Standards Based Grading & Unit Tests

I am gearing up for another year, and am sitting in my new classroom deciding the little details that need to be figured out now that it is the “later” that I knew would come eventually. Last year was the first time I used SBG to assess my students. One year in, I understand things much better than when I first introduced the concept to my students. By the end of the year, they were pretty enthusiastic about the system and appreciated that I had made the change.

I wonder now about the role of unit tests. Students did not get an individual grade for a test at the end of a unit – instead just a series of adjustments to their proficiency levels for the different standards of the related unit, and other units if there were questions that assessed them. While there were times for students to reassess during class and before and after school, a full period devoted to this purpose helped in a few unique ways that I really appreciate:

  • All students reassessing at the same time means no issues with scheduling time for retakes.
  • Students that have already demonstrated their ability to work independently to apply content standards are given an opportunity to do so in the context of all of the standards of the unit. They need to decide which standards apply in a given situation, which is a higher level rung of cognitive demand. This is why students that perform well on a unit exam usually move up to a 4 or 5 for the related standards.
  • Students that miss a full period assessment due to illness, school trips, etc. know that they must find another time to assess on the standards in order to raise their mastery level. It changes the conversation from ‘you missed the test, so here’s a zero’ to ‘you missed an opportunity to raise your mastery level, so your mastery levels are staying right where they are while we move on to new topics.’

I also like the unintended connection to the software term unit testing in which the different components of a piece of software are checked to see that they function independently and in concert with each other. This is what we are interested in seeing through reassessment, no?

My question to the blogosphere is to fill in the holes of my understanding here. What are the other reasons to have unit exams? Or should I get rid of them altogether and just have more scheduled extended times to reassess consistently, regardless of progress throughout the content of the semester?

8 thoughts on “Standards Based Grading & Unit Tests

  1. Evan, I think your second bullet (“Students… need to decide which standards apply in a given situation, which is a higher level rung of cognitive demand”) is the most compelling reason to include unit tests (or some form of cumulative and/or multiple-standards assessments).

    I started using SBG two years ago in Algebra 1. Tweaked it last year in Algebra 1 and implemented it (rather poorly, I would say) in AP Calculus last year during the second semester. I need to flesh out my ideas in a blog post of my own (I typically write in order to discover what I think, not just express what I think), but I can share now that I’m thrilled at the impact SBG has had in my classroom for students’ awareness of their progress and motivation to improve by targeting specific weaknesses. However, the way I’ve done SBG has completely fragmented my Algebra 1 course, and I’m certain that my students are being shortchanged on the synthesis side of things. It sounds like the presence of unit tests in your classroom protects against some of what I’m struggling with, so my vote would be to keep them (or trade them for something with the same benefits).

    My approach moving forward with SBG will look something like this:

    1. Spend time reflecting on and improving my course outline, particularly in terms of establishing three to five bigger themes (“units,” I suppose) into which the smaller standards fall (or maybe I just mean “clusters” here in the sense used in CCSSM

    2. Give students a performance assessment at the end of each unit that requires students “to apply content standards… in the context of all of the standards of the unit” rather than only in isolation

    3. Improve the quality of my individual standard assessments and consider grouping/mixing some of them together in the course of a larger unit so students have to wrestle with multiple ideas (and their connections) on more of my assessments

    We’ll see what I can accomplish in the time I have, but I’m hopeful that I can enact these changes this year for Algebra 1, and at least shift the rest of my courses (Algebra 2 and Precalculus with Trigonometry) a little bit in the direction of SBG.

    1. Hi Michael,

      Thanks for your comments. I agree completely that SBG has a tremendous effect in raising the involvement of students in the day-to-day operations of the class. The fragmentation part is a tricky one – I’d like to find out more about that aspect of your SBG experience. Do you think it has to do with standards that are too grainy/specific, or is it an assessment issue?

      Your approach moving forward sounds really good . Keep me posted when you get that blog post together.


  2. Hi Evan,

    I’ve been using SBG since Feb. 2011. I use it in all of my math classes – Alg 1, Geometry, Alg 2. I also still have unit tests for 2 reasons.

    1. As mentioned above – to synthesize information. It’s too easy in SBG to not put together the beginning and end of a unit. Or, even stuff from other units. Synthesizing is an important skill that students need to have.

    2. At my school we talk about “fail-up”. We want our students to know that failure is ok, but we don’t stay in our failure, we work towards the “up” part. Yet, there are times when failure ISN’T ok. For example, do you want your retirement fund manager to fail with your life’s investments? Is it ok for bridge engineers to fail when designing bridges we will all drive on? Failure is for formative times – when we can redo. But then there is the “buck stops here” moment that hopefully our failures will have taught us how to be successful. IMO, a unit test is for after they have failed & reassessed on SBG quizzes (that’s how I do it in my class) and now they are prepared for the moment when failure would actually be bad. Formative = fail up, summative = success due to learning from the failures on the formative.

    1. Complete agreement on the synthesis part. I love the term fail up too. Exactly the right message I’m shooting for.

      I have a question on the ‘buck stops here’ part, as that conflicts with my understanding of SBG. Do you use a separate grade for unit tests, or is it still completely standards based?

      Part of my hesitation going into SBG was that feeling that you mentioned: sometimes there are deadlines, times when failure is not ok, etc. The more I thought about it though, I don’t know think we need school to be that way. I couldn’t reconcile the disconnect between telling my students that not everyone learns at the same rate (justifying SBG) and also requiring that they learn something by a specific time. We have a final exam for the semester. Isn’t that good enough for the retention part?

      1. Hi Evan,
        I do have a separate part of my gradebook for Unit tests. You could say I’m not fully SBG since it’s not all of my grading and I’m ok with that. This year I’m allowing students to also take unit tests at different rates. There will be deadlines, just to keep them on track and so someone doesn’t have 5 unit tests to take in the week before finals! ha! To me, that is also real life. My boss gives me work with deadlines. Its up to me to spread it out, do it quickly, or procrastinate. But, the deadline will happen and I need to be ready. IMO, that’s also more of what they will experience in college.

        I try to do a combo of SBG and learning at various paces with the reality that life has deadlines and tests. To me, better for them to learn some of those hard truths while a freshman in high school when there is time to recover and parents & teachers to support (not rescue) the child through their decisions.

  3. I agree. I am toying with SBG this year (although prob’ly should decide pretty quickly!!) and am wondering if there should be different categories for skills, applications, and integrations.

    1. Go for it, Rebecca. I’m glad I did. I took the advice of some others who told me that going in half-way is a recipe for the system not working. You can’t say you value retakes and SBG and then only make it 30% of the grade (as I did).

      I am also putting in standards for semester long skills that don’t fit neatly into a unit. Some are related to computational thinking. Others relate to making a video or screencast that clearly demonstrates how to do a mathematical task. The beauty of SBG is that it forces you to identify what you value and clearly define it as a standard, rather than tossing in an assignment for five points ‘just because’.

  4. I also agree with the synthesis reason for unit tests. I used objectives based grading for the first time last year. I use a 0,1,2 scale for testing/grading learning objectives. There are “basic level” objectives worth 70% of the grade, and “high level” objectives worth 15% of the grade. The remaining 15% is for synthesis kinds of work (i.e., unit tests, projects, lab reports, lab practicums, etc.) and these are graded with traditional points based methodologies.

    Last year I allowed students to have a second assessment when they felt ready to take it, but I think most students just procrastinated. So this coming year I will set a limit of two weeks following the first assessment to improve upon it. Also they will not be allowed to take an assessment of a higher level objective until they have mastered the basic level objectives. So this provides class time for some students to have second assessments of basic level objectives while others are testing for high level objectives.

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