The Case for Binary Assessment

The current experiment I’m running in my classroom centers on the merits of binary grading. My hypothesis is that having any gradation above “proficient” will create a just-enough-t0-get by culture in students.

I recently had an all-staff professional development day on standards-based grading. My entire district is looking to make the switch to SBG, which sounds awesome, but this weekend I can’t help but feel that the effort is a bit star-crossed. There are equal parts coerced as there are zealots.

Each teacher that has implemented some form of SBG got a chance to share with our entire staff. This was harrowing and silly. It is impossible to communicate 6 semesters’ worth of experimentation in five minutes. That said, for as questionable as some of my experiments have been, no one came right out and questioned my teaching license. At least, not to my face.

I began to explain how I became sick of students relying on me for remediation (necessary study guides, study sessions, review days, etc…). I showed how you can easily just change the header row of your gradebook to achieve a much more communicative grading system.

I then explained how tools like PowerSchool do a piss-poor job of keeping track of changes and histories. There are much better tools out there, for instance: ActiveGrade, and my SBGradeBook.

Things got dicey when I started to explain my need for feedback-based grades. We’re now 2:45 into my 5 minutes with the whole district, and I start to lose people like I’m selling heat to an oven.

“Numbers just aren’t good enough as a currency for learning,” I say “They cause overjustification.”

“Lolz, you hippy,” most of them thought.

Features of my current experiment:

  1. I have to force students to pay attention to feedback and to honor it.
  2. My current experiment uses feedback entirely as its grading currency; there are no points.
  3. I’ve done away with reporting a running grade (because that doesn’t make any sense, and never has!)
  4. We record how many high-level proficiencies a student has met, and use an artifact to support that demarcation.
  5. Final grades are computed at the end of the semester as the percentage of “yes – proficient” over total standards.
  6. I have 4-minute conferences with each student twice a week. These are surgical meetings dedicated to recording progress. This is what parents see instead of “grades.”

Explaining this to parents and other teachers has given me pause. It’s hard to make a bulleted list without justifying each bullet with a thousand words. Suffice it to say that there has been anguish; sleep has been lost.

So, how do you pull off binary grades? First, you set your proficiency benchmark higher than you normally would.

I had a long conversation with the other biology teacher in my building, and we came to realize that my proficient mark is at about a 8.5 while hers is around 7. Why does this matter? Well, it makes getting an ‘A’ in her class harder, but it makes getting any credit in my class a challenge.


Look! I made charts!

SBG With Points:

On a 10-points SBG scale. Student understands one standard. Student passes the course with an averaged 'D'

So, this student passes the course. I’m comfortable that this kid can do one thing well enough to either retain it, look it back up, or otherwise recognize to use calculus in future situations. One standard. Really? This doesn’t happen that often, but it does happen, and the student passes through thinking they can stop studying calculus.

Binary SBG:

If left to using only numbers, the binary system provides less information, but creates a more appropriate final mark, 1/5, 'F.'

Now we have an interesting learning situation on our hands. If left to numbers, we get a more accurate final mark, but we lose any information about the student’s progress.

That progress information is the central postulate of this experiment. A ‘6.5’ is in not nearly as useful as a video, textual, or audio comment left by a teacher.

A number tells the students they aren’t that good at something, but how did they get there? What’s next? Unless you have the lucky problem of all students having the same misunderstandings, I think we all need to agree that energy spent on numbers should probably be diverted to keeping track of feedback.

State of the Onion:

I’m two weeks into this experiment. The average for my students is 2 proficient standards (of 20). They have 9 weeks left in the semester.

I was asked by another teacher where my students get “practice.” I’ll admit I was unable to answer the question at first, but now I’ve had a weekend (smoking a 15-pound brisket will give you some time to think) and I have to admit that practice, homework, assessment, and projects all kind of blend together. Everything can be entered into BlueHarvest; conversation is my common denominator.

All I can say is this, I’ve never talked to my students more, and I already know more about them in these two weeks than I learned in the entire first quarter.