Category Archives: Blogging

On why standards-based grading isn’t enough to transform a classroom

Mediocre Physics Teacher has an interesting question for the SBG crowd:

The worst epithet an SBG teacher can hurl at another teacher seems to be “Your grading is nothing but a game for points.” I don’t understand how replacing 70s, 80s, and 90’s with collections of 2’s, 3’s, and 4’s changes the motivation of college-bound students from achievement toward learning. I don’t understand how it’s not points.

There are two issues to address here: the grading system itself and the level of motivation of students.

Is it possible to do SBG where its still just about points? Sure, if your assessments of learning suck like mine often do (did?). For me, implementing an SBG grading system isn’t what transforms what I do. It’s mostly a new structure to my gradebook.  I could theoretically take every assignment that I gave last year and shove it into a standards-based category in my gradebook to spit it back to kids this year. This wouldn’t be a shift in how I teach at all. Kids would still complete the same worksheets and study guides that I used to give out,  but they would just find weird subscores written on each one for each standard that the worksheet met in the gradebook.  They would play the same games of copying their neighbors work without putting much thought into the assignments, because no real thought was needed for some of the stuff I used to grade for points.  Its not about points, its about crappy, weak assessments.

What  needs to happen to transform your classroom is a very careful weeding out of what finds its way into your gradebook.  If you are still giving out worksheets and study guides like I do, recognize that they are practice activities and shouldn’t be in the gradebook at all.  If a kid doesn’t complete it, that’s their missed chance to learn the material, or perhaps they’ve found another way to learn about it through some other resource. There’s this thing called the Internet these days that has way better learning activities than half of the stuff I throw at my kids. These sorts of practice activities, like homework, webquests, and study guides don’t need to be graded.

Next, kids need to be doing lots of formative assessment before they hit anything that is going to become a permanent fixture in their gradebook. For me, this takes the form of student blogs. After the practice activities are over and they have some new learning to show off, my kids head to their blogs to tell each other about it.  Posts on each student’s blog reflect their current understanding of a topic. If that understanding changes, then another post is in order or corrections can be made to the original post. Its not set in stone: everything is editable. If a student wants to “reassess,” they write another post. We do a few quizzes and tests, but since the best test questions are of the free response variety anyway, why not let students write all the time whenever they want? Throw in some spicy, fun web 2.0 tools and some students will produce artifacts for you like crazy. I keep tabs on students’ blogs and write comments and a “grade” that I think represents their current level of understanding of the different standards. This “grade” is very fluid and represents formative assessment. I put it into our school’s online gradebook for parents and students to see, but they know that it can fluctuate a lot before the end of a marking period.

There is some summative assessment (a.k.a. big tests) that happens towards the end of each quarter in the form of a midterm or final exam, but those are not nearly as important to the students’ final grades as are their efforts to explain their learning in their own words.

Back now to the second issue raised in the quote above: motivation. If a student’s grade is the sum of all their points, they will try for more points to add to the total. If a students grade is the sum of all standards where each and every content and skill standard matters for the final grade, they will try to provide evidence that they have learned each skill.  I highly recommend abandoning (or subverting) grading programs that average a student’s numerical scores. Each and every standard should be considered separately.  That way the goal of each student is to demonstrate mastery of each standard so that no unmet standard pulls down their grade due to lack of effort to understand that topic.  It works that way about 80% of the time with my students, with an unfortunate few unwilling to put forth the effort (samjshah has a great rant about that here).

In summary, get your kids used to the terms “practice,” “formative assessment,” and “summative assessment.” Do lots of the first, keep track of the second in a flexible sort of system, and only sprinkle in the last when you feel its really needed. If you want to do this in an SBG system, so much the better, because then you can more easily keep track of where students are at on specific learning standards and learn what you need to do as an instructor to help them grasp the important ideas of your discipline.

Some observations on SBAR in my science classes

Although I haven’t yet given it a catchy name like my previous Binary Grading grading system, my new standards-based system of assessment and reporting is working well. We are midway through the second quarter of school and I have enough experience with the system to step back and make a few observations about it. As with everything involving high school students, these observations could change tomorrow, but here’s what jumps out at me so far:

Volatility of grades: Students and I were surprised at some of the major grade swings that are possible in an SBAR system. I’ve had a few swing wildly between B’s and D’s and back, which usually doesn’t happen under a point-hoarding system in which assignments contribute to an average value that is hard to swing once enough points are built up. In my system, though, the nine major standards are reported independently of each other and all count so that poor performance in one can negate good performance in another. I like it, though, because it keeps kids on their toes. Some had begun to be complacent about their grades but a few forced reassessments woke them up to the reality that they may be called upon to continue to demonstrate mastery of each standard.

The role of the course content standard (Standard 1): When I was choosing my standards for this year’s pilot SBAR project, I chose to have 9 standards that were identical for each of my 4 preps because there are some skills that I wanted all my students to learn and demonstrate in every science class that they take. The only major difference between the biology, anatomy, chemistry, and AP Biology standards is in Standard 1, which is subdivided into specific topic areas unique to each course.  The intent was to 1) make a system that didn’t drive my students and I bonkers with 4 separate sets of standards and 2) deemphasize the content-related grade in favor of the skill-related grade. It is working quite nicely, in my opinion. Skills like analyzing research articles, experimental design, and interpreting experimental data are much more important in determining the overall grade than whether a student knows the difference between osmosis and diffusion. I’m happy with that.

The role of the 8 skill-related standards: The skill-based standards were really written for me, and not the students. I recognized some deficiencies in my instruction and basically tried to force myself to make changes by creating a grading system that demands that I give students the opportunity to assess skills as well as content. So far I am doing okay with this, but I am still more content-driven than I would like. More student-designed labs are needed in most of my classes, for example.

Death of death by testing: My tests and quizzes can be tough, given the subject matter I teach and I often see low percentage scores on some of the harder topics’ assessments. Regardless of whose fault it is, in a points system a low test score needs to be “fixed” by curving, throwing it out, or by some other fudging method so that the kid’s grade isn’t completely hosed. I used to curve or tweak point values so that some tests were not worth as many points, but that always bugged me, especially when I thought that I’d done a fine job teaching that particular topic. Now though, my tests and quizzes are just additional pieces of evidence to add to the mix. I integrate percentage scores from content-specific tests into the 4 point scale in a way that rewards the high achievers but doesn’t completely destroy the low-scoring kids. Its has worked well for me to have kids who score in the 90-100% range get 4’s, 80-90% get 3.5’s, 70-80% get 3’s, 60-70% get 2.5’s, 50-60% get 2’s, and below 50% get 1.5’s. I’m pretty satisfied with this part of the system as well, since the only students who are really nailed by tests are those who don’t show up to take them.

GoogleDocs rock the SBAR: All my record keeping is Google-ified. Student blogs are collected into my Reader, in which they are organized by class period. Evaluation of their blogs and other assessments is recorded in their own private Google spreadsheet with conditional formatting to show 4’s (blue), 3’s (green), 2’s (orange), and 1’s (red). Loving it! Its truly the best part of the whole grade system switch. The spreadsheet is shared with the student (view only, of course) and with parents as needed. I leave comments along with each assessment so that students have some guidance should they choose to reassess a particular standard. Sure it was a pain to set up over a hundred spreadsheets at the beginning of the year, but its paid off.

The gradebook shows what they know: Yeah, that was kind of the whole point. But it works. Students and I can glance at their Standard 1 sheet and point out which content areas they struggle with. We can look at their main gradesheet and point out which skills they need to spend more time on. As a communication tool, the SBAR gradesheet is vastly superior to the school’s online gradebook. Even though I report similar numerical data in both places, the constraints of the online gradebook and the freedom of expression (color coding, written feedback, smileys ; )  in the Google gradesheet combine to make the gradesheet much more useful and fun to use.

Future tweaks: I need to look closely at how the system is being implemented in the 4 different preps and make sure I’m providing enough chances at assessments for the different standards. Looking at student gradesheets is really assessing myself in a lot of ways because if there are major gaps in the standards that are being addressed, that’s really my problem, not theirs. Biology is working wonderfully, as is Anatomy, probably because I spend the most mental energy trying to reform those classes. Chemistry has a lot fewer assessments than I would like to see in the gradesheets and hasn’t met as many different standards as I think they should.  Mostly we’ve hammered the lab principles and procedures standard (Standard 3) really well since we do a lot of textbook labs in chem.  AP Biology is another beast altogether, because in some ways I think that everything we do in that class is formative assessment and rarely finds its way into the gradesheet.  My tendency with AP Bio is to use a lot of informal assessment (discussions with students) so we don’t stop and take quizzes and tests very often. This makes for a very empty gradesheet, and I’m not sure whether that is a bad thing or not. In a sense, the real summative assessment for that class doesn’t happen until May when the AP Exam rolls around. Also, having only 3 students in that class this year lends itself to a lot of one-on-one discussion, so this may not be the best year to judge the implementation of SBAR in that class.

What really hasn’t worked: I’m not happy with the way that the midterm exam results are reported to students. All my classes took midterm exams right after 1st quarter as summative assessments of their learning to that point. Their scores do not show up in their color-coded gradesheets since they are not part of the standards-based grade but instead only show up in the school’s online gradebook in the semester test slot. That’s the only way I found to report the grade, but I have a very strong sense that students don’t really understand the role of that midterm grade because it is buried in a part of their online gradebook that they don’t usually look at until after they’ve taken semester final exams.  I’ve got a bad feeling that students won’t truly realize that the midterm has the weight it does (7.5% of their semester grade) until they see how it affects their final grade. If my experience so far proves true, you can tell students about your system all you want, but until they see how it affects their grade, they don’t really get it. I’m sure, however, that describing my SBAR system to students and parents will be so much better next year now that I’ve got some concrete examples of how it works to show students.

Using blogs for student and teacher accountability

Everyone has their panties in a knot these days over accountability.  Much of the arguments hinge on test results and data interpretation but there’s a better way to approach the issue.  I’ll argue here that there is an easy way to make both students and teachers accountable for the learning that happens in our classrooms: publish everything you do online. Make it attractive, make it easily accessible, and make it an accurate reflection of what happens in your classroom.

One observation that I’ve made over the last couple days as we’ve had parent conferences/open house at my school is that having student blogs has totally changed how I communicate student progress to parents.  When I get the oft-asked question “why does my kid have a (insert letter grade here) in your class?” I can point that parent to their student’s blog and to the link to all the other student blogs just in case the parent wants to see what their student is doing compared to other students.  Is each blog private and secure? Nope, but it doesn’t have to be.  What if my students are making cool stuff that others can learn from? Why hide it.

Besides, the actual assessments of the blog posts are shared with students via a private GoogleDoc spreadsheet. If needed, I can give the parent access to their kid’s spreadsheet for another layer of accountability for the student (and myself). Nobody outside the student-parent-teacher triangle needs to see my evaluation and comments, but they might benefit from seeing the learning artifacts created, so that part is open and visible.

The student blogs are starting to be a good outreach to the community as well.  At least a couple parents have passed on the list of student blogs to others at their workplace who were interested in what we were doing around here.  Someday, perhaps, we’ll expand our reach to a regional/national/global audience with the students interacting with the readers of their blogs, but we are not there yet.

In the meantime, the activities that we do go deeper because students know that they probably will be posting a record of their work. For example, in a couple classes this week, students pulled out their cell phones and took pictures of labs they were working on. The pictures will enhance their final learning artifacts on their blogs, especially for my anatomy students studying for their histology exam from the pictures.

Can my students pass a standardized test that you give them? Maybe. But that doesn’t tell us anything, really. Look at their blogs, though, and you might have a better idea of what’s going on in their head. All we need to do now is find a way to scale up the process to the building, district, and state levels, but who knows how that would work.  Best to keep accountability measures local where they actually mean something besides more “data.”  I do know that some of my seniors are starting to figure out that the colleges they are applying to might be watching their blogs at some point, and I’ll be darned if that isn’t the best sort of accountability ever.

Student blogs of the week 9/19/10

This is the second installment of my “student blogs of the week.”  What follows is a hand-picked set of my student’s blog posts that I think are great examples of the learning that is happening in my classes this past week.  I’ve chosen them for their content, style, and the tools they use.

This weeks anatomy and physiology posts worth viewing are from Nikki who fought with GoogleDocs and won. She created posts on directional terms and homeostasis which show how easy it is to share GoogleDocs through a blog platform (once you get GoogleDocs up and running). I think I’ve convinced her to skip creating documents in Word and go straight for GoogleDocs next time.

Several excellent biology posts were created this week including this one by Ali, who discusses the properties of water using a combination of text, Sliderocket, and Wordle.  Another interesting water properties-related post from Kelsea included this PhotoShow that she made from images she captured and annotated using Jing. Tyler and Seth both tackle the water properties content with some Xtranormal dialogs worth seeing.

Chemistry students got positively self-reflective about their week in their latest blog posts including great ones from Kiel and Isaac.  Andre, one of our foreign exchange students, got tired of fighting with his Blogger account and was willing to try hosting his blog on our local MacServer. You can see his excellent reflective post here.

So far I’ve been very impressed with how easy it is to determine if a student is learning something by reading their blog posts. Sure, some students are still at the stage of typing definitions into web2.0 tools and making artifacts that don’t speak too much to their understanding, but I’ve seen a progression in some already who can move past the definitions of terms to the broader concepts that I want them to focus on. That’s where the whole standards-based grading system shines: kids that are stuck on definitions at first can come around later to produce artifacts that show deeper understanding once they achieve it without a permanent penalty to their grade.

As always, feel free to comment on these and any other of my students’ blogs, they will surely appreciate it.

Student blogs of the week 9/12/10

Some of you have asked for examples of student work as I roll out my standards-based portfolio/blog system for assessment this year. I’ll give you a few cherry-picked examples in a “blog-of-the-week” format, but also provide the links to all my students’ blogs so you can get a picture of where we are overall.

In anatomy and physiology, we are finishing an orientation to the human body with discussion of levels of organization, medical terminology (directional terms, in this case), and homeostasis as the major content standards. Sarah’s and Stephanie’s blogs have some helpful visuals embedded in their posts.  I hope to see more visuals like these happening soon from more students.

In biology, we are focusing on the basic chemistry that effects living systems, including the special properties of water. Michael put together an outstanding prezi on water properties and Makayla did a great job of explaining some of her results from the exploratory lab that we did early in the week. Audie wins a last minute spot for the first use of Glogster this year (he learned to be a pro at it last year, if you are wondering).  Since I didn’t choose blogs of the week last week, I’ll throw in a mention for Kandace, one of our pioneer Xtranormal users in the class.

Chemistry students started the year with a self-designed mixture separation lab which they described on their blogs to meet Standard 3 (understand the principles behind the techniques learned in lab).  Katrina and Drew are two of the many students who did a nice job summarizing what they did in the lab.

I’ll try to keep up some sort of blog-of-the-week nominations on a regular basis, although as more students catch on to what we are trying to achieve in my classes, I may be overwhelmed with awesome blog posts- what a great problem to have! So far we are on track to have just that happen.

If you want to get a feel for what all the student blogs look like and maybe encourage some students who haven’t been mentioned here yet, you can find the links to this year’s student blogs here or on my page for parents and families.

Has the blog post replaced the worksheet?

I find myself in a weird in-between sort of place. You know the one, where you are trying to implement a major shift in how you operate your classes but are effectively trying to not wear yourself out by reinventing everything you do. On the one hand I have a planbook that has scripts for lessons for my four preps that sure would be easy to follow for yet another year. But I also have a completely revamped assessment system based on standards and learning targets that demands that I find opportunities for students to meet the standards.

My compromise between the old and the new is to still assign some of the good-old activities (read that as worksheets, study guides, etc.) but to not give credit at all for their completion. Instead, I’m aiming higher and expecting students to earn grades in my class by using those lower-level activities as starting points for blog posts, or as we’ve started calling them in class, artifacts.

Artifacts is a term that I stole from my teacher ed. days when I had to put together a nasty, large (paper!) portfolio binder to prove how I met the teacher ed. standards even though I was doing an end-around the system via an alternative certification program. The teaching standards were specific so I could create “artifacts” to show that I met each standard.

We’ve got standards in my classes, too, so I’m having the kids create artifacts as well. They’ve set up their own blogs on Blogger and WordPress. We’re now in the process of turning simple blog posts into artifacts by learning to use some of the web 2.0 tools to embed media in our blogs to get beyond the limits of text-only posts.

So far I’m loving the blog-to-prove-you-know-it scheme. Student blog posts show up in my Reader and I evaluate them for the standards that each post is designed to address, including communication, self-reflection, and use of technology standards.  Not every student is on board with the system just yet, and certainly parents have had a few questions about the way that the standards-based system works, but overall I’ve received a lot of positive feedback from students.  I might even make a few teacher converts once I have some more experience with this whole standards-based thing.

So has the blog post replaced the worksheet in my classes? For the most part, yes, but there is obviously some value in helping students have a good solid grasp of basic concepts before asking them to write a post or create media showing what they know.  Some of the good-old activities are still good for that.

Off and running…

Among my New Year’s resolutions was the one about starting a blog, so here goes.  I plan to use this blog to scribble down thoughts about great ideas from my PLN: the wonderful people I follow on Twitter and my colleagues at La Junta High School.  Hopefully something useful will arise in the reflecting and commenting that will take place here.