Standards-Based Grading: Shifts

She was angry and left, it took her months to figure out the system, and in the end she said she hated it because it was harder to get an A. She is why I must do this.

Standards-Based Grading is nothing new. It is implemented all over the world, but not very much in the United States. It is not a flavor-of-the-month as many cynical education commenters love to say. The whole flavor-of-the-month thing rubs me the wrong way: Sometimes I’m redirected to the catacombs of the Internet, where I find myself reading someone’s drivel about how myopic teachers and administrators are, and how we can’t help ourselves like moths to flame. As if we’re pulled into to the ice cream parlor and intoxicated by the newest fudge-brownie-mocha mixture without considering our cholesterol levels. Well, I’m lactose intolerant, and I’m sick of the cynicism.

The disrespect teachers get with regards to the changing fads of education is getting a little tiring. I agree that there are fads pushed by people looking to make money and not positive reforms, but why do we have this problem? Honestly, because we’re being asked to do something impossible: Teach every kid, and make sure they succeed to a specific set of benchmarks. No matter what, or you’re a bad teacher. It doesn’t matter if they weren’t read to as a toddler. It doesn’t matter if they were never allowed to investigate something on their own. It doesn’t even matter if the kid spends more time in front of an xbox 360 than anything else. This is public education, and that kid’s a part of the public. So excuse us teachers if we’re looking for a strategy that works in order to do the impossible.

Disclaimer: there’s no panacea for the problem in the preceding paragraph.

This is the great American Experiment in Education, and my lab has supported one gem that certainly tips the battle my way: Standards-Based Grading. I will teach this way for the rest of my career in one way or another, not because I read an article in Ed. Leadership about it, but because it makes sense, and it helps my kids learn. So, here’s what I’ve learned, and what I’m working on:

The Message Grades Send:

Problem: Kids want to play games to get points in order to get an ‘A’. This is a problem because it puts emphasis on accumulating points and not on what the points are supposed represent: learning. You must migrate your system of grading away from grading every single assignment summatively (that is assigning a static grade for everything a kid does), and towards grades that are indexed by content.

Students could not care less about their score on “Quiz 5” from last month; they don’t even know what was on that quiz. Don’t put that in your gradebook. Put the individual ideas that that quiz assessed in your gradebook, so that the students know what it is you care about. I do this, and my gradebook has ballooned to about three times its previous size. Oh well.

Reporting Should Be Dynamic:

Let’s say you really care about a certain bit of knowledge, so much so that you’re going to put in on a test. In other words, you want students to know it really badly. Like, say, the Pythagorean Theorem, and you consider your class worthless if the student hasn’t learned that piece of knowledge, then your grading system should be set up to help students remediate their misunderstandings, not screw them over for not getting it the first time.1

This looks like dynamic grades. (i.e.: Grades that reflect current understandings.) A 6/10 indicates a D-level understanding. Do you really want to damn your students with that grade, or would you prefer that they take that as a hint to get moving? You already want this, but yet you make grades summative. Why?!

A kid that gets a lot of 6/10’s already feels that their grades might be too low to fix — this can cause management issues. On the other hand, if you work intelligent and appropriate opportunities in for reassessment you are saying the following:

  • I want you to spend time getting better
  • I want to reward your effort by indicating how much you know2

Argue with that. Of course you have to work sensibility into the system, it shouldn’t be possible to do nothing and wait to study for the final. If it is, perhaps you should reconsider your curriculum.

Consistent Enforcement & Transparency:

Major Hurdle: Kids don’t listen on the day you present the syllabus/explain expectations, so they won’t understand your new grading system. You can belabor the point for the entire first day (why are you spending a whole day on the syllabus? Get going; they can read), but the students are so dead to classroom logistics that you’re going to have to teach about SBG as they go along.

I have many moments throughout the semester where kids show me how trained they are by the previous system. Kids will ask me if they can do extra homework to raise their grade. Why the hockey sticks would someone ask that? It’s absurd. I don’t even grade homework!! I say, “No, but you can study and show me that you understand this topic from a previous chapter that you’ve previously demonstrated a low understanding of.” They usually snap back into our reality. This is the behavior I’ve wanted all along, and I’m happy to say I have it now.

Anecdote: I once had a student at the beginning of a semester come in to “re-do a quiz,” as she put it. When we talked for a second, it was clear that she had done absolutely nothing to fix her previous misconception, which had already surfaced on the quiz. I asked her why she thought she could get a better grade without knowing more, and she said, “I came in after school.” I about cried; this is what she was trained to think. She made me let her try a re-do problem, and when I put one on the board she got huffy and told me that it wasn’t like the one on the quiz, despite involving exactly the same mechanics. She was angry and left, it took her months to figure out the system, and in the end she said she hated it because it was harder to get an A. She is why I must do this. This interaction haunts me.

The end of the semester is another time that will test your SBG mettle. Kids will want to raise their grade from a B+ to and A- really badly. They want to get points any way they can, and in the old system this looked like writing another paper, or dong extra work. Which is exactly how it looks in the new system EXCEPT, if this new work doesn’t show any growth, then little Johnny still gets a B-. I’ve had kids cry over this, but I have to hold my ground. Parent emails be damned; Johnny didn’t improve from a 8/10 to a 9/10. He just didn’t, sorry.

Kids need to be reminded that this system is about their learning, not about their points. Getting a 7/10 doesn’t mean the same thing for every concept, those lost three points are a message to keep studying, not a a summative deduction.

Gradebook to LogBook:

This is something I’m working on. I want be able to keep track of how assessments of multiple standards have fared for students over the course of an entire semester. This arose from a great conversation with my teaching neighbor, M. Townsley. (I’m lucky, huh?)

We were talking about a small failing of this system: A student might put in all of the extra work to show that they’ve improved their understanding on several standards — They might have straight 10/10’s in the gradebook — but when it comes to the final, they get a C. How is this possible? My gradebook indicates that they have total mastery! The student has demonstrated their ability, but they haven’t retained all of the information for the months leading up to the final. They didn’t know how to study for a large summative exam, despite having the knowledge locked somewhere in their brain. This is where a logbook of reassessments would have helped the student. Example:

If Sally can work through the chain rule perfectly the first time, she gets a 10/10. If Johnny can’t, but tries and tries, and after 4 reassessments finally does a moderately difficult problem perfectly, his grade become a 10/10. However, Johnny sincerely needs to be reminded that it took him a lot of effort to understand the chain rule. A gradebook that offers a change log would benefit Johnny by showing him that, although he has many 10/10’s, some of them took much more work to get, and therefore he may want to run through those concepts more.

I’m currently writing this program as an add-on to my current digital gradebook (PowerTeacher). I’ll roll it out for all of you when it’s done.

Formative Behavior:

Problem: The word “formative” is buzzier than a hive of bees in July fending off a black bear on a honey run. This is a problem because it means that you’ll have some seriously statistical variation in its definition. As far as I can tell, formative grading is the process of using an assessment to alter classroom practice based on the progress of the students. You probably already do this, but having a written record of your flexibility will enamor you to just about every constituent group out there.

Many argue that formative assessments should never see a gradebook. I disagree, they should be editable. I don’t put every assessment into my gradebook. Sometimes the information isn’t worth reporting (poorly written question, maybe), sometimes I just want to know what part of a process I need to focus on. This is formative. Sometimes I do put these grades into my gradebook, even when the average score is really low; I only do this if I want to motivate students to work on their own (i.e.: SBG), which is all the time.

1. I know you’re going to say something about employment and how you don’t get retries. School isn’t the real world, and kids aren’t adults. They’re learning, the goal is learning. I just don’t buy the “prepare for the next level all the time” argument. It’s lazy.

2. This is most definitely not the act of just adding more grades. I know you love the idea of “responsibility” and “taking accountability” for oneself, but relax. One grade for one standard. It takes responsibility and accountability to demonstrate a new higher level of mastery.