I've used Standards Based Grading, or SBG, with most of my classes for the past five years. It transformed the way I think about planning, assessment, classroom activities...and pretty much everything else around my teaching practice. I have a difficult time imagining what would happen if I had to go back. I've written a lot about it this year - here are some of the posts:
Scaling up SBG for the New Year
Standards Based Grading and Leveling Up
The How and Why of Standards Based Grading @ Learning 2.0
Too Many Reassessments, Just in Time for Summer
As I wrote in that last post, I still wrestle with the details. I'm fully invested in the philosophy though. I am glad to have my administrators supportive in having me adapt it to work within the more traditional system. I've also had some great conversations with colleagues who are excited by the concept, but that wonder how to make it work in their courses.
Here's the rundown of how it went this year.
- Students really bought into the system. The most common responses on student surveys on what I needed to keep involved the grade being defined by standards and the reassessment system. I found students were often the system's best advocates when other teachers and parents had questions, which made communication much easier.
- The system was the gateway to many very positive conversations with students around learning, improvement, and the role of feedback. Conversations were around understanding concepts and applying them, not asking for points. Many students would finish a reassessment and tell me that they their grade should stay the same, but that they would keep trying. Other students would try and argue their way to a higher score, but by using the vocabulary I use to define my standard descriptors (linked here). They understood that mistakes are informative, not punitive. Transplanting this understanding to students in my new school was a major success of the year.
- I developed a better understanding of what I'm looking for at each level on my 5 - 10 scale. Part of this came from being at a new school and needing to articulate this to students, parents, and administrators. The SBG and Leveling up project (linked above) helped refine my definitions of what distinguishes a 9 from a 10, or a 6 from a 7.
What needs work:
- I had way too many reassessments. Full stop. I wrote about this in my post Too Many Reassessments, Just in Time for Summer and am exhausted just thinking about doing it again. There are a couple elements of this to unpack. One is that my credit system allows for reassessments to occur more frequently than I believe deep learning can really take place. I'm thinking about making it so students are locked out of reassessing on a standard for a set period of time, at least when going for a score of 8 or above where the goal is transfer of skills and flexibility of application. The other thing I am considering is limiting students to a single reassessment per week, or day, or some other interval. I have some time to decide on this, which is good, because both require a rewrite of my online signup tool, WeinbergCloud.
- Long term retention was still not where it needs to be. I wrote about this already in my post about my IB Mathematics Year 1 course. As I have taught more and more in this system, I have believed ever more strongly that clear communication about what grades signify about a student matters. A lot. Moving from quarters to semester grades is one part of improving this, a change that my administrator team made for this coming year, but a lot of it still sits with me. I need to spiral, I need to reassess on old standards, and still hold students accountable for older material.
- Communicating the role of semester exams was a major challenge for me this year. In a small school, I found it was easy to communicate with individual students and parents about the role of semester exams. I based much of my outreach on what I understood about these exams and the role of learning standards grades throughout the year. A standards based grade book breaks down the entire topic into bite sized pieces, which makes it easier both to communicate strengths and weaknesses, and for students and teachers to decide what is the best next step. Semester exams are opportunities to put all of these pieces together and assess a students's ability to decide which standards apply in a given problem. Another way of looking at it is a soccer practice versus a soccer game mentality.
Ultimately, I do want students to be successful across the breath of the content on which a course is based. Semester exams serve as one way to measure that progress in the bigger picture of an entire course, rather than a unit. This also serves as a third scale on which to consider assessment in my course. Quizzes assess a standard, exams assess a unit of standards (with a few older standards thrown in), and semester exams assess mastery of a portion of the course. That different scale is why the 80% quarter grade, 20% exam grade proportions that I've followed for seven years is entirely reasonable.
A student that aces all of the standards with a 100 but gets a 50 on the final ends up with a 90. This student receives with the same semester grade as someone that has a 90 up until the final, and gets a 90 on the final. I'm fine with this parity in grades. I would have very different conversations with those two students before the next semester of mathematics in their plans.
The main challenge I found was that students and parents often looked at that final exam grade in isolation from, not together with, the rest of the scores in the grade book. The parent of the first student (100 than 50) that asks me to explain that disparity is certainly justified in doing so. Where I fell short was communicating the reality that in a standards based system, grades usually drop after a semester exam. It's a fundamentally different brand of assessment.
I'll also point out that the report card presented a semester of assessment in table form as quarter 1 grade, quarter 2 grade, exam grade, and then semester grade. This artificially shows the exam grade as perhaps being more consequential to the grade than it actually is. This isn't in my realm of influence, so I'll stop talking about it. The bottom line is that I need to to a better job of communicating these realities to everyone involved.
I'm glad to be starting another year soon and to continue to make this system do good things for students. Cycle forward.
This was my third time around teaching the first year of the IB mathematics SL sequence. It was different from my previous two iterations given that this was not an SL/HL combined class. This meant that I had more time available to do explorations, problem solving sessions, and in-class discussions of the internal assessment (also called the exploration). I had two sections of the class with fourteen and twenty students respectively.
I continued to use standards based grading for this course. You can find my standards (which define the curricular content for my year one course) at this link:
IB Mathematics SL Year 1 - Course Standards
- My model of splitting the 80 - 85 minute block into twenty minute blocks of time works well. I can plan what happens in those sub-blocks, and try as hard as I can to keep students doing something for as much of those as I can. The first block is a warm-up, some discussion, check in about homework or whatever, and then usually some quick instruction before the next block, which often involves an exploration activity. Third is summary of explorations or the preceding activities, example problems, and then a fourth of me circulating and helping students work.
- Buffer days, which I threw in as opportunities for students to work on problems, ask questions, and play catch up, were a big hit. I did little more on these days than give optional sets of problems and float around to groups of students. Whenever I tried to just go over something quick on these days, those lessons quickly expanded to fill more time than intended. It took a lot of discipline to instead address issues as they came up.
- I successfully did three writing assignments in preparation for the internal assessment, which students will begin writing officially at the beginning of year two. Each one focused on a different one of the criteria, and was given at the end of a unit. Giving students opportunities to write, and get feedback on their writing, was useful both for planning purposes and for starting the conversation around bad habits now.
I had rolling deadlines for these assignments, which students submitted as Google Docs. I would go through a set of submissions for a class, give feedback to those that made progress, and gentle reminders to those that hadn't. The final grade that went into PowerSchool was whatever grade students had earned by the end of the quarter.
The principle I applied here (and one to which I have subscribed more fervently with each year of teaching) is that my most valuable currency in the classroom is feedback. Those that waited to get started in earnest with these didn't get the same amount of feedback as students that started early, and the quality of their work suffered dramatically. I'm glad I could have the conversations I had with students now so that I might have a chance in changing their behavior before their actual IA is due.
An important point - although I did comment on different elements of the rubric, most of my feedback was on the criterion that titled the assignment. For example, in my feedback I occasionally referenced reflection and mathematical presentation in the communication assignment. I gave the most detailed feedback for communication, and graded solely on that criterion.
These were the assignments:
- I budgeted some of my additional instruction time for explicit calculator instruction. I've argued previously about the limitations of graphing calculators compared to Geogebra, Desmos, and other tools that have substantially better user experiences. The reality, however, is that these calculators are what students can access during exams. Without some level of fluency accessing the features, they would be unable to solve some problems. I wrote about this in my review of the course last year. This time was well spent, as students were not tripped up by questions that could only be solved numerically or graphically.
- Students saw many past paper questions, and seem to have some familiarity with the style of questions that are asked.
What needs work:
- I've come to the conclusion that preemptive advice is ineffective. "Don't forget to [...]" or "You need to be extremely careful when you [...]" is what I'm talking about. It isn't useful for students that don't need the reminder. It doesn't help the students that don't have a context for what you are telling them not to do, not having solved problems on their own. I have found it to be much more effective to address those mistakes after students get burned by them. Some of my success here comes from my students subscribing to a growth mindset, which is something I push pretty hard from the beginning. Standards based grading helps a lot here too.
- I desperately need a better way to encourage longer retention of knowledge, particularly in the context of a two year IB course. I'll comment more on this in a later post, but standards based grading and the quarter system combined were factors working against this effort. I did some haphazard spaced repetition of topics on assessments in the form of longer form section two questions. The fact that I was doing this did not incentivize enough students to regularly review. I also wonder if my conflicted beliefs on fluency versus understanding of process play a role as well.
- Students consistently have a lot of questions about rounding, reporting answers, and follow through in using those answers in the context of IB grading. The rules are explicitly stated in the mark schemes for questions - answers should be reported exactly or to three significant figures unless otherwise noted. The questions students repeatedly have relate to multiple part questions. For example, if a student does a calculation in part (a), reports it to three significant figures, and then uses the exact answer to answer part (b), might that result in a wrong answer according to the mark scheme? What if the student uses the three significant figure reported answer in a subsequent part?
I did a lot of research in the OCC forum and reading past papers to try to fully understand the spirit of what IB tries to do. I'd like to believe that IB sides with students that are doing the mathematics correctly. I am not confident in my ability to explain what the IB believes on this, which means my students are uncertain too. This bothers me a lot.
- Students still struggle to remember the nuances of the different command terms during assessments. They also will do large amounts of complex calculations and algebraic work in site of seeing that a question is only two or three marks. There is clearly more work to do on that, though I expect that will improve as we move into year two material because, well, it usually does. I wish there was a way to start the self-reflection process earlier.
- Students struggle to write about mathematics. They also struggle with the reality that there is no way to make it go faster or do it at the last minute without the quality suffering. I still believe that the way you get better is by writing more and getting feedback, and that's the main reason I'm glad I made the changes I did regarding the exploration components. That said, students know how to write filler paragraphs, and I call them out on filler every single time.
- We spent a full day brainstorming and thinking about possible topics for individual explorations. Surveying the students, only four of them are certain about their topics. The rest have asked for additional guidance, which I am still figuring out how to provide over the summer. I think this process of finding viable topics remains difficult for students.
I'll be following these students to year two. We have the rest of probability to do first thing when we get back, which I'll combine with some dedicated class time devoted toward the exploration. I like pushing the probability and Calculus to year two, as these topics are, by definition, plagued by uncertainty. It's an interesting context in which to work with students in their final year of high school.