Skip to main content

Standards-Based Grading for Secondary Students: Implementing a standards-based grading policy at San Diego Unified School District's middle and high schools

A San Diego Unified School District/UC San Diego Partnership Project Funded by the Hewlett Foundation


Standards-Based Grading Project Work in San Diego 

In October 2020, the San Diego Unified School District’s (SDUSD) Board of Education voted to implement a new Standards-Based Grading Policy (AR 5121) for secondary schools as a part of the transition towards Standards-Based Learning throughout the District. Standards-Based Learning (SBL) is an approach to education that focuses instruction and assessment on students' progress towards a set of clearly defined prioritized standards, known as Critical Concepts. These Critical Concepts are a set of strategically grouped, prioritized standards by content area that establish minimum expectations for end of course objectives that encompass both knowledge and skills. Standards-Based Grading (SBG) is a component of a Standards-Based Learning framework in which grades are intended to clearly reflect students’ progress toward mastery of Critical Concepts.

Standards-Based Learning and Grading reflect a substantial philosophical shift in the approach to education. differs from traditional grading practices in several key ways that involve both the evaluation of student work and the way final grades are determined.  SBL is touted as an asset-based approach that empowers students as co-collaborators in their learning journey. Proponents of SBL assert that it leads to greater consistency, clarity, accuracy and equity in teaching, assessment, and grading. Critics voice concern that SBG amounts to a lowering of expectations and allows students to ignore deadlines without consequences. They argue that schools should teach more than academic content and that SBG is unfair to those students who do things correctly the first time and turn in work in a timely manner.

In order to evaluate the impact of SBG on teachers and students, as well as to inform San Diego Unified’s work and that of other districts interested in making similar reforms, SDUSD has partnered with the San Diego Education Research Alliance (SanDERA) at UCSD to observe and evaluate the implementation of SBG at middle and high schools in the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years.  

The Research Component of the Project

This evaluation of the SBG reform consists of two parts, a qualitative study and a quantitative study. The qualitative study is based on administrator interviews at eight secondary schools, observations of teacher meetings at these schools, and districtwide surveys of both teachers and students. The quantitative study examines trends in student outcomes including grades (academic and citizenship), enrollment in, and completion of, the "a-g" college preparatory courses needed for students to be eligible to attend either of the state's public university systems, attendance, and test scores on the Smarter Balanced summative assessment. In addition to studying overall trends, this section of the report also details gaps in outcomes across student groups and how those have changed in 2021-22 compared to earlier years.

Project Leadership

Standards-Based Grading at San Diego Secondary Schools is a university-district partnership project that brings together staff from UCSD and SDUSD.  The Principal Investigator (PI) of the project is Julian Betts, Professor, Department of Economics at UCSD.  Co-PIs include Elizabeth Perry (Director of Instructional Innovation for SDUSD) and Ronald Rode (Director of Research and Development for SDUSD).  Co-Investigators include Geogia Figueroa (Instructional Coordinator for SDUSD,) Leah Baylon (Education Research Specialist for SDUSD,) Dina Polichar (Research Associate for SanDERA,) and Andrew Zau (Senior Statistician for SanDERA). 


Project Timeline

February, 2021 through June, 2023


Contact Information

For additional information, please contact Julian Betts, Department of Economics, UC San Diego ( or Ron Rode, Office of Research and Development, San Diego Unified School District (