bottom would by any foundational-level skills that would go into level 2 on your learning scale. The two green shades would be level 3 skills, showing mastery of the learning target, and the yellow and red at the top of the pyramid would be your level 4 extension skills. You can use Bloom's taxonomy to help you find key words to create your scale.

2. Standard-Based Grading

Most states now have some variation of the Common Core standards, or some other set of learning goals and standards that are prescribed for each grade level. The standard is effectively your Learning Target. You use this target to design instruction that will help your students achieve mastery-level understanding.

Standard-Based grading simply means grading students based on their understanding of the learning target. This means that you are evaluating student work and determining how closely it shows that they understand the learning target. Instead of assigning points values to assignments or questions, standard-based grading only focuses on student understanding. If you read this post, you can read a bit more about standard-based grading and I also have some rubrics available for purchase there.

You have to throw away every notion that you have had as a teacher or a student about grading in order to understand and implement standard-based grading. You have to put yourself in the mindset that the only thing that matters is student understanding. Your job is to ensure that students understand these prescribed standards, and that is what you will focus on. It can be difficult to let go of other grading methodologies, but once you get the hang of standard-based grading, you will see the benefits for your students.

3. Assessment

When we think of assessments, we of the think of tests and assessments. Students sit for 45 minutes in a quiet room and answer 30 multiple-choice questions, each one is worth a certain amount of points, and you give them a grade based upon how many they got right or wrong.

We have to stop doing this. This does nothing to determine how much a student understands. Assessments do not mean creating and grading long tests. Assessment simply means that you are determining how much your students have learned and understand. If they are completing something independently, you can assess their understanding! Any assignment can be an assessment if a student completed it independently. So throw away those long tests, you don't need them.

How This All Fits Together in my Classroom

In my classroom, I use Learning Scales as the primary function of everything that I do. I design the progression of learning based on the scale, beginning with foundational-level skills like vocabulary and basic recall of concepts (i.e. what is a theme? what is evidence?). I build from there. When students complete work independently, I assess whether or not they understood the concepts at whatever level we were working at, or the learning scale overall.

One of the first things that I did was determine how I would be grading students using the learning scale. Because we still use letter grades A-F, I had to figure out how those grades would correlate to my learning scales in a way that made sense to both me and my students.

On the left is the post-it where I drafted this grading idea. This post-it is still stuck to the inside of my planner :)

I decided that because we work on. 10-point scale, I wanted to give my students the best advantage at achieving success, so each letter grade increases 1 point from the next letter grade.

Yes, it is difficult for students to get an A. But it's possible, and it pushes them!

Learning Scale Grades:

Level 4 - 100% A
Level 3 - 89% B
Level 2 - 79% C
Level 1 - 69% D
Level 0 - 59% F
Missing work - 50% F

Notice how I never give below a 50%. This is because students should never be able to fall into a hole that they cannot get themselves out of. It isn't fair. My job is to teach students to understand the prescribed standards, and I cannot determine their understanding if I am spending my time being the responsibility police. There are other ways to teach responsibility - letting a student fail with a 40% in your class is not one of them. Failing students doesn't make you a "tough" teacher. Setting high expectations and helping your students rise to the occasion does. *stepping off my high-horse now*

The next step in making learning scales effective in my classroom involved providing students with an easy way to both understand what their grade is, how it correlates to the understanding of the learning target that they showed on the assignment, and also to provide feedback to the student.

I achieved this by using a system of colored post-its! Each color represents a level on the scale. If you look at my draft post-it above, you will see a letter before each level of the scale - those correlated to post-it colors!

Level 4 is green
Level 3 is blue
Level 2 is yellow
Level 1 is orange
Level 0 is pink

When I grade a student's assignment, I stick the post-it to the assignment that correlates with the student's level of understanding that was shown in the assignment. Then, on the post-it I provide relevant feedback. This might be a simple "good job on this assignment! You showed mastery of this learning target" or it might be more details about what the student did or did not understand - it depends on the assignment and what their work looked like. Not only does this let the student understand where they were at on the scale, but it allows for immediate feedback.

Here are some examples:

In these two examples, I was assessing my students' ability to cite evidence to support an analysis of a text using the RACE Strategy. In the second example, I provided a second post-it that had the race strategy printed on it (yes! You can print on Post-its!) so that the student could use it as a guide when re-doing the work. Students should always be allowed to re-do their assignments to show increased understanding after you have worked with them or met with them regarding the assignment and the learning target. I cannot stress this enough. Students should be allowed to redo assignments as many times as it takes for them to show you that they understand the learning target. It takes some kids longer to "get there" than others. Grades cannot be one-and-done.

On the flip side, students also have to learn that just because they filled a page with words does not mean that they showed mastery of a learning target! So often kids think, "I finished that so I must have done a good job," but this isn't the case. It is important for them to learn to be succinct and focused on the learning target. This really helps them to do that!

How this Aides my Instruction:

Not only do these colored post-its help my students to determine their understanding, but they also help me target instruction. By using the colors, I can group students based on their understanding of the learning target. This allows me to pull small groups so that I can target specific concepts and skills that students are struggling with.

Students learn very quickly that they will be pulled into groups based on the color of their post-it when I hand assignments back to them. They will ask each other "who's in the yellow group?" This is a good thing because it doesn't marginalize students who did "poorly" because doing "poorly" isn't a thing. My students understand that the color of post-it they receive only shows their level of understanding at the time that they turned in that assignment. They also know that they will be pulled in a small group to work with me so that they can improve their understanding. They can re-do the assignment at any time for a different color post-it, and essentially, a higher grade. Students do not feel ashamed of their color because they know that it isn't the end! This really promotes self-efficacy big time!

When I pull a small group, if it is a pink, orange, or yellow group, I first ask students what they struggled with.  We go from there. Typically, they are all struggling with the same part of the standard (hence, why they received the same color!). If I pull students who got green post-its, meaning they showed mastery of a standard, then we work on extending their learning so that they can reach level 4. Any students who achieved a level 4 and received a blue post-it do not get pulled into a small group. They continue to work on the independent work that I have assigned based on the new standard that we are working on, or some other assignment - OR they can redo older assignments that they did not achieve a level 4 on. There is always plenty to do.

When students re-do assignments, the only rule that I have is that they must wait until they have worked in a small group with me to re-do the assignment. They must turn in both the new assignment and the old one attached to it. When I re-grade it and determine that they have achieved a higher level of understanding, they get a new post-it. They are so proud of their work when they receive a new color! If they do not show better understanding the second time (which is pretty rare), then I know that that is a student who needs some one-on-one instruction time.

Students who do not turn in assignments do not get a post-it and do not get pulled for small groups. They can still turn in the assignment, but if they wait until after I have pulled small groups, they do not get the benefit of further instruction to better their understanding. I found that it only took a few go-rounds for students to understand this, and I stopped having loads of missing assignments. When you build an environment where students want to succeed, they will turn in their work.

If you have tried using learning scales, or you have questions, please leave a comment below! How did they help to improve your classroom environment?

Thanks for reading!

You May Also Like


  1. I would be interested in how you created your learning scales. I love this idea!

  2. I appreciate your explanation of this task, it provided a clearer view of the subject. Thank you.

  3. This is an efficient way of streamlining standards-based grading. I would love to know if you have updated this process in the last year to accommodate distance learning?

  4. There are many ways to assess student understanding of material taught in the classroom, but no one is ever more dramatic than giving students scales and telling them to rate their understanding with funny faces. Teaching Tip: Make sure that your students have mastered your lesson before moving onto something new. For those days when you're feeling particularly stressed, try grading your students' knowledge with scales as a quick way as well as assessing them as a means of understanding their understanding.