Standards-Based Grading: The Role of the Summative

Oh me oh my. Let’s test our SBG mettle: What’s the point of the summative test within the framework of standards-based grading?

Summative assessments are just that, a one-shot attempt at summing up a student’s abilities across a wide variety of content standards. They generally occur at the end of giant piles of coverage (units) in the form of midterms, finals, or “unit” exams. They’re a static measurement; a single snap shot often used to damn or laud a student in a magical way. Some kids accidentally underperform, some kids accidentally overperform. In short: These tests are flawed, and we all know it (Good, I can feel your anger… Strike me down with all of your hatred and your journey towards the dark SBG side will be complete.)

I'm not making any money, George; (I'm a teacher) thanks for the photo, though.

Summative used to be then end of the assessment story.

Yeah, you threw in a few quizzes here or there, you know, for flavor, but what you really said was, “learn it for this test, and be damned if you didn’t. Doubly, who cares if you retain it?”

SBG fixes this, personalizes education, and makes it more effective. It’s not perfect, though: we can sit around smoking Vitamin M and talking about, like, the universe, man, but in the end, if it doesn’t help my kids extend their learning usefully, I don’t care how fancy the acronym is. SBG must be tempered logically for the good of your students.

I AM NOT implying some half-assed partial implementation of SBG where you still sort of grade homework and you attempt to make “Attendance” (barf) a legit standard.

What I’m saying is that you have to stop acting on rote indoctrination and start to think about what assessment actually tells you. Assessment is a huge part of a student’s life at school, it can dictate their attitude towards education in general — it can enhance or ruin a kid’s day — and yet we’re willing to give assessments flippantly, because “it was about time for a quiz.” WTF does that even mean?

So, at this point it sounds like I just hate all assessments, call me the Che Geuvara of education. Actually, call me Princess Paradox: I give a midterm and a final.

¡Viva la SBG!

<indignant reader>”But you use SBG, and your kids redo things all the time what will they think if they can’t be allowed to get better OMGITHINKIHAVEATUMOR!!1″</indignant reader>

Evidently there’s mini conference about summative assessment bubbling up through fizzy lifting machine that is the Internet: Jason Buell (the one beta tester to rule them all) supplies these nuggets for us (while simultaneously using a strike-through joke, which I thought I invented…)

Remember this: Finals are just one more piece of evidence. It is up to you to decide if that evidence overrides all of your previous evidence. …

… In this case, you, as a teacher and a human being and not a Scantron machine, is able to required to morally obligated to make a decision.

Aside: We are treading on the inherent usefulness/wikipedia-ness question that surrounds blogging, here. Is quoting another blogger good enough to support something I myself am about to say? Maybe. Señor Buell is running a classroom, and, as far as I know, he hasn’t devoured or otherwise ended a student, yet. This combination of experience and willingness to stick his neck out on the Internet is good enough for me to assume some veracity and glean usefulness. Of course, all anecdotal evidence is just that: anecdotal, and evident.

Jason’s logic is infallible here, indeed any assessment is a measure of a student’s ability. Even if sometimes we may feel like Pellinore hunting the Questing Beast in trying to get an accurate picture. What does it mean if a student’s abilities spike? What does it mean if their scores keep raising? What does it mean if they are seemingly random?

Just to whet your appetite, here are some screen shots from the SBGradeBook, each one represents a student that has followed a much different path on their road to proficiency of the same standard. For illustrative purposes let’s say they’re in “Advanced Lasso Techniques” and this is the “Bronco Ropin’ Standard” (The dark gradient represents the proficiency line, and yes these were produced on-the-fly by the SBGradeBook, it does this new thing called “graphs.” Hang on, Steve Jobs is on my other line …)


Thanks to SBG, Johnny's grade now reflects his recently proficient abilities in Bronco Ropin'


Thanks to SBG, we are all now keenly aware that Jezabelle has fallen off the Bronco Ropin' wagon.

Jam Master Jay:

Seriously, Jam Master Jay? How am I supposed to interpret that?

So, what’s a teacher to do when each of these kids scores the same on the final? Swear vigorously? A final is as summative as it gets, there’s no retaking, getting more data, or otherwise talking it out. (I think that’s why they call it a “final.”)

You have to go back to your philosophy of teaching and learning and have a quiet walk-through-the-forest moment: Why did you give a final in the first place? Tradition? ERRZT wrong answer. Because your school requires it and has something called “finals week?” ERRZT only one strike left. Because you wanted a last chance to take some data about how the kids have pulled the whole thing together and retained knowledge from the beginning of the semester? DING! DING! WE HAVE A CHICKEN DINNER.

This final does not have to be a test, it’s whatever you and your kids do to sum things up, but it is summative. There’s no going back. You have to be so clear with the kids about how important it is that they accurately present themselves, but I’m sure they already understand that, having been indoctrinated in all of their other classes to fear and respect assessments as if they were McCarthy’s agents.

Say It With Me Now: Retention!

So, for me, the role of the summative assessment is actually to give me a larger picture of a standard I don’t explicitly grade: Retention.  I give a summative midterm and final in all of my classes, and it’s because I want the kids to know how well they do or don’t retain information. The larger SBG structure is designed to help them prepare, reassess, and otherwise learn to be actual people who think about what they don’t know. These pin-prick summatives are the bit of me that knows I have to get them ready for the testing aspect of college in a meanignful way.

My approach has always been to add the summative scores in as a separately weighted category ancillary to my behemoth category called “Standards.” Most often final grades are composed of 85% Standards, 7.5 % midterm, and 7.5% final.

Why the fractional precentages? I just don’t think it should be possible to get an A without being able to retain more than half of the material in some way. However, knowing the inherently flawed nature of a single-shot assessment, I have left the A- wide open for that kid that wants to work their butt off to get their standard’s scores through the roof.

Am I rewarding responsibility with a grade? Hell Yeah. Am I doing it by grading homework and “participation.” Hell No.