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The 4-Point Scale

Why should we assess using a 4 point scale?

“Percentage grading systems that attempt to identify 100 distinct levels of performance distort the precision, objectivity, and reliability of grades. They also create unsolvable methodological and logistical problems for teachers. Limiting the number of grade categories to four or five through an integer grading system allows educators to offer more honest, sensible, and reliable evaluations of students' performance. Combining the grade with supplemental narrative descriptions or standards checklists describing the learning criteria used to determine the grade further enhances its communicative value.”


An essential part of the four point scale is to make sure that learning targets are high quality, with reliable scales that have clear, well-defined descriptors of each of the 4 levels.  In other words, each score given needs to have a clear and articulated descriptor that goes along with it.


One of the challenges to this is that people (teachers and students) must stop converting every assignment/score to a letter grade.  Yes, at the end, we still convert all of our targets into a final grade; however, that should not be happening with individual targets and assignments.  As we stress the process of learning and developing essential skills and understandings, our structures and systems must support this. One way that many teachers have dealt with this is by taking #s off of all formative assessments.  Students are simply shown where on the scale they currently are, so that they can continue to work towards the next level and teachers can continue to support this progress through differentiation and intentional instruction.


What needs to be different in our classes when we switch to a 4 point scale?

Using a 4 point scale is not just a switch in assessment; it’s more about a switch in instruction. The use of learning targets and a 4 point scale in our classes shifts our focus from individual assignments to transferable skills. These skills are defined at four gradations of learning that students can demonstrate in a variety of ways.  This shift demands that both our instruction and our assessments change. In order for our students to learn a particular skill, we must design learning experiences that are aligned with the learning target and that provide the opportunity for our students to practice the skill at all levels of proficiency. Multiple assessment opportunities will need to occur over time to allow students to show evidence of the skill and receive feedback that will help them progress toward or beyond the target.


When assessing work using a 4 point scale, it is important to view student work as a body of evidence, rather than individual questions or tasks.  The evidence that a student provides as a whole on the assessment should be used to determine where a student is on the 4 point scale. Often, assessments can provide evidence of multiple skills that have been practiced during learning experiences.  In this case, the evidence must be viewed through the lens of each skill that is being assessed and a separate score for each skill should be documented.


When skill-based evidence has been recorded for students, this evidence should be used to inform upcoming instruction in an attempt to move every student forward on the scale.  This intentional instruction often requires that students in our classes be grouped flexibly or given target-aligned practice opportunities at a variety of complexity levels to improve their proficiency.  Use of skill evidence in this way ensures that students have access to work that is appropriately rigorous and provides the opportunity for additional learning.


Why is the 3 the target, and what does that mean for the 4?

Our goal as teachers is to move students forward in the skills we’ve chosen for our classes. Ideally, all of our students would end the year with 4s in all skills. So if this is what we want for our students (and what most of them want for themselves), why don’t we call the 4 the target? When we look at student achievement in our classes, we have to decide on a benchmark that is “proficient,” or a level of achievement that makes us feel good about what a student learned. This is where the 3 as the target comes in; the target is a level of achievement that is developmentally appropriate in a given skill--a level that we are confident we can get the majority of our students to achieve given sufficient instruction, practice, and feedback.


Because our students will learn at different paces, it’s important that we know where we want them to go after they have met the target, and that’s where the 4 comes in. The 4 is not perfection. It is not “above and beyond” or “wow me.” We need to clearly articulate what learning might look like at the next level so that we can continue to push all students to grow in the skills in our classes. The 4 should not be something that we hold on to as a prize for a few select students. All students should see what level 4 achievement looks like, and should have the opportunity to achieve at this level; this does not mean that all students will, but we need to provide them the scaffolding (during practice) to feel what it’s like to think, perform, and achieve at the highest level.


One of the biggest complaints from students when teachers first transition to SBL is that they don’t know how to get a 4. Some say their teachers don’t give 4s, or that they are not given the opportunity to try for a 4 until the summative. As we get better at writing targets and scales, these concerns usually go away, but be aware of the perception of “teaching to the target.” Some teachers use the language “to the target and beyond” when talking to students and parents about the goals for the class, and this seems to help lessen the fear about teaching to the middle. As teachers, our job is to differentiate our instruction and practice based on individual student levels of achievement on each of our targets, so there should be no such thing as teaching to a single level. All students should be appropriately challenged on all targets, allowing all students to maximize their learning. This does not mean all students will get 4s on all targets, and the more formative data you have, the better prepared you are to show evidence of the student’s learning.

Adapted from

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