Dealing with the fear of being a boring teacher.

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Standards-Based Grading: LA – English (2 of 7)

This is the second 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 goal here is take your current assessments (or slightly modified versions of these) and to break them up into the core standards that they cumulatively represent, which are then reported independently.

I have intentionally made Language Arts (English) my second target for the Standards-Based grading discussion. Mostly because the way English assessments are given is generally quite contrary to the way things are done in math. A bit of a disclaimer: I do not teach Language Arts or English. However, the goal of these posts are not to purport best practices in curriculum/pedagogy; these posts are aimed at getting you to rethink your grading practices for what you already currently assign.

Many people argue that standards-based grading only works for math. They claim that it is all too easy to give a quiz, and then re-quiz a certain question when a student “misses” it. This works for math, but English? Do you expect me to whittle my class down to a series of vocabulary tests?! No, of course not. The goal here is take your current assessments (or slightly modified versions of these) and to break them up into the core standards that they cumulatively represent, which are then reported independently.

So, ask yourself, “What are the ideas that I want these kids to know? What are the concepts that I think the kids should improve on throughout the semester?” This list, however long, is your new gradebook. Why are you reporting a grade for “Paper 2″? Doesn’t that paper represent an assessment of many different concepts, skills, and ideas? Shouldn’t Paper 2 show improvement over Paper 1? Hopefully, but which pieces of the student puzzle improved? How does a B- on the first paper and a B+ on the second relate that information? It doesn’t, so stop it.

The English Paper

What if you instead had an entry in your gradebook for “Correct Comma Usage,” and “Proper Diction,” or whatever else matters? These are probably things each English teacher thinks about when grading a paper, and mentally weighs as they vacillate betwixt that B+ and A- mark. There’s subjectivity built into the system no matter what, so why not say: “Little Johnny sure can use his semicolons well, 10/10, but oh man, he has no idea about the correct usage of there/their/they’re,” instead of, “Johnny has no idea about there/their/they’re, but his puncuation is ok: A-.” The latter destroys information during the translation from teacher to Johnny.

Your goal is always to show a kid the status of their demonstration of a standard. Has this kid demonstrated a unique voice in their paper? Did they neglect to do so on the next paper? Lower the grade for that standard. View each paper not as a separate assignment that gets a separate grade. View each paper as an opportunity to assess a certain set of pre-existing standards.

Reading Comprehension

You’ve assigned a book to read; let’s say, Frankenstein. Your goals for the kids might be:

  1. Actually read the entire book.
  2. Understand the major themes Shelley was trying to get across.
  3. Learn a few new vocab words (or, in Frankenstein case, about five million new words…)

You probably have more, but just for the sake of discussion let’s go with these three. You now have to ask yourself, “How can I assess these three ideas?” First, begin by putting entries (assignments, whatever) in your gradebook for each standard. Describe the assignment so that parents and students know what “Themes” means.

Now begin building assessment opportunities. You already do this. Just think about how. Do you give a reading tests about events in the book, or specific chapters? That gets at standard 1. How do you check for development on this standard? Put questions about earlier chapters on subsequent quizzes. The goal here is to allow for assessment over time that actually instructs the student. When they see “Understands Plot – 4/10″ they can recognize that they need to go back over the plot, or find some supplementary explanation of the book. When they see “Plot Quiz 1 – 16/25″ They say, “shoot, I’ll try and read the middle chapters more carefully.” What about the first few chapters?

So now you have them write a paper about a thesis of their choice (you savvy inquiry-based teacher… mild sarcasm font, but more on this later). They must use Frankenstein as their primary source. How does this paper help you assess? It tells you about their grammar (a separate standard), it tells you about their understanding of the plot (a separate standard), it even tells you if they learned any new vocab if you’ve built that into the assignment (another separate standard). The student may receive 10 separate grades associated with this one assignment.

Yeah, I Already Use Rubrics, Cornally…

I bet you do, and I bet you’re good at it. You even give the rubric to the kids before they do the assignment. Do you then destroy information by combining the scores of each section of the rubric? I bet you do. Why?

I’m not advocating changing your room. I’m just saying that your gradebook doesn’t mean anything to anyone but you. With a few simple modifications to your grade reporting system, kids will be able to take charge of what they don’t understand, and get better, if they want to — sometimes they don’t, argh.

Give your kids the chance to show improvement, and have the gradebook reflect that. Don’t abandon the summative exam, but give the kids a map as to how to prepare for it. Do you really want to maintain control over every student’s progress? Can you even do that without needing an espresso and a b!tch-session in the teacher’s lounge?

  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)

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8 thoughts on “Standards-Based Grading: LA – English (2 of 7)
  • Deborah says:

    Hooray for our side! I am so proud of the team of 6 biology teachers I work with. We met on our own time Friday to do some preyear planning. I had intended to keep my explorations into SBG quiet and to myself for awhile. But they asked me about it – I had mentioned it earlier in the summer to one of them. Within an hour and a half of the most amazing discussion, all of them are willing to jump in only a few days before school starts on Thursday and try this. I had goosebumps and tears. AS for myself, I found myself spending the day yesterday seeing my assignments very differently. Rather than my files being organized by unit content or chapter numbers, I rearranged my Nature of Science/Scientific Method unit into standards! Amazing!

  • Travis A. Wittwer says:

    To add to what you wrote, in an English paper (a student generated selection of writing–essay, story, poem), there should only be a few learning targets that get assessed and then discussed with the student. These targets can be class-wide, specific to the student, or a little of both.

    It would be a disservice to a student in my English class for me to read their essay and assess it in any way that will not help learning (assessment for learning rather than of learning).

    For example, typically, in the beginning of the year, I teach how to write and punctuate dialogue. After instruction and practice, we write stories where students use the dialogue in a real way, rather than making up 20 dialogue sentences. In this story, my assessment will be of the 7 types of dialogue we used. It will be on the standard of where the student’s writing of dialogue is. The assessment (grade) will not reflect anything other than dialogue since that was the learning target.

    I have enjoyed reading through your blog and share a great many frustrations with grading that you have mentioned. I also use a standards-based system and have found that it works equally as well, if not greater. I have not had any adverse effects. Cheers.

  • Russ Goerend says:

    Why give scores at all, though?

    If my student writes an essay, and I have a rubric with levels of mastery, why not put those, along with a description of the standard into a portfolio that shows what the student knows, in relationship to the standards, to anyone who needs the information.

  • Mark says:

    Great post. Two questions for you: (1) It seems like you’re advocating for averaging scores in a standard from different assessments (quizzes, essays, etc.). Is this true? (2) In your Math post, you explain very well how students can “try again” on a standard. What are your ideas for English? For example, let’s say that the standard is “using evidence to back up a claim.” Thanks!

    • Shawn says:


      Thanks for the comment. To address your first question: I am actually not implying the use of averages, I think that students are better served by replacement of their score with their most recent attempt, or, more subjectively, with where you feel their level of understanding is with that standard. My goal is to communicate via my gradebook that student’s abilities in each area. If they demonstrate that they can support claims with evidence at the beginning of the year, awesome, give them a 9/10. If they fall off as the year goes on, that grade descends. Each subsequent assignment becomes an assessment for the various standards that it encompasses. Reassessing does not have to take the form of re-quizzing, that can be much too stressful and time consuming in some disciplines, but you most certainly hit the same standards using the slew of assignments that are already in place. I suppose I’m just advocating reporting those various ideas back to the student rather than putting them all together as one grade for a single assignment. Thanks again!

  • Francesca Kaiser says:

    Enjoyed reading your last two posts. This is something I believe in and toy with but struggle with middle school students who have less flexibility during their days to come early, stay late, etc. I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

    • Shawn says:

      That’s a good point. At the MS level, kids really don’t have the most flexible schedules. However, Standards-Based Grading doesn’t necessarily have to feature these kinds of re-do’s. It works well for math, but in science/LA/History it’s often much more efficient to just assign things as you normally do, and change the behavior of your gradebook.

  • Karren says:

    Your ideas really resonated with me. I blogged about this same topic today. I’d love for if you to check it out: