Standards-Based Grading: FAQ

Look. All I’m saying is that the traditional summative-obsessed grading system is broken and often counter-productive. It teaches kids to love accumulating points instead of learning material. It teaches kids that, once the class has moved on, previous material is dead or at least dormant. These are all things that make me feel like I have grub worms infesting my skin.

I’ve spent some considerable wordage on this blog talking about how I do SBG, why it’s necessary, and basically lauding its greatness. Disclaimer: of course SBG isn’t perfect, but I don’t have a utopia of self-motivated abstract thinkers. Close, but not quite.

The SBG Quick and Dirty:

If this is the only article you read on my blog, allow me to explain SBG to you as succinctly as I can. SBG is an attempt to remedy the problem created by a system that grades everything. Grading every assignment tells kids that points matter more than learning; that breeds cheating, crying for extra credit, and sometimes learning is stumbled upon. What’s worse is that our grade books only reflect individual assignments and tell students absolutely nothing about the content those assignments were supposed to help teach.

Enter Standards-Based Grading:

Your grade book transforms into a laundry list of learning targets; some over-arching, some quite specific. Student work on things like quizzes, projects, and tests, which yield information about each learning target, and these assessments are fractured into a billion little pieces reported across learning targets rather than under the meaningless, “Rome Project” heading. Students can then identify their de/proficiencies and design remediation techniques targeted specifically at the standards they don’t know. As a teacher, you replace their previous grades with their more recent demonstrations, whether these are improvements or backslides. To be clear, a quiz or a project may affect the same grade. This gives an accurate and timely report to all interested parties about the current level of understanding of the student, and forces the student to care about learning over points. Yay! Oh, and Stop. Grading. Homework. Please.

Frequently Asked Questions:

I’ve received some great questions about SBG, and I wanted to organize those into one FAQ sheet. Actually, they won’t all be questions, some are just misconceptions that I’d like to address:

SBG is too easy and makes students soft.

At the onset, I worried about this, too. However my experience has shown that the contrary is true. SBG is often much more difficult for students, because they realize that they are not allowed to binge and purge knowledge. Reassessment becomes a part of the classroom culture, and they must connect old knowledge to new knowledge in order to assess well and actually learn. Does that sound easy to you?

This forces students to learn about themselves as a learner (I just typed that, my pancreas hurts). They have to analyze their own study habits to figure out what actually works for them, and it helps them retain knowledge. This is the academic equivalent of an ab workout run by Jillian Michaels followed by the Spartan 300 training regimen. No, Sir, not soft, these students are hard as rocks.

What Happens When I have a Room Full of 1,000 Students wanting to reassess?

This is one of the biggest fears for teachers looking to implement SBG. I had it. My experience has been that students do not leap at the opportunity to fix their grades like you imagine they will (surprise!). They trickle in a bit heavier as the end of the semester approaches, which can become tiresome. Here are my methods for dealing with student-initiated reassessments:

  1. One attempt per student per day.
  2. An attempt is a testing situation and must be taken seriously under penalty of ejection.
  3. Student must know exactly what standard they want to attempt and how they want to reassess it

Those have served me well this year. The first rule prevents end-of-the-term rushes. The second is obvious, and the third requires them to have actually studied. I have rule 3 because students were coming in and saying things like, “Cornally, which quiz is my lowest, I’ll do that.” Then they’d just hope they could do better. This was not what I wanted. When a kid says that now, I say, “Get out, study, and figure out what you need to do, I am not your grade’s babysitter.” And then I do a Mortal Kombat fatality to them. Ok, that’s not true, I’ve never fought a student to the death. Not even once!

SBG Does Not Prepare Students For College.

This one is the most acidic. It burns me a bit, and there’s a lot more to the college preparation monster than the SBG aspect. First of all, remember that secondary education is completely different from college and from the working world, too. What we think we are doing to “prepare” them for college is mostly smoke and mirrors anyway. Grading your prescribed organization of notebooks is silly (how many of those were organized during the waning moments before the bell? Most.) Trying to teach responsibility in general is silly, however making it necessary for your class is much more effective.

The argument is that a system which allows for reassessment does not reflect the hard-nosed sparse assesment environment that is college. True, but those grind-stone midterms and finals are also present in any good SBG-loving course. The SBG helps the students to prepare for these exams in ways that are almost unbelievable. They have to learn, retain, and understand how they do those things. That’s college readiness.

Want to prepare them for college? Stop grading notebooks and homework, and start using genuine assessments that require kids to actually know stuff. *Drops mic*

What is reassessment and why is it necessary?

Reassessment is just that. It is not retesting. It is the act of taking a multiple pictures of a student’s understanding to get an actual image of what they know. This is a light-year step forward from taking one summative quiz, one test, and then forgetting all about it until the final (if it even comes back then).

Reassessment can either be student-initiated or teacher-initiated. That is: a student assesses poorly; decides to study the material again; and then comes in to do another problem, or teach you, or writes something new that you can reassess. On the other side of the coin are reassessments that the teacher initiates. When you give a quiz you can bring back old concepts that you want to get better pictures of. These can be bell ringers, quiz questions, interviews, projects that cover many topics, or whatever. All of these go into the same grade book and change the student’s grade based on their current understanding.

But you don’t get second chances in “real” life, let alone infinite chances, you liberal dolt!

This is a paradigm that you have to excise. I may be a liberal dolt, but you most certainly do get second chances in real life. For sure, some things are a one-shot, but don’t sell your kids short. They can tell the difference. All you’re doing by being a hard ass is making them hate you and learning. If we truly believe that all kids learn differently, then we must admit that their rates of knowledge acquisition will also be different. Why is Chapter 5’s materials now completely off limits? Simply because you have a schedule and are now in Chapter 6? Ridiculous. Perhaps you should get a different job:

How do I come up with reassessments?

This is the hard part. You’ve recognized that being a gate(bridge)keeper is silly, and that school should be about learning, not points accumulation. This invariably comes down to you making up problems on the spot for little Johnny who wants to reassess. Or does it? This depends on the course you teach. I’ve written a lot about this already. In math it’s sometimes easy to come up with new problems that assess the same standard. In history, this method is not nearly the best choice for reassessing.

In more qualitative subjects, it is almost always better to center on the student attempting to teach you something: A quiz showed they don’t know anything about the bicameral system? Then it’s incumbent upon them to come in and teach you why we have one. There’s no test generation at all on your part.

Needless to say, your style should and will vary based on what you’re teaching.

Credit to our district’s fearless leader @mctownsley for guidance in developing this post.