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Standards-Based Learning in the Westonka Personalized Learning Model

This is the third in a series of four articles on Westonka’s Personalized Learning Model by Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Mark Femrite. The first article explored reasons why personalized learning is important and the goals and specific instructional strategies of the personalized learning model. The second article explained student choice and talked about what it looks like in our schools. Read those articles here: Article #1: Personalized Learning in Westonka Public SchoolsArticle #2: Student Choice in Westonka Public Schools.

What is Standards-Based Learning and What Does it Look Like in the Westonka Personalized Learning Model?

Standards-based learning in the Westonka Personalized Learning Model defines key learning concepts that students are expected to learn. They are communicated to students through learning targets in the classroom and through reportable standards on the elementary and middle school report cards. In this structure, students have a clear understanding of the specific standards that are expected to learn, and students use these standards to guide their learning and articulate in detail what they have learned.  

Standards-based learning includes the following three components:

  1. Standards-Based Grading - Student learning is measured by demonstrating progress toward mastery of specific standards. The standards are communicated to students as learning targets, and "key" learning targets are indicated on the elementary and middle school report cards as reportable standards.
  2. Frequent Feedback  - Student assessments through quizzes, observations and conferencing are used by teachers to provide feedback and guide student learning. Students understand what their strengths in learning are and what gaps in learning need to be addressed. For example, if a student takes a math test on fractions, a student may understand that they have mastery of adding fractions and reducing fractions to lowest terms, but they need help converting fractions to decimals. The student understands their strengths and gaps and knows how to address the gaps.
  3. Instructional Intervention  - Intentional support for student learning is provided to students based on their specific needs. When staff understand where students struggle and where they have success with their learning, specific interventions and enrichment opportunities can be provided. The aim is to understand each student’s academic strengths and gaps to effectively meet their learning needs.

In a standards-based grading environment, how learning is structured and experienced and how grades are used is different from traditional grading in the following ways:

How learning is structured

Traditional grading paradigm Results Standards-based grading paradigm Results
Whole class - all get the same instruction, same homework, same test

Only students who learned well from this method succeed

Learning is differentiated to enable mastery Learning is more efficient
Time to learn fixed / achievement varies

Learners who need more time are penalized

Time to learn varies / achievement fixed More students achieve mastery

One-shot learning

Grades are permanent - teach, test, move on

Speed = intelligence

Assessment is a continuous process. Feedback loop: teach, check, apply learning, feedback I can keep working and take the assessment when I am confident that I understand

How learning is experienced

Traditional grading paradigm Results Standards-based grading paradigm Results
Learning is expected to be error-free and mistakes are factored into the final grade

Reinforces fixed mindset ("I'm just not smart")

Defines learning as challenging but achievable Reinforces growth mindset

Students are judged with grades while still learning

Fear of failure

Mistakes are a natural part of learning Learned optimism. Perseverance
Failure is a judgment and a validation of ability

Struggling students avoid learning

Teacher rescues struggling learners

Learned helplessness.

Lack of understanding is a puzzle, not a validation of lack of ability

Struggle is good with support

Students' beliefs empower them to achieve

How grades are used

Traditional grading paradigm Results Standards-based grading paradigm Results
Locus of control - teacher

Student motivation - extrinsic based on reward and punishment

Locus of control - student Student motivation - intrinsic based on progress toward mastery

Form of control - points/percentages

Grades are the goal

Gaming the system (cheating)

Form of control - individual learning progress

Learning is the goal

Only way to win the game is to get better at the learning. Cheating doesn't help you learn or pass the assessment

Everything counts - grades include behavior, non-completion, extra credit, homework, assessments


Assessment is a continuous process. Feedback loop: teach, check, apply learning, feedback

I can keep working and take the assessment when I am confident that I understand

Grading during learning

Grading homework, including late penalties

Penalizes students for taking risks

Can create hopelessness in some students

Homework is a small percent of final grade. It is used to check for understanding and provide feedback

We don't keep score during practice

It's safe to make mistakes and take risks in learning
All grades are permanent and averaged together

One bad grade can seal a student's fate

F's can over-influence the final grade

Mistakes (late work, non-completion, poor grades) are permanent - no redemption

Test for mastery

Grade in pencil - grades can be improved

More recent information replaces old information. 

It's OK not to "get it" right away

Redemption is possible


Westonka's aim through the use of personalized learning strategies is to increase student ownership and engagement with their learning and raise achievement. The key to this focus is knowing our students - their gifts, skills, their strengths and gaps in learning, how they learn, their passions, their interests and, most importantly, knowing them as individuals.

For more information on personalized learning strategies, please check out the following websites:

  1. The Institute for Personalized Learning
  2. iNACOL International Association for K-12 Online Leanring


References for this article:
Rickabough, J. (2016). Tapping the Power of Personalized Learning
Vatterott, C. (2015). Rethinking Grading


Mark Femrite
(952) 491-8002