Should We Grade Students on the Individual Reading Standards?

  • 07 September, 2019

Teacher question:

What are your thoughts on standards-based grading in ELA which is used in many districts? For example, teachers may be required to assign a number 1-4 (4 being mastery) that indicates a student’s proficiency level on each ELA standard. Teachers need to provide evidence to document how they determined the level of mastery. Oftentimes tests are created with items that address particular standards. If students get those items correct, that is evidence of mastery. What do you recommend?

Shanahan response: 

Oh boy… this answer is going make me popular with your district administration!

The honest answer is that this kind of standards-based grading makes no sense at all.

It is simply impossible to reliably or meaningfully measure performance on the individual reading standards. Consequently, I would not encourage teachers to try to do that.

If you doubt me on this, contact your state department of education and ask them why the state reading test doesn’t provide such information.

Or better yet, see if you can get those administrators who are requiring this kind of testing and grading to make the call.

You (or they) will find out that there is a good reason for that omission, and it isn’t that the state education officers never thought of it themselves.

Or, better yet check with the agencies who designed the tests for your state. Call AIR, Educational Testing Service, or ACT, or the folks who designed PARCC and SBAC or any of the other alphabet soup of accountability monitoring.

What you’ll find out is that no one has been able to come up with a valid or reliable way of providing scores for individual reading comprehension “skills” or standards.

Those companies hired the best psychometricians in the world, and have collectively spent billions of dollars designing tests, and haven’t been able to do what your administration wants. And, if those guys can’t, why would you assume that Mrs. Smith in second grade can do it in her spare time?

Studies have repeatedly shown that standardized reading comprehension tests measure a single factor—not a list of skills represented by the various types of question asked.

What should you do instead?

Test kids’ ability to comprehend a text of a target readability level. For instance, in third grade you might test kids with passages at 475L, 600L, 725L, and 850L at each report card marking. What you want to know is whether kids could make sense of such texts through silent reading.

You can still ask questions about these passages based on the “skills” that seem to be represented in your standards—you just can’t score them that way.

What you want to know is whether kids can make sense of such texts with 75% comprehension.

In other words, it’s the passages and text levels that should be your focus, not the question types or individual standards.

If kids can read such passages successfully, they’ll be able to answer your questions. And, if they can’t, then you need to focus on increasing their ability to read such texts. That means teaching things like vocabulary, text structure, and cohesion and having the kids reading texts that are sufficiently challenging—not practicing answering particular types of questions.

Sorry administrators, you’re sending teachers on a fool’s errand. One that will not lead to higher reading achievement, just misleading information for parents and kids and a waste of effort for teachers.


ACT. ( 2006 ). Reading between the lines. Iowa City, IA : American College Testing.

Davis , F.B. ( 1944 ). Fundamental factors in comprehension in reading. Psychometrika , 9( 3), 185–197.

Kulesz, P. A., Francis, D. J., Barnes, M. A., & Fletcher, J. M. (2016). The influence of properties of the test and their interactions with reader characteristics on reading comprehension: An explanatory item response study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108(8), 1078-1097.

Muijselaar, M. M. L., Swart, N. M., Steenbeek-Planting, E., Droop, M., Verhoeven, L., & de Jong, P. F. (2017). The dimensions of reading comprehension in dutch children: Is differentiation by text and question type necessary? Journal of Educational Psychology, 109(1), 70-83. 

Spearritt , D. ( 1972 ). Identification of subskills of reading comprehension by maximum likelihood factor analysis. Reading Research Quarterly , 8( 1), 92–111 .

Thorndike, R. (1973). Reading as reasoning. Reading Research Quarterly, 9(2), 135-147.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Karen Langlands Sep 07, 2019 02:39 PM

Thanks for your response on comprehension. What are your thoughts on grading on other strands like foundational skills, vocabulary, writing and speaking/listening?

Melanie Sep 07, 2019 02:59 PM

It’s ridiculous to be grading isolated skills. Never once have I asked myself the main idea when I’m reading! We read to enjoy and learn from what the text is teaching us. Why characters behave the way they do or what the research wants us to know. Yet the powers to be have decided children should know the main idea and 2 details that support and god forbid they get one right and one wrong; that means they get it all wrong. Thus , now we have a kid at risk and we must provide intervention. INSANE.

Shawn Berry Sep 07, 2019 09:29 PM

Your response puts the pendulum in its rightful place however this is not the current swing. In MA we are definitely standards driven and the MCAS questioned are thus aligned. I have always believed without the ability to comprehend the text the skill based questions are meaningless. However, a lot of people are making money creating standards aligned materials.

Melissa Loftus Sep 07, 2019 11:44 PM

Thank you for writing this! I have been waiting to hear confirmation of what I knew in my gut for over 15 years. Since my first year of teaching I have been asked to track students’ mastery of standards, and at times I even bought in. I can make sense of this with *some* more mechanical writing skills, but it never made sense for me with reading. You can’t just reteach a standard and expect students to be able to apply to a text they can’t comprehend. Question- what does this mean for aligning daily instruction with grade level standards?

Tim Shanahan Sep 08, 2019 01:44 AM

Karen- those larger chunks are divisible. Yes, you can profitably measure those things, but not as often as some people claim.


JRS Sep 08, 2019 03:02 PM

Should we then just focus on reading and annotating? Teach students to take any type of text and mark it up and extract meaning?

Tim Shanahan Sep 09, 2019 02:20 AM

JRS— Reading for comprehension certainly. Im not as excited about annotating. Perhaps having kids learn content from their reading, writing about their reading, etc.


Lori Sappington Sep 15, 2019 03:14 AM

Yes, Tim. YES! Thank you. ????????????

Marcia Long Sep 27, 2019 01:58 PM

Thank you!! Sometimes I think I am an island of one trying to explain this- but you did it for me :))))

Cristina Cote Jan 29, 2020 08:13 PM

I would love to know what you recommend I grade my student on. I am required to take two grades for each subject each week (English and Reading are separate). I want my grades to be meaningful and accurately reflect their ability. What should I be grading?

Erica Feb 29, 2024 11:02 PM

Cristina, EXACTLY!!! No one has ever mentioned what we are really grading. What to put in the gradebook. The details of how to grade is certainly never WRITTEN DOWN.

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *

Should We Grade Students on the Individual Reading Standards?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.