Students in some Algebra and Geometry classes at Sioux City West High School were asked to bring M&Ms, Skittles and Tootsie Rolls to class last year. Students thought that "homework" assignment was really sweet, to say the least. Little did they know that their skillful teachers were using these manipulatives as a differentiated instruction strategy. Actually, as transparent as these teachers are, the students likely did know.

Welcome to standards-based grading and instruction. While this may not seem like your classroom experiences of the past, take note because the results Jamie Bratvold (pictured left) and Arynn Rasmussen (pictured right) found teaching this way are worth sharing.

Bratvold and Rasmussen, who recently relocated to Texas, explained the difference between their past practice of norm-based grading versus standards-based grading this way: The standards-based method equalizes the grading process in that only a student's summative assessments are used for his or her grade. Homework assignments, participation, attendance and attitude have a weight of zero in grading. However, those formative assessments provide guidance for day-to-day differentiated instruction.

Bratvold and Rasmussen like to use this analogy to further clarify, "With any sport, an athlete has to practice their skill. There are scrimmages and there are games. Homework is their practice, quizzes are the scrimmages and summative tests are the games—the only things that really 'count.' If you don't practice and do well in the scrimmages, you won't make it in the real games."

Because the areas of student progress can be easily identified, conversations become richer among peers and teachers, and engaged learning happens through differentiated instruction. These are added benefits to standards-based teaching, according to Bratvold.

The West High teachers established their teaching methods on the work of Rick Wormeli and Robert J. Marzano. These education gurus believe in testing and re-testing. However, a student will only have an opportunity to re-test if he or she has put in the practice, or, in other words, the students have submitted all of their homework assignments.

When asked why they switched from norm- to standards-based grading, Bratvold said they noticed that students weren't remembering what they learned in the first quarter later in the fourth quarter.

"In our norm-based grading, students typically received higher grades on their report cards than the results from state standard testing," Bratvold explained. "We knew something needed to change."

In the summer of 2011, a professional development cadre at West High got together to "unwrap the standards." By defining what it meant to "employ the properties of equality," for example, the cadre listed a comprehensive list of properties they felt needed to be mastered for that standard. The standards also had to fit within the Iowa Core expectations. Once they knew how to define each standard, grading for each one became more balanced and explicit.

"As opposed to looking at norm-based grades that can factor in attendance, attitudes, participation and other intangibles, standards-based grading identifies what a student does or does not struggle with," said Bratvold.

Knowing which concepts a student hasn't yet mastered is half the battle. The flip-side for teachers is how to change, or differentiate, their teaching so that kids can engage with concepts in a way that makes learning easier.

Enter M&Ms, Skittles and Tootsie Rolls. Students were able to create and solve their own math problems by using these yummy manipulatives.

Critics may say, "That's great to incorporate chocolate into classrooms, but are they learning anything?"

Bratvold and Rasmussen can tell you that not only are students more engaged in the classroom, but that, yes, test scores in one class increased from 55 percent passing in 2010 with norm-based grading to 74 percent in 2011 with standards-based grading.

Millie Olsen, an instructional coach at Northwest Area Education Agency (AEA), provided resources for the West High pair two years ago, as they began their standards-based journey.

"I am excited for them and their trailblazing efforts," exclaimed Olsen. "I believe the power of this works in their formative assessment framework that, in turn, guides the instruction."

One of Bratvold's favorite testimonies came from a student who was asked if standards-based grading was working for her. The student admitted, "You never let me forget what I've learned!"

Standards-based grading isn't for the faint-of-heart. It takes extra effort to differentiate. It means a teacher has to be flexible and willing to change. And the teaching is very transparent because students know each day, week and semester what will be taught and what they will be responsible to learn—making them more accountable.

But are the results worth it? Absolutely say these two teachers, who recently earned their master's degrees from Southwest Minnesota State University.

As Bratvold summed up with one of her favorite quotes, "Growth happens outside of your comfort zone."

It sounds as though these teachers grew professionally just as much as their students did academically. In the "game" of teaching, that would be called a win-win.