Standards-Based Assessment

Standards-Based Assessment (SBA) is a method of evaluating student skill mastery. SBA is intended to help students, families, and teachers understand accurately how students are doing as they work on developing their skills. It is not an assignment-based or productivity-mindset way of understanding what children can do.

Discovery was the first elementary school in Arlington to implement this assessment model, rooted in the assessment theory of “omnimodality,” described below. Following four successful years, Arlington Public Schools has adopted the model county-wide. For more information on SBA in APS, visit the Standards-Based pages of

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Traditional grading does not consistently describe student skill. “ABCDF” grading drives students toward “A,” and leaves no room to differentiate exceptional skill levels, and can inadvertently create conditions of comparison and judgment that are counterproductive to learning.

“Why…would anyone want to change current grading practices? The answer is quite simple: grades are so imprecise that they are almost meaningless.”

– Robert Marzano

At Discovery, we use research-best practices-based descriptions to report a student’s skill for each standard required by the Virginia Department of Education and the Arlington Public Schools. Discovery uses two Performance Level Descriptors (PLDs) to specify whether or not a student is currently meeting the standard, achieving the level of performance the teacher and team have determined constitutes a developmentally appropriate level at the time of the progress report. Discovery also uses a third code to describe a situation in which the empirical evidence a teacher has is insufficient to make an appropriate, reliable determination of mastery, and while rare, those situations should not be forced into saying something that can’t accurately be said. Consequently, the three codes (two PLDs and one code) that you will see on a Discovery standards-based progress report are:

Meets Standard Student consistently demonstrates mastery of the Virginia standard.
Approaching Mastery Student is in the process of mastering (e.g., the student is learning) the Virginia standard.
Insufficient Evidence The teacher does not have evidence to determine a student’s mastery level for this skill.

For each standard, in each grade level, the Discovery Collaborative Learning Teams (CLTs) at each grade level create meaningful, clear benchmarks students will reach to show they have met the standard established by Virginia and Arlington.

Journey Toward Mastery

Schools in Arlington, like all in Virginia, are tasked with ensuring that all students master the skills and acquire the content knowledge outlined in the Virginia Standards of Learning, or SOLs.

SBA differs from traditional “grading” by eliminating problematic “Fail” and “zero” indicators. Instead of starting from “zero,” students begin with the accurate description of “no evidence,” meaning students simply have not yet gotten to that part of learning. Most students will move through “Approaching Mastery” as they learn and develop their skills.

In fact, most students will spend most of their time during the course of learning at the “Approaching Mastery” stage, as they are developing skills and content knowledge fluency.

Once a student meets the standard of skill established by Virginia and Arlington, the student’s skill is reported accurately as “Meets Standard.”

Because every student is unique, SBA accepts any demonstration of skill as valid, so Discovery teachers use a wide array of student work examples, artifacts, conferences, and analyses to meaningfully understand each learner. Discovery seeks to create authentic learning experiences and to help students create demonstrations of their skills within authentic contexts.

This “omnimodal” assessment method allows any student to demonstrate skill mastery in any way. It accounts for student uniqueness and promotes nonjudgmental, noncompetitive learning, and conforms with the standards-based instructional methods we use at Discovery, such as with the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Units of Study.

It is developmentally inaccurate to think that all children are maximally gifted or skilled in all areas at all times. Teachers will always provide opportunities to extend and deepen knowledge and mastery, to encourage flourishing students to create new and innovative ways of showing exceptional mastery in areas that interest them. Because we utilize omnimodal assessment methods, the ways in which students create something new will vary from child to child, based on their talents, preferences, interests, personalities, and original ideas.

Mastery Reporting

We report skill mastery every week, and use the Arlington-standard student information system – Synergy – to inform students and families of each student’s progress. For each week, the standards that students have been working on will be recorded and shared with families. The student’s highest demonstration of skill is recorded, and that demonstration could come from any valid source: Perhaps one student did really well on a quiz. Perhaps another was able to verbally relate mastery of a subject during an individual teacher conference. Perhaps yet another showed genuine mastery through building something meaningful. Because all expressions of skill mastery are valid in omnimodal assessment, we do not report “grades” on “assignments” or “tasks,” but describe the current, accurate level of mastery for each standard, however that skill was demonstrated.

At the end of each quarter, a comprehensive record of each week’s mastery levels are sent home, giving families an opportunity to see growth over time. One of the advantages of SBA is that students who took longer to reach “Meets Standard” than others are not penalized. In traditional grading, mathematical averages and calculations are used to create a numerical “score,” which does not accurately represent a student’s skill. In these mathematical systems, students who take longer to reach mastery receive lower “grades” or “scores” than students who begin with a high level of mastery. This has the inadvertent effect of discriminating against students who need more time or have unique ways of understanding.

For more information, see the Standards-Based Progress Report page.


Both the literature on assessment and our educational philosophy at Discovery values each unique child. Standards-Based Assessment eliminates unhealthy, stressful, and inaccurate extrinsic motivation frameworks like traditional grading in favor of accurate, low-stakes reporting of student skill mastery.


“The Case Against Grades” by Alfie Kohn:

“The Case Against Rewards and Praise” by Harvard Education Letter:

“The Case Against Grades” by Michael Thomsen:

“Self-esteem based on external sources has mental health consequences,” American Psychological Association:

“A is the Best One” by Caroline Greig

“Predictivity of Standards-Based Report Card Models for Standardized Test Scores: A Taxonomic Mixed Methods Study” by Keith David Reeves:

Last updated April 22, 2021.