ThinkThankThunk

Dealing with the fear of being a boring teacher.

8

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)
standards based gradingteaching

Shawn Cornally • February 17, 2010


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