2016 - 2017 Year In Review: Standards Based Grading

Overview

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.

What worked:

  • 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.

Conclusion

I'm glad to be starting another year soon and to continue to make this system do good things for students. Cycle forward.

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