Standards-Based Grading: Science – Qualitative (3 of 7)

This is the third in a series on the implementation of standards-based grading in specific disciplines. A lot has already been written on this subject that I hope to expand on.  A bit of motivation before moving on: Ask yourself, “Does my gradebook mean anything to anyone other than myself? How can I use assessment tools to better communicate with  students about their progress?” Finally, can we use assessment to empower students to control their own formative behavior in the classroom?

The change is so simple, but now Little Sally knows exactly what she doesn’t know, and if you think it’s important!

Alright, I’m back from my terse foray into the world of Language Arts and heading to my actual stomping grounds. I am a science teacher. I even have a graduate degree to prove it! (…crickets…) This post is for those of you who teach predominantly qualitative science classes (i.e. Biology, Geology, General Science, etc…). Your job, as per usual, is to identify the actual standards you want the kids to learn, and then put separate entries into your gradebook for each. Do not obscure them with the cryptic titles of the assignments themselves. The beauty of this simple change, is that it forces you to consider exactly why you’re assigning something, or why each question appears on your assessment. (Not that you don’t already do this, but you may not have a concrete framework, yet).

Classes like Biology contain many content standards ranging from parts of a microscope to an understanding of evolution. This may seem like a ludicrous amount of entries in a gradebook to attempt to track; and perhaps it is? Are there more central themes that all of these assignments are getting at?

Inquiry Standards:

Every science teacher is aware of the pressure to teach using inquiry. Every good science teacher has folded at least some inquiry into their courses. There are now national standards specifically for inquiry, and many states are adopting such standards as well.

How do you grade based on these standards? Easy, every time a student does a lab (investigation, experiment, whatever) they should be practicing the process of scientific inquiry (they’re not following canned labs are they?! tsk, tsk). Put the process in your gradebook. Perhaps a list like:

  • Student can generate a testable question.
  • Student can create an experimental procedure that is reliable, reproducible, and executable.
  • Student deals with the frustration of creating/executing an experiment with tact
  • Student analyzes the results of their experiment and draws reasonable conclusions.
  • Student communicates clearly to others their conclusions.

This list may be too much or too little depending on your kids and class, but the point is: these are the skills you want these kids to develop. Do you care if they do an experiment about bacteria growth or sediment deposition specifically? Maybe, but in the end the kids won’t remember much of the specific details, and will definitely remember the process.

So, as the semester progresses, change your assessment of their inquiry skills as they show you improvement. You do this already, you are just currently reporting “Cell Lab – 12/15,” and then “Systems Lab – 14/15,” which means nothing to kids a month later. However, “Student can generate a testable question – 3/10” sure sends a clear statement to both parents and student.

You’re going to have to give up your addiction to science content. It’s changing all of the time anyway. More on this later.

But, What About My Mandated Content Standards?

I am well aware that teachers teach specific content standards. I bet some of you teach about the parts of a cell. One day it’s the Golgi apparatus, and the next it’s Endoplasmic Riticulum. Either way you’ve got content to cover, and specific ideas that you need these kids to get. You present these ideas in the most logical order, and assess kids at regular intervals. Here’s the problem: How do we work reassessment into a framework that must move from standard to standard with little backtracking? Once you leave the cell, you might hardly ever talk about its specifics again.

There’s some obvious issues there, such as: why are you teaching about things that never get brought back up? My goal here is not to change your curriculum — it’s just to make your grading more communicative — so, we’ll let that one lie for the moment.

So what do you do when Little Sally bombs the Cell Quiz? Quizzes are supposed to tell Sally how well she might do on a larger test, but that’s not how Sally see’s it. She sees: “Cell Quiz: 25/40.” What did you assess with “Cell Quiz?” Couldn’t that be more informatively scored as:

  1. Knows function of Golgi Apparatus: 5/10
  2. Knows function of Nucleus: 10/10
  3. Knows function of S-ER: 6/10
  4. Knows function of R-ER: 0/10

The change is so simple, but now Little Sally knows exactly what she doesn’t know!

One final detail still needs to be addressed. How do you let Sally show improvement? Especially when you’re going to be moving on from this material to something else like Human body systems.


The body systems are a perfect place for a student to demonstrate a new understanding of the cell’s organelles. It becomes your job to provide the connections on assessments. You do not have to suffer through students appearing at all odd hours of the day trying to re-do quiz problems. Just make it a point to connect previous material through subsequent assessments.

These assessments need not be quizzes. Perhaps, after discussing the liver, why not have everyone write a quick entry in their journal (if you use journals) about which organelle they think allows the liver to do its job. The answers to this question allow you another window into the ability of your students, and allow you to choose a more appropriate grade for that specific standard, not mention how what it tells you about their understanding of the more pertinent topic.

Do you use bell-ringers (opening questions, attention-getters, whatever)? Right there, you’ve built a system in for formative assessment. If they can do better now what they screwed up yesterday1, why not have their grade reflect that?

While we’re at it, why not introduce the central themes of the course as early as possible, and then have the kids relate each new “unit” to those ideas. Evolution is a central theme in biology. Introduce it early and simply, and build on the idea as the year progresses. Your gradebook entry might read, “Student understands the connection between genetics and micro-evolution.”

How about the rock cycle? How about Energy? All of these ideas are central to many qualitative science courses, and attention can be brought to the important iteration of these ideas through study of detailed material. Why not put the connection itself in the gradebook instead of the minute concept? Do you honestly care about the difference between porphyritic and poikilitic granite?! Your students don’t. Do you care about how grain size indicates the life story of that rock? I hope so.

1: Summative assessments still have a place in the classroom, but they are not being discussed for the sake of brevity. Put a time limit on their reattempt window and call it “Exam Day,” nevertheless, wouldn’t it be great if your gradebook was a road map for them to that day?

  1. Standards-Based Grading: Math (1 of 7)
  2. Standards-Based Grading: LA – English (2 of 7)
  3. Standards-Based Grading: Science – Qualitative (3 of 7)