A tale of two gradebooks – my SBG journey continues

I realized this morning that I could look back at the assignments from my PowerSchool gradebook from a year ago and see the distribution of assignments I had by the end of the semester:
Screen Shot 2012-12-12 at 8.32.14 AM

My grades were category based – 5% class-work, 10% homework completion, 10% portfolio, 60% unit tests, and 15% quizzes. This comprised 80% of the semester grade, and was the grade that students saw for the majority of the semester. A semester exam at the end made up the remaining 20%.

While I did enter some information about the homework assignments, my grade was just a reflection of how they completed it relative to the effort I expected them to make while working on it. No penalty for being wrong on problems, but a cumulative penalty developed over time for students tending not to turn it in. This, however, was essentially a behavior grade, and not an indication of what they were actually learning. The homework was the most frequent way for students to get feedback, and it did help students improve in what they were learning, but the completion grade was definitely not a measure of what they were learning at all. There were six quizzes that fit into my reassessment system. Not important enough to matter, I realize now with 20/20 hindsight.

The entire Standards-based-grading community shoots me a look saying ‘we told you so’, but only momentarily and without even a hint of snark. They know I am on their side now.

Here is a screen shot of the assignments in my grade-book as of this morning:
Screen Shot 2012-12-12 at 8.35.40 AM

There is a clear indication of what my students have been working on here. With the exception of the portfolio, a student can look at this (and the descriptions I’ve included for each standard) and have a pretty good idea of what they did and didn’t understand over the course of the semester. They know what they should be working on before the semester exam next week. The parents can get a pretty good idea of what they are looking at as well. I knew making the change to standards based grading (SBG) made sense, but there have been so many additional reasons I am happy to have made the change that I really don’t want to go back to the old system.

I’ll do more of a post-game analysis of my SBG implementation in PowerSchool soon. I will be making changes and enhancing parts that I like about what I have done so far. I have to first make it through the busy time ahead of marking exams, submitting comments, and getting my life ready for the extended winter break that is peeking its beautiful head over the piles of reassessments on my desk. It is really satisfying to see that my students have weathered the transition to SBG beautifully. Their grades really do emphasize the positive aspects of learning that a pure assignments & points system blurs without thinking twice.

Why SBG is blowing my mind right now.

I am buzzing right now about my decision to move to Standards Based Grading for this year. The first unit of Calculus was spent doing a quick review of linear functions and characteristics of other functions, and then explored the ideas of limits, instantaneous rate of change, and the area under curves – some of the big ideas in Calculus. One of my standards reads “I can find the limit of a function in indeterminate form at a point using graphical or numerical methods.”

A student had been marked proficient on BlueHarvest on four out of the five, but the limit one held her back. After some conversations in class and a couple assessments on the idea, she still hadn’t really shown that she understood the process of figuring out a limit this way. She had shown that she understood that the function was undefined on the quiz, but wasn’t sure how to go about finding the value.

We have since moved on in class to evaluating limits algebraically using limit rules, and something must have clicked. This is what she sent me this morning:
[wpvideo 5FSp5JDn]

Getting things like this that have a clear explanation of ideas (on top of production value) is amazing – it’s the students choosing a way to demonstrate that they understand something! I love it – I have given students opportunities to show me that they understand things in the past through quiz retakes and one-on-one interviews about concepts, but it never quite took off until this year when their grade is actually assessed through standards, not Quiz 1, Exam 1.

I also asked a student about their proficiency on this standard:

I can determine the perimeter and area of complex figures made up of rectangles/ triangles/ circles/ and sections of circles.

I received this:
…followed by an explanation of how to find the area of the figure. Where did she get this problem? She made it up.

I am in the process right now of grading unit exams that students took earlier in the week, and found that the philosophy of these exams under SBG has changed substantially. I no longer have to worry about putting on a problem that is difficult and penalizing students for not making progress on it – as long as the problem assesses the standards in some way, any other work or insight I get into their understanding in what they try is a bonus. I don’t have to worry about partial credit – I can give students feedback in words and comments, not points.

One last anecdote – a student had pretty much shown me she was proficient on all of the Algebra 2 standards, and we had a pretty extensive conversation through BlueHarvest discussing the details and her demonstrating her algebraic skills. I was waiting until the exam to mark her proficient since I wanted to see how student performance on the exam was different from performance beforehand. I called time on the exam, and she started tearing up.

I told her this exam wasn’t worth the tears – she wanted to do well, and was worried that she hadn’t shown what she was capable of doing. I told her this was just another opportunity to show me that she was proficient – a longer opportunity than others – but another one nonetheless. If she messed up a concept on the test from stress, she could demonstrate it again later. She calmed down and left with a smile on her face.

Oh, and I should add that her test is looking fantastic.

I still have students that are struggling. I still have students that haven’t gone above and beyond to demonstrate proficiency, and that I have to bug in order to figure out what they know. The fact that SBG has allowed some students to really shine and use their talents, relaxed others in the face of assessment anxiety, and has kept other things constant, convinces me that this is a really good thing, well worth the investment of time. I know I’m just preaching to the SBG crowd as I say this, but it feels good to see the payback coming so quickly after the beginning of the year.

Standards Based Grading – All in, for the new year

I’ve written previously about wanting to be part of the Standards Based Grading crowd. My quiz policy was based in the idea – my quizzes cover skills only and in isolation, the idea being that if students could show proficiency on the quizzes, then I would know for sure that they had really developed those skills. If they had demonstrated proficiency, but then failed on tests to perform, it was an indication that the problem was seeing all the skills in one place. This is the “I get it in class, but on tests I mess it up” mantra that I’ve heard ever since I first started teaching. My belief has always been that the first clause of that sentence is never as true as the student thinks it is. The quiz grades have typically shown that to be the case.

The thing I haven’t been able to get at is why I can’t get my students to retake quizzes as I thought it compelled them to do. I told them they can get 100%. I reminded them that they just needed to look at each quiz, recognize what they got wrong, and work with me on those specific skills to improve. Then, when they were ready, they could retake and get a better score. Sometimes they do it, but they are always missing either one of those three things. They would retake without looking at the quiz. They would take it knowing what they got wrong, but never asked me to go over the things they didn’t get. There were exceptions, but curiously not enough to impress me.

After really committing to reshaping the quiz grade as a real SBG grade for a unit last year, I saw the differences pretty clearly in how the students went about this aspect of their grade. The standards I expected students to demonstrate were clearly listed in the grade book (fine, Powerschool). The students knew what they needed to work on, and were directly linked to examples and short videos I had created to help them with those specific skills. Class time was spent working around developing those skills, along with some bigger picture ideas to explore separately from the routine skills the standards were centered around for the unit, which was on exponential and logarithmic functions. I was impressed in this short time with how changing this small (15%) portion of the grade changed the overall attitude my students had while they were working with me. It was one step closer to the Montessori style classroom I have always wanted to have while working within the structure of a more traditional program – students walk in knowing what they need to work on, and they get to work. My role becomes more to push them in the way I think they can and need to be pushed. Some need to work on skills, others need to attack context problems and the challenging ‘why is this so’ threads that are usually all teacher driven, but don’t need to be in many cases.

I did some thinking over the last couple of weeks on how I wanted to do things differently, so I wrote up a new grading policy and posted it online. I had renamed my quiz grade to be ‘Learning Standards’, bumped up the percentage by 10% (to 25%), and reduced the homework and classwork components to 5% each, with a portfolio at 10%, and tests to 55%.  In sharing my new grading policy with people through Twitter, there were some key comments that really guided my thinking.

Kelly O’Shea pointed out the fact that even with the change, the standards were not a huge part of the grade. Even by cutting classwork and homework into the standards, it still wasn’t good enough:

A few other people made similar suggestions. John Burk probably put the final nail in the SBG-lite version I thought was safe with this comment:

One problem for getting buy in on SBG is that if it isn’t a big part of the grade, and there are still so many non-sbg things, they might not really understand the rationale for SBG.

If I really believe in the power for Standards Based Grading to transform how learning happens in my classroom, I need to demonstrate its importance and commit to it.

The final result? My grades for Algebra 2/Advanced Algebra, Geometry, Calculus 12, and Physics are going to be 90% Learning Standards, 10% portfolio. I am going to give unit tests, but they are opportunities to demonstrate proficiency on the learning standards. In the case of my AP Calculus students, the grades are still 60% unit tests, 30% standards, and 10% portfolio, primarily because I still will be giving tests that are similar to the AP exam with multiple choice, and free response sections. I also had my first class last year with 100% fives, and am admittedly a bit nervous tweaking what worked last year. That said, I am accepting that this, too, could become a thing of the past.

I am a bit nervous, but that’s mostly because change isn’t always easy. From a teaching perspective, the idea feels right, but it’s not what I’m used to doing. The students sounded pretty cool with it on the first days of class when I introduced the idea though, and that is a major positive. I’ll keep writing as things proceed and my implementation develops – it feels great to know I’m not alone.

I really appreciate all of the kind words and honest feedback from the people that challenged me to think this through and go all in. If I can do nothing else, I’ll pay that advice forward. Cool?