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Assessments: The Collateral Damage of SBG

April 27, 2013

Fair Warning: This post took a month to write. It’s long. It’s involved. It’s also a meditation on my entire year trying to implement a Standards-Based Grading (SBG) system and what that even means. But first, an introduction.

Why It’s Important to Think About Assessment & SBG: My classroom is a game that my students play. I set the rules by how I allow them to succeed or fail in my class. If I’ve done it right, then the rules I set should motivate genuine learning and reflect that knowledge in the form of a ‘grade’. In my experiences as an observer in ‘good’ classrooms and ‘bad’ classrooms, the most reliable way to measure this is through independent performance on consistent evaluative assessments balanced with frequent feedback in the form of formative assessments. So, I need my tests and quizzes to be the focus of the ‘game’ that is my classroom, and I need them to behave in such a way that my students find them motivating while I make sure they are an accurate reflection of student performance. And I need all of this to be transparent – the better we understand the rules of the game, the better we are at playing and winning the game. This is all much harder than it sounds.

I’ve been thinking a lot about assessment because I ended my last year unsatisfied with my assessments. I never thought anything was ‘broken’ or a complete disaster, but I never felt like my assessment and grading systems were operating as efficiently as they could be. I found myself constantly retooling my assessments in an effort to find a magical balance between how and when I presented my assessments, how I graded them, and then what me and my students did with those grades.

In looking around for resources, I found Standards-Based Grading (hereafter: SBG). I read Dan Meyer (and here). I read Shawn Cornally. I read Jason Buell. I read Sam Shah. I read Frank Noschese. If you haven’t read these, you should. Seriously. Like, take a break from this, go crazy in the world of SBG philosophy, then have a cup of coffee to let it all process, then come back and finish this post.

Reading all of these authors (and the many others I read but didn’t list) and reflecting on my own experiences in the classroom, I think everyone implements SBG slightly different. These differences can manifest in a lot of different ways – some people’s SBG system includes changes to homework and quizzes; some people make changes to their classroom structure & procedures; some people make changes to how they grade; some people make changes to how often they assess. I also think some differences have to do with external factors, such as whether they teach in a science classroom or a math classroom; that some are teaching middle school versus high school, some are teaching in classes with high-stakes testing pressures, and some are teaching advanced students (both in the sense of mathematical knowledge and in other student metrics such as notetaking and focus). The thing I found most interesting was the difference in length of some teachers lists of standards, as well as the level of cognitive demand for each standard. Some teachers have 100 highly-isolated standards, while some have 20-30 standards that involve synthesis and a high cognitive demand. This is what made me curious about assessments in the first place – if both of these teachers said they were implementing Standards-Based Grading, it was hard for me to believe they were assessing and grading the same way.

Despite all of the difference, there is one thing that every SBG teacher has in common: They separate their gradebook into separate standards. On the surface, this seems like a simple change that any teacher can make. However, I tried to trace the effects that this change had on my classroom and found it to be fundamental to the other monumental successes I’ve had this year. In other words, I imagined ‘What if the first change I made to my classroom was to separate my gradebook into standards – how would this affect other aspects of my classroom?”  I claim that this ‘simple’ gradebook change causes so much collateral damage that it forces you to fundamentally shift several aspects of your classroom, leading to all of the homework and classroom and grading and reassessment policies that I’ve read about on other blogs. Reading what others have written about SBG, I think we’re all finding ways to deal with the collateral damage that SBG has created.

So, what follows is what I’ve pieced together from how I handled this change to my classroom – the things I realized I needed to adjust and why I needed to adjust them. I think of them like dominoes falling on one another, and it all starts with…

Fundamental SBG Change: I decide I want to represent each standard separately in the gradebook.

The First Domino: I need to choose the standards I want to assess. This makes me reflect on my curriculum, but I immediately see that I need to start doing it at a more micro level. I am no longer content with thinking of my curriculum as a series of ‘units’ with a singular heading such as ‘Unit 3: Parallel Lines’. I need to understand the standards that compose each of my units, which means I need to start thinking about the types of problems and concepts my students need to understand and show proficiency in by the end of the unit. I’ve probably already done something like this – I have vocabulary and homework assignments and types of problems already organized in the units – but these are still just general ideas I have bouncing around in my head. I need to reorganize them into explicit, concrete, measurable and assessable standards.

The vocabulary and conceptual foundation is pretty straightforward for each unit, but then I look at all the problems we solve in a given unit. And I realize there is a such a variety of problems within any particular unit that it is almost unimaginable to turn each one into an assessable standard! This is my biggest criticism of textbooks – jumping around too frequently in terms of the types of problems they make available. I need to decide which types of problems are the most important, either because of their relevance in the rest of the curriculum or because of how well they illustrate how well a student understands a particular standard. And then I realize that I don’t know if I really care about all of these different types of problems – all of these special applications of parallel lines or how algebra magically appears in my unit on triangle congruency – maybe I just want to find the problems that are fundamental to this unit and figure out a way to assess them honestly and requiring some real cognitive legwork from my students.

Pre-SBG Example: I’m teaching a unit on matrices in Algebra II. Given 3 points in the coordinate plane, did you know you can use matrices and determinants to find the area of the triangle they form? I think that’s pretty awesome – my kids think its just okay. We spent a day on it towards the end of the unit as an excuse to continue practicing matrices and determinants. There was a homework assignment, then we moved on to something else. Do these problems demonstrate an application of the underlying concepts – matrices and determinants? Yes it does. Is it an application so specific that we’re never going to talk about it as the unit and year progresses? Yes it is. Am I tempted to include one question on my test to send the message “HEY! We spent a day on this in class and we had a homework assignment on it, so you better do it because I said it would be on the test!” Yah, I’d probably do this. But the real message it sends is “I use my tests to reinforce that you should be doing my homework for arbitrary reasons and to punish you when you don’t”

SBG forces me to see the dishonesty in the situation above and how out-of-place this problem is in my curriculum. It forces me to recognize that maybe the reason this lesson is unsatisfying every year is because I’m not doing it for the right reasons. It forces me to realize that if I’m going to do SBG, I either need to expand on this topic, or I need to ignore it completely. But SBG also makes me realize that if I ignore it completely, I need something to act as a ‘capstone’ to this unit. Something that we build up to. Maybe my colleague decides to continue to develop these problems and end the unit with a project of some kind, whereas I decide to show my students how matrices and determinants let computer graphics perform rotations and transformations in the coordinate plane. Both applications are interesting and allow each of us a bit of creativity in the curriculum.

Suddenly I’m examining my curriculum with a much closer lens. I’m dissecting units and removing bloat that I don’t need while also expanding certain problems to be the ‘big idea’ or ‘capstone’ of the unit (I’ve started calling these Synthesis Standards). My curriculum is becoming more concise and more coherent – the lines between where one unit ends and another begins starts to become blurred, since many of the skills build on each other. I realize that certain concepts can be rearranged and should be included in earlier units or maybe somewhere much later instead. As a consequence of this closer lens, I start to think about the assessments themselves. Since each standard is grades separately, I need to separate my standards on my assessments somehow. I chose to have each page as a separate standard, but I’ve also seen it where each problem on the assessment is a separate standard. I start to imagine the format and the types of problems that will be on the assessment. And then the second domino falls…

The Second Domino: I need to be extremely careful about the things I decide to assess and how I write my assessments because I can no longer include useless problems. In the past, I would prepare a ‘Parallel Lines Unit Test’, which would have a collection of problems that fell under the heading ‘These problems involve Parallel Lines”. Maybe I look through the notes and bellworks and homeworks and say “Oh yah – we did problems like this. And like this. And one like this… Oh, and we should have one like this too”. My test becomes a mismash of problems requiring various levels of cognitive demand. I include some ‘gimme’ problems at the beginning as well as some ‘extension’ problems at the end.

This is Retrospective Test Design – design based on things we’ve talked about and things students should do. Even if it’s a test I’ve used many times before, it was probably first designed Retrospectively. SBG Doesn’t Let Me Do This Anymore. I’m holding myself accountable to individual standards, not the holistic idea of a unit. So each question/page needs to be connected to a specific standard and I need to think carefully about what these questions should be, how many questions of a certain type I should ask, and whether or not it really measures what I want my students to know (procedural vs conceptual).

Since I’m including less problems and am being more explicit about targeting specific standards, my assessments become shorter. I can usually fit them on one page. Sometimes I find that I only need one problem to assess a particular standard – I just need to make sure that the problem is complex enough to encompass all of the procedural knowledge that I want to cover. Sometimes I need a mix of procedural questions and slightly open-ended conceptual questions (describe… explain… draw…). Finding the right balance in assessment questions is difficult – I’m still figuring it out. The results from an assessment should be clear – too many questions may blur how much a student really understands; too few questions doesn’t give me enough confidence in their abilities. Marzano talks about the ‘observed score’ vs the ‘true score’ of a test – the true score represents what a student actually knew on a test, while the observed score factors in things like luck, guessing, misreading directions, etc. The goal is to design assessments that make this gap as small as possible. I tell my students that their work on an assessment is like an argument – they’re saying “I know how to do this!” and I’m saying “I don’t believe you! Prove it!” The more correct answers, the better the explanation, the more work they show, the more consistent they are – the more likely I am to believe them.

So I started thinking about which standards I wanted to assess, which affects my curriculum. Then I started thinking about which questions to include in order to paint an accurate picture of understanding, which affects my assessment design. This means I need to make sure that I grade in a way that makes sure I am accurately representing how well a student understands these standards. And then the third domino falls:

The Third Domino: I realize that grading is fundamentally subjective.

Pre-SBG Example: I give a test that’s 4 pages. It includes items from various parts of the unit that I expect students to be able to do. It includes some very basic memorization-esque questions, a variety of basic application questions, and then some more complex questions. Then I decide how I want to assign points. I choose to do it in such a way that a student can’t get an A unless they answer the advanced questions; they can’t get a C unless they answer at least half of the basic application questions correctly; they will probably fail if they can’t answer the very basic questions correctly. ‘Explain’ /’Describe’ questions are tricky to grade in this way. I weigh each problem differently so I have an idea of where grades will fall depending on how students do on the test.

This process becomes even more muddled if I decide to assign partial credit. Maybe those advanced/complex problems become worth a ton of points because of all the partial credit involved, allowing students to receive a passing score even if they don’t actually get a single question completely correct. Maybe this is okay for some problems, maybe it isn’t for others. ‘Explain’ / ‘Describe’ questions are still a little tricky to grade.

So I start grading these tests. As I do it, I feel like the grades are ‘fair’ because the system for assigning points has been decided beforehand and will hopefully create a grade distribution that matches up with what I think the distribution should be. If a student were to ask me why they earned the score that they did, I could answer ‘because this problem was worth ____ points and you left out these steps, so you didn’t get these points’. Because of my careful planning, students tend to fall about where I expect them too – and if they don’t, I analyze the exam to see if there was a question that was poorly worded or if I need to adjust how I assign points.

Last year, the tests that I was ‘proud of’ were the ones where students grades tended to fall where I expected them too and the data I could gather was the most clear. My sense of pride had little to do with the test itself – it had to do with how well I decided to grade it. This is a strange thought.

The Third Domino (Repeated for emphasis): Grading is fundamentally subjective. Everything I’ve described above is fundamentally arbitrary – I was the one who decided how to assign points so it would match my opinions about where grades should fall based on which problems students should do. The point system exists purely to create the facade of an objective system between me and the grades I assign so that when a student asks me ‘Why didn’t I get a higher score?’, I can blame the system. This creates a disconnect for every person involved – the student’s grade is dependent on this system of grading, and I am a slave to implementing it properly. A shift is created for both of us – we are both trying to game the points system: my student is trying to do whatever it takes to earn those extra points, and I’m trying to do whatever it takes to make sure the points system is designed so it accurately rewards points. This is fundamentally dishonest.

So I make a decision: I fully embrace that grading is subjective and, instead of using grades as a barrier, I use grades as a method of feedback and transparency. This becomes my goal: every ‘grade’ on one of my assessments should act as a message from me to my students: you’ve mastered this, you get most of it, you still need work, or you have no idea. This has always been my goal with how I assign points in the past, but the narrowness of my assessments doesn’t let me hide behind points anymore. Instead, I start to create a holistic grading rubric – I choose to let the numbers 1-5 represent how well I believe a student understands a concept. I do this mostly out of the desire to be more transparent and to provide feedback, but also because I think about what my gradebook will look like. With every standard separated, I get more clarity of data. However, this clarity from separating the standards is useless unless I also have clarity in what my grades mean. This is something that a points system is designed to obscure, but that a feedback-based rubric is designed to embrace.

Now when I grade, I find myself trying to tease out how many errors are based on carelessness vs true conceptual misunderstanding vs problem-solving blocks vs a flawed foundation that is affecting the current topic. I try to decide how each of these factors impacts the type of feedback I want to give – some standards (especially foundational ones) leave no room for carelessness, while some standards leave a little room for flexibility depending on what exactly I’m trying to measure. If a student makes a small mistake at the beginning of the problem, I follow the mistake through the rest of the problem to see if they really understand the process and problem-solving techniques. Now the assessments I’m proud of are the ones that have questions that really pull at the conceptual underpinnings of my curriculum – that have the right balance between process, explanation, and application so that I can get a truly clear picture of how well a student understands a concept.

And so, After making one ‘tiny’ change to my gradebook, I found myself reevaluating my curriculum, assessments, and grading criteria. All in service of fulfilling my goal of accurately representing how well my students are doing standard-by-standard.

The Next 50 Dominoes: At this point, I’m now adjusting other aspects of my classroom in order to deal with the other adjustments I’ve already made to my curriculum, assessments, and grading. These adjustments appear in the form of specific grading rubrics, frequency of assessments, how to do reassessments, how to assign/grade homework, how to write assessments, how I assign projects, etc. These are all things I’ve thought about, and while I like a lot of what I do, I’m not convinced it’s the best for every teacher who wants to try SBG. My recommendations about these things might work for me because I teach sophomore geometry during a year when there’s pressure to pass the high-stakes exam; there might be better ones for someone teaching middle-school science. So, I won’t say too much more in this post, but maybe I’ll share some of these things individually in their own posts. But for right now, my current SBG implementation looks closest to the one written by Jesse Wilcox called Holding Ourselves to a Higher  Standard.

Anyway – I think this post is long enough and I want to be done with it. I think the point of this post is: I believe that SBG, at its fundamental level, is only changing your gradebook so you grade individual standards. However, this change forces you to face realities about a traditional classroom that you can’t ignore and that you are forced to react to. In reacting to these things, we all create our own slightly different SBG systems to address our curriculum, our content, and our student demographics. And what I wrote above are my own reactions to what I needed to change from last year to this year. It was incredibly difficult and unstable at the beginning of the year because I hadn’t yet realized just how much of my classroom I had accidentally changed. Another way to say it is: I changed the rules of the game and I was getting used to the rules at the same time my students were, which can be frustrating. However, now that the years almost over, spoiler alert: my assessments are running at max efficiency and I can’t imagine running my class any other way.

Thanks for reading. Geez this is long.

Other Readings that Influenced This Post:

The Last Section of this post by Michael Pershan on Productive Struggle

The Unintended Consequences of a 0-100 Grading System

Classroom Assessment & Grading That Works by Marzano

You Can’t Really Reassess An Individual Skill

Students Are Gaming Your System

A Conversation about Grading from Jason Buell (The Bottom Few Paragraphs)

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37 Comments
  1. andrewdavidmitchell permalink

    Awesome overview of SBG! You’ve given me plenty to think about as I plan for next year.

    I’d been using SBG for several years but transitioned back to a traditional grading system for the last two years. This was a terrible mistake and I can’t wait to go back.

  2. mrdardy permalink

    Mathy

    I suspect from the language you use at the beginning that you are familiar with Dan Kennedy’s essay/speech called Assessing True Academic Success. If not, track it down here (http://mail.baylorschool.org/~dkennedy/assessment)
    So many thoughts on an early Saturday – I’ll try to write a couple coherently…

    I often construct my tests with a small set of low point value problems and then longer, more involved higher point value ones. My thinking has been along hte lines of ‘If it takes more work and time, it deserves more points AND if it takes more work I can more clearly differentiate partial credit’ However, your writing has me thinking that this is backwards. That the bulk of the points awarded ought to be for showing competence and the more complex tasks – those that might only be completed accurately by the best students – should be a smaller weight on the test. I don’t know if these thoughts are coming directly from your writing or if they are a hodgepdge of SBG related thoughts I’ve had. I also don’t know if it is an accurate representation of what you think. If not, I apologize and would love to hear more. I also have had the habit of thinking along the lines of quiz = less weight = more focused on skills while tests = more weight = blending of past skills + more complex, weightier (in terms of thought processing AND effect on grades). Do I have this backward? Am I creating more stress and getting in the way of seeing kids true ability (thanks, Marzano) to think/process/create? I’m worried about this.
    I’m torn about your example regarding matrix area application. Maybe I am being a pollyanna about this, but I want to think in terms of rewarding attention and participation when I ask a graded question about something that has happened in class discussion. In fact, I will often tinker with a test after a class review to adjust for such conversations. I understand why you phrased it in terms of punishment if you did not pay attention. Maybe this is just one of those half-empty/half-full dichotomies, but I think that the way we think about this in terms of grading is pretty important.

    Thanks SO much for waking my mind up on a chilly Saturday morning

    • mrdardy,

      Thanks for the link to the Assessing True Academic Success link – I haven’t read it, but it’s on my to-read list now.

      To respond to some of your points: the act of constructing a test is different depending on what the purpose of the test is. The purpose of my tests is to measure content knowledge as accurately as possible, which is why the skills are isolated and why I spend so much time thinking about what makes a good question – one that allows a student to demonstrate understanding as well as measure consistency in procedural fluency.

      One thing that is important to me is that I have an idea of what the test will look like _before_ I even begin teaching the unit. This is important so that I don’t adjust the standards that I’m holding my students to, especially if I want to hold *every* student to the same standard. Its all too tempting to say ‘well, they don’t understand this portion of the lesson, so if I put it on the test they’ll just fail it’. I don’t do this – when I design a test, I’m making a promise to myself and a commitment to my students that these are the things that are important and that everyone should understand.

      So, if I have that matrix area question on my exam, it’s because its a concept that I’m expecting all of my students to understand. If I found myself discussing it with an extra emphasis during a review, then this should tell me that I need to postpone this question because not enough of my students understand it. It’s true that adjusting the test to emphasize that question might reward the students who were participating, but this isn’t the purpose of my tests and (even worse) its an adjustment of the standards I’ve set for my students. If I put a question on my tests, I’m sending the message that I want *every* student to understand this question and be able to do it, not just the ones who paid attention during the review.

      Which is also why I use the matrix area example – it’s not really a concept that I care if every student understands. There are better concepts under the umbrella of matrix operations and applications that I care out.

  3. Your post describes exactly the same sequence of thoughts I’ve had in SBG implementation. I have been employing SBG for 2 years. My school requires use of a traditional online gradebook. my current “domino” is around establishing a system when the skills a that important categorized by the consequential grade that would result. For example: to pass algebra, you must be proficient in 1) graphing & writing equations of lines & 2) Solving linear equations, To get a C you must also show proficiency with all of the procedural standards, etc… I am still playing with this in my mind. I am not sure if the repercussions of this would shift focus back to earning grades, away from learning skills…The reason that I am experimenting with this idea is because I don’t believe all of the standards should be weighted equally. Some standards are fundamental to the core “spirit” of the class while becoming adept at other standards are not as critical. Of course, this too is subjective. It breaks my heart when a student passes algebra, possessing some important skills, but not being able to solve an equation. I don’t know, as I type this, I am back at the thoughts when I started SBG, what does a grade mean? The averaging of grades really undermines the system….

    • Lisa,

      I absolutely agree that not all standards are weighted equally. Part of the way I solve this problem is by deciding that some standards are *foundational* in other standards. Which means: even if a student demonstrates a conceptual understanding, if they don’t have the basic skills necessary to solve the problem, they are still limited to very low scores on my assessments. Integer Operations is a good example of this for me – I have an Integer Operations skill that I assess, but also a Distance Formula skill that I assess and a Slope skill that I assess. If a student makes consistent integer mistakes, even if they use the formulas correctly, they will continue to flounder on those assessments. One of the goals of SBG is accurate data – if we’re not holding students accountable to earlier standards that are essential for later skills, then SBG isn’t providing one of its primary benefits.

      Also, check out Kelly O’Shea’s posts on SBG and how she has A & B objectives. This might help your thought process too: http://kellyoshea.wordpress.com/2011/08/02/conjunctive-standards-based-grading/

  4. ” I fully embrace that grading is subjective”
    This is an awesome realization, and awesome attitude towards the realization. Common opponents of alternative assessments are typically critical of its “subjective” nature — failing to realize that grading is fundamentally subjective. There is a lot of research that supports this, and hopefully it will eventually become an embraced fact.

    “I believe that SBG, at its fundamental level, is only changing your gradebook so you grade individual standards. However, this change forces you to face realities about a traditional classroom that you can’t ignore and that you are forced to react to.”
    There are some good evidence that changing assessment practices can be an engine to educational reform. Incidentally, I believe reporting student achievement is larger than just the gradebook. But that’s probably a conversation for another time.

    I am looking forward to reading more about your progress and reflections with SBG!

  5. scott permalink

    I’m at a place where I am strongly considering maing the leap to some form of SBG. As I will be the only teacher at my school doing this, I have been trying to have answers for students, parents and administration before making the jump. I’ve started the process of breaking my curriculum up into measurable standards, and have begun playing with assessments, all in anticipation of next school year. My vice principal has expressed interest, but wants to know more about what I am planning before letting me (as such a process would be difficult to evaluate using the grading program we are mandated to use for ease of reports, progress and otherwise).

    I’ve read many of the bloggers you have listed, and I’m quickly becoming a different kind of teacher, but I wish I wasn’t the only person at my school reading, considering and doing these things.

    I would love to see an example of wht your previous assessments looked like and how they look now (blank and graded) to see the kinds of changes you’ve made

    Among my professional learning committee here, I have a friend who did ‘SBG” previously. His school has returned to traditional grading, and he happily has done so as well. His biggest complaint was that SBG didn’t encourage the students to retain knowledge long-term. He said that once they clicked off a standard, it was quickly forgotten and they moved onto the next. Have you noticed such an attitude and if so, how have you dealt with it?

    Big fan and thank you for your time

    Scott

    • James permalink

      I dipped my toe into SBG last year with some students that had previously failed the first semester of Algebra 1. My experience was similar to your friends. Kids quickly figured out the system, learned skills long enough to check them off the list, then promptly dumped it. I have some of those students again now, and they have clearly retained very little. I probably did something wrong.

    • Hi Scott & James,

      I can’t say I’ve had this issue regarding ‘checking off standards’ and moving on. If anything, this is the issue I had with a traditional grading system where unit tests felt like an ‘end of learning’. So, once a student passed a test, they pushed all of it aside to ‘make room’ for the new stuff, not realizing that it was all related.

      One thing I’ve really taken away from the SBG literature which is important, but subtle, is that there are no tests/quizzes – there are just *assessments*. I think this is powerful and purposeful – a test tends to designate an ‘end of unit’, while a quiz tends to designate a ‘middle of unit’. Both of them have a relationship within this thing called a ‘unit’, which students are aware of. Without these terms and these landmarks, students are never really aware of which ‘unit’ they are in – in fact, this mode of assessment purposefully blurs the line between where one unit ends and another begins, which keeps students on their toes and continually responsible for all of the knowledge over the course of the year.

      This is also something I’ve embraced – I assess frequently so as to remind students that these skills keep appearing over and over again. I also assess in the middle of units and, frankly, whenever my formative assessments tell me that my students seem to understand what we’re doing and are ready to show me. I also don’t review for my assessments – they’re just a day out of the week that they’re assessed – which further emphasizes the idea of a separated ‘units’ being blurred.

      So, maybe that helps. There may be other answers outside the realm of assessment that could be contributing to retention issues, but those are all just ‘here’s what good teaching and classroom culture looks like’ pieces of advice. And there are better people to give that advice than me.

  6. This echos my own first experience with full-blown SBG so well it’s creepy.

  7. Malcolm permalink

    Thank you so much for all of these long, thoughtful posts about SBG. I love reading them all.

    I moved from 11th grade Geometry (at that school, Alg II and Geometry were reversed) to teaching 8th grade math, and found that the system I’d previously used – which was almost exactly Dan Meyer’s – is no longer effective at all. He has weekly quizzes with each topic appearing four times and perfection required twice for mastery. What I’ve discovered is that, at the time scale of 8th graders, 4 assessments doesn’t work (at least for me; I’m sure someone else has huge success). It’s really weird, it’s like the 4th assessment is so far away that they feel like they don’t need to worry about the first, but when the 4th comes around, it’s been so long since the first that they’ve forgotten the material. I found I was devoting more and more time to review just to try and keep everyone engaged with the process, which made them bored and squished the new content so much that no one mastered that… turned into a really vicious cycle.

    I’m planning on spending the summer seriously altering the way I do this. Your system sounds really promising; giving fewer chances, but making the concept of mastery a little deeper.

    This means I really liked the part of this post about how everyone does this differently, and how it has huge consequences for the other systems in your class but that not everyone will solve those problems the same way – this is a philosophy that has just as many implementations as the standard grading system. I’m not backing down from SBG, but I need to shift a lot of the implementation.

    Great food for thought.

    • Hi Malcolm,

      Thanks for the comment – I especially appreciate that you shared your experience with the Dan Meyer weekly quizzes, multiple times for mastery system. This is actually how I started my year – very frequent assessments, intended to be much shorter, and requiring multiple chances for mastery.

      It didn’t work for me for 2 reasons: I kept wanting to include problems that required longer than 3-4 minutes to solve, and my standards for ‘mastery’ were incredibly high. This led to frustrated students and a frustrated teacher – I wasn’t writing useful assessments for what I wanted my students to be able to do.

      What I have on my blog is where my system is now, based mostly on the adjustments I made to the Dan Meyer system of SBG. Weekly assessments don’t work for me. Shortened assessments don’t work. Complex questions do work. Very high standards for mastery do work. I’ve had to find the right balance for myself and my students.

  8. Marshall permalink

    The trap is that through narrowing the focus of standards we as teachers have a tendency to narrow our scope and expectations. It’s a tricky balancing act and I hope you blog about more as your dominoes fall.

  9. Reblogged this on dr.adenozine and commented:
    A interesting read on using Standards Based Grading. As a teaching in an IB school I assess against standards (achievement levels) all the time, but reading this gave me greater insight into the process.

  10. Hi. Firstly, I’d like to thank you far a great read! I have had some dissatisfaction with my personal brand of SBG, and this post has given me a lot of insight in to where that dissatisfaction stems (mainly in my attitude, and the attitude I present to students, of tests).

    I do have a question about ‘Domino 3′. After embracing the subjectivity of assessment and running with it, how do you manage to compare students between different classes? If each teacher is creating their own assessments and marking them with (honest) subjectivity, then that would obviously be reflected in a different set of marks for each class. However, in your pre-SBG example of an assessment (where you have chosen the weight given to each problem based on difficulty), the assessment is still subjective but is at least standardised between different groups.

    I guess my real question is: is there a(n easy) way to maintain the honesty and transparency of your subjective grading technique whilst staying consistent between teachers and classes?

    • Phil,

      I really like your question about maintaining equity among teachers and grading styles, especially when each teacher is creating new problems for reassessments.

      I don’t have a good answer to this because there’s only one other section of Geometry at my school that isn’t taught by me, and me and that teacher are pretty well in-tune. Here are some things we did:

      We agree on a formal description about what each level of mastery means – what kinds of mistakes the student makes, as well as what that grade communicates from us to the student. Each level is essentially a paragraph in language from the student’s perspective and from the teacher’s perspective. Some levels are easier to discuss than others – for example, we decided that a 5 was perfect (no mistakes), and a 2 was missing certain types of problems no matter what the mistakes. For the ones in between, a rule of thumb we follow is: if it takes us longer than 10 seconds to decide a grade, default to the *lower* grade (after all, if we still can’t decide, that means the student didn’t do a great job convincing us that they understand the material). We also spent some time at the beginning of the year grading assessments side-by-side and asking ‘what would you do with this one?’, or ‘I was going to give this – what do you think?’. This helped make sure we were on the same wavelength.

      One thing Marzano talks about is having both teachers grade each others tests, then averaging the scores that both teachers gave. His research suggests that this increases the accuracy of the scaled grading system – or, if it doesn’t, makes it obvious that the two teachers need to have a conversation about their standard for mastery.

      But, even with those strategies, I don’t know the answer to that question. It’s just a question I’ll always have in the back of my head – how am I making sure that my colleague and I are grading with the same standards of mastery? And I think that question will always lead to us communicating about our grades and our assessments, which is a good thing.

  11. Isaac permalink

    It’s interesting to hear your experiences. I teach in New Zealand where we run a standards based system (NCEA). While I have some concerns about the ‘narrowing’ of teaching that can occur (you just have to guard yourself against it), I believe that the standards-based system is ultimately much fairer. It means that if all of the students in my class have learnt what I intended them to learn, they can all achieve the standard, rather than the bottom ones always being scaled down to fail. This is empowering for those students, but also for me as a teacher, as it poses the constant challenge of ‘How many can I get to pass?’ The reflection and changes in practice that result from this constant drive to help more students to achieve are invaluable.

  12. James permalink

    I am still bumfuzzled by some of the logistics of what comes AFTER the assessments. What do you do when 30-50% of your class has “mastered” a concept, 10-25% clearly don’t get it, and the rest are somewhere in between? How do you manage these groups? The same thing we do with them now (throw them under the bus)?

    What do you do at the end of the year when you look at a a kid who has mastered 80% of the topics, but has not adequately learned the other 20%? Do they “pass?” At what point do you NOT pass a student out of the class?

    Also, just read this Grant Wiggins blog post today: http://grantwiggins.wordpress.com/2013/04/20/the-break-things-into-bits-mistake-we-have-been-making-in-education-for-centuries-happening-today-with-standards/

    Seems almost antithetical to SBG, although he doesn’t really say that. But a lot of what he says makes sense to me, also.

    • James,

      Regarding the student with 80% of the material mastered and 20% not: yes, I would pass him. He would earn a B. But, even better, I can send a letter to his teacher next year saying ‘Just so you know, this student is weak in these areas and strong in these areas. This may give you something to work on for next year’.

      I read the Wiggins article too. I don’t have a good response other than I’m trying to figure this out too. Some concept lists I’ve read break the standards down into minute segments, yet Shawn Cornally recommends not having basic skills as an assessable standard at all – instead, to assess a higher-order skill that requires those basic skills as a foundation (I read this somewhere, but now can’t find the source, so I may be making this up… but I don’t think so). There’s a balance somewhere that SBGers have to careful of.

  13. AMEN. I think this is what the authors of The Teaching Gap mean when they suggest we all become “scholars of our own teaching.” Using grades as a measurement, rather than a reward, means confronting what exactly we are measuring, and what those measurements mean. It is a pre-condition for inquiring into my students’ learning. It didn’t force me to become a better teacher, but it sure made it difficult for me to ignore the areas for improvement that rapidly became visible.

  14. This post has been on my “to read” pile for months and I finally have. It is really interesting how you wrote something so long and thoughtful without getting into the gory details of how the actual grades are calculated or how you handle reassessments. It is rare to read something on SBG where the author has taken one step back away from those details.

  15. Thank you for writing this piece! I don’t know how I missed it back in April, but it is now at the top of the list of posts I send to would-be-SBG-ers when I’m asked for advice and resources.

  16. Reblogged this on Mrs. Laird's Science Blog and commented:
    Food for thought on SBG

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