Standards-Based Grading: Variations on a Theme

Let us take a journey into three different classrooms: Each one set in a different discipline, each one serving its students in different ways. These instructors have swilled deeply of the SBG kool-aid, but have come up with wildly different flavors.

First, some stipulations:

  1. Grades should reflect learning and nothing else. (i.e.: not behavior, nor organization . . .)
  2. Later assessments should outweigh earlier assessments to indicate growth.
  3. Practice should be safe, ungraded, experimental, and feedback heavy. (i.e. Homework is not graded)
  4. “Skills” and low-level concepts should be emphasized within the context of richer issues.

Aside: Hopefully, someday, grading will be viewed as archaic as corporal punishment, but we are not there yet. As far as I’ve seen, SBG is the common ground between the world of grading and the world of learning. Perhaps it is a liminal stage.

Let’s meet our teachers:

1. Steven Hocking: Math

Reassessment Policy: Students may not initiate reassessments. Concepts are reassessed at the teacher’s discretion through weekly quizzes, projects, observations in class, etc. They are reassessed frequently, and the students are unaware of the schedule. This creates a nearly random system of rewards that students find impossible to resist.

Grade Calculation: Mr. Hocking uses a Power Law calculation, wherein previous grades are reduced in weight and most recent grades are increased in weight. These weighted grades are then averaged. The more assessments given, the less credence earlier assessments receive.

Homework Policy: Homework is given in copious piles. Assignments must be turned in, but the amount attempted is left up to the students. Hocking requires students to indicate — with a red question mark — where they would like specific feedback. Students may not take an assessment without turning in a homework assignment. Hocking spends a lot of time writing specific feedback to the problems that students turn in.

Lesson Design: Dr. Hocking’s lessons are succinct. He does not leave much room for fluff, and he has yet to do a get-to-know-you activity on the first day (and probably never will).

Example: To teach the necessity of definite integration, Hocking asked the students to manage a piece of farmland for a (mock) season. They identified their land using Google Earth, and then began to work out the economics. It soon became obvious that knowing the exact area of their irregular piece of land would be necessary; Hocking then introduced the concept of area with integrals.

Other Notes: Hocking teaches quantitative courses. His students take reassessments seriously, and are often crestfallen when they are not assessed over something that they have recently been working on. They must wait and retain that knowledge for when the content does return on a teacher-initiated assessment.

Students claim that Mr. Hocking cares about how much they learn, but he is very busy, as, in any given semester, Mr. Hocking may have 100 unique students.

2. A. Tickus Fynsh: English

Reassessment Policy: Both student and teacher may initiate reassessments at their fancy. Mr. Fynsh’s room varies from¬† flooded to streaming with students attempting to demonstrate new knowledge. Mr. Fynsh repeats concepts regularly and scrutinizes every answer for evidence of any standard. Some students receive back quizzes with 10 altered grades delineated, while some may have only responded with enough information to receive a single altered grade.

Grade Calculation: Fynsh uses only the most recent score for each standard. He then averages these most recents to calculate his students’ final marks. He keeps track of every single reassessment attempt in a log so students can identify the concepts they had the most difficult time mastering as retention-assessing, summative exams approach.

Homework Policy: Mr. Fynsh rarely sees his students’ homework. He provides a fair amount for his students to do as practice, and expects them to do as much as they need. He only interacts with his students’ practice when they ask him for help. This is Fynsh’s attempt at preparing them for the responsibility of college.

Lesson Design: Fynsh’s lessons are designed to attack high level thinking skills only. He believes that memorization and practice are best done individually and would be a waste of the large group’s time. Lessons often begin with simple questions that allow the students freedom in their choice of methods for coming to conclusions. Students are often excused from class in small groups to go find other sources for their arguments (e.g.: local museums, university libraries, interviews, etc . . .)

Example: Fynsh asked, “How can we know if the United States’ welfare system is working?” Students furiously answered and found many different avenues to explore this question. Fynsh assigned readings that concerned poverty from great literature. He allowed a group of students to interview Department of Human Services officials off campus but during class time.

Other Notes: A. Tickus teaches courses heavily based on readings. Students often wind up with D’s and F’s after the first round of assessments. Students test the waters to see if they can pass just by listening in class and quickly find that this is impossible. Students claim that Fynsh is unorganized and highly idealistic; they also claim that by the end of the course they have never learned more.

3. Haiden Frox: Phys. Ed.

Reassessment Policy: In order to be reassessed, which takes a lot of Frox’s time, students must prove that they have spent time outside of class working on a skill. This proof is often observational, as Frox also manages the weight room. Students may also bring in a note from parents concerning home workouts. Haiden also presents biological information concerning health and exercise science that students may remediate verbally or in writing at times of their choosing with evidence.

Grade Calculation: Mr. Frox uses the most recent method of scoring, but he requires students to assess at the same level twice (or twice higher) to change a grade. His standards span concepts including cardiovascular health, diet, workout regimens, injury rehabilitation, and many more. Students are expected to improve their mile times and weight lifting over the semester, as well as create appropriate workouts to meet their fitness goals.

Homework Policy: Homework is light and mostly in the form of readings. Students are assessed physically and are expected to implement the axioms of a healthy lifestyle, as will be evident by their improved vitals standards.

Lesson Design: Frox models living a healthy lifestyle. Lessons often center around a physical measurement that can indicate the health of an individual, and how that measurement can be greater tuned.

Example: While teaching about the heart and the stress it endures while it pumps, Mr. Frox set out to explain interval training and reverse-interval training. Students wore heart monitors and performed alternating long stints of intense aerobic activity followed by a small amount of mild stretching. Their heart rates were graphed over time. Frox then had the students do yoga for extended periods of time and alternate with short bursts of intense aerobic activity. The students then discussed how they felt during the workouts and what the heart rate monitor told them.

Other Notes: The students do not welcome Mr. Frox’s approach to gym class. They are wary of anything but playing games, and they do not feel that gym should be academic. After a while most warm to the style of setting personal goals and being graded based on how close they achieve them.They appreciate being able to fail a few times before learning and still not be shouldered with poor grades.

Feedback is given openly and frequently during class.

What’s It All Mean, Basil?

It means that there are many ways to implement SBG, it is a philosophy not a set of rules. Some teachers do not give students the power over their own reassessments, some do; how can this be reconciled? Students know that either way progress will be recorded and used in their final evaluation.

Some teachers ignore all previous data about a standard, and some use it to calculate a standard’s grade. This is ok, as long as the most recent information is used more heavily, as it should be indicating the growth we all claim to want from our students.

Homework and lesson design all seem to have common threads. Homework is important, but only because the students realize that it helps them learn, not because it will pad their grade. Lessons are student-centered and thick with motivation.

Who do you most align with? Personally, I’m a Fynsh man.