Dealing with the fear of being a boring teacher.

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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.

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12 thoughts on “The Case for Binary Assessment
  • Kelly Holman says:

    Shawn, do you use both SBGradebook and BlueHarvest simultaneously? I thought BlueHarvest was a replacement.

  • [...] to me for assessment (read: feedback), most are some mixture of the two. Students are graded on a binary scale, with the currency being feedback. The students only get a “yes” if we both agree [...]

  • Tyler Hotz says:

    Once a student gets a proficent mark, such as your graph says the “Power Rule”, is a student continually assessed on that standard?

  • Chris L says:

    How are you dealing (philosophically or practically) with students that get 18/20 standards mastered by the end of the yr/term? I love the idea of standards based grades, but it only makes sense to me if we can break down the compartments of the school year. Issue a final grade when all standards are completed, whether it takes 15, 18, or 21 weeks would be ideal.

    • Shawn says:

      That is one draw back of the experiment. The reporting term ends when May ends. This is an arbitrary date to end the idea, but the goal is to see if every kid can manage something in each standard. I’ll then use my professional discretion to see if those who are not yet “yes” deserve some partial credit. I guess all I’m really doing is eschewing final grades until they actually make sense. Great point, thanks!

  • Jerrid Kruse says:

    Ive been doing his “binary” approach for three semesters in my methods courses & had great results (once students get over the emotional hurdle that tethers them to “how we’ve always done it”. I have found the system to make expectations & guidance much more transparent (cause objectivity is the worst of all grading myths). I have also come to realize that the system makes success as well as failure more likely. That is, students are clear about what they need to know & we embark on a journey together to get there, but because there is no “partial credit” safety net, students who might usually squeak by, don’t. I like it as if you only kinda get something, you probably need more time with it.

    • Shawn says:

      I really like how you said that it makes success and failure more likely. That’s exactly what I’m seeing in my sophomores. Isn’t that interesting that not much changes in the four or so years between my students and yours?

  • Theron Cross (@torquedu) says:

    I’m currently trying to talk our admin into going binary for the 9th grade. In my mind, nothing kills a growth mindset like walking out of your freshmen year with a low GPA and angry parents. I’m actually proposing that kids don’t pass a class until they’ve shown proficiency on all standards – even if that drags into the summer.

    Unfortunately, we’re trying to pull the school together under shared grading terms, making my little proposition less likely to happen. You should come out to our TEDx event this year and put the charm on – I’ll buy you a beer for the effort.

    • Shawn says:

      I’d love to come to TEDxEPS! I don’t know if I can swing the off time and the plane ticket though. I remember the time out in Seattle so fondly that I can’t help but rib my wife to move out there. Any lines in the budget for former speakers to fly out? (kidding)

  • pshircliff says:

    Thanks for your thoughts. I am in my 2nd year of the SBG journey. I have long (more than these two years) wondered/wished we would get rid of grades and go pass/fail…or pass/keep on trying. As long as you put a number or a letter, that will be the goal in the eyes of the students. Now with SBG I wish we could say show mastery of ALL the standards and you can move on. I am finding that teachers/school really needs to have deep discussions about grades and what they mean, because they have lost meaning (a student can learn 60% of the material & still “pass”…oh, with extra credit they can know less than 60% & it brings them up to passing?????)

    I am thinking that the discussions should follow four steps
    1) improve feedback (Tchr-stu ; stu-tchr ; stu-stu ; stu-self)
    2) learning targets (cannot have good feedback without good targets/goals)
    3) formative assessment (how am I doing at hitting the target)
    4) SBG

    I am unsure how many teachers have been “trained” in any of these. Feedback has traditionally a number or a letter, maybe a few snippets/comments…and the student only looks at the number/letter and throws it away. Learning targets have been what will I teach. Formative Assessment has been completely absent (homework gets a grade, so how is that formative). And SBG is not very prevalent in any school and fought (it was brought up & discussed with our K teachers..and they shot it down).

    • Shawn says:

      I determine final grades as a simple percentage of standards met over total standards. I love the idea of pass/keep trying in high school. My staff fought the idea hard because it’s “not like college,” but by that logic we should do away with recess in elementary school to get them ready for middle school. We should probably also banish nap time for toddlers because they need to get ready for school…