Assessment and Grades

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This quote from Dean Shareski came across my Twitter feed yesterday just as I was archiving some of my favorite examples of student portfolios:

shareskionachievementChallenge accepted.

First off, I’ll state that even portfolios are a weak form of proving “achievement.” The real kind of achievement that we should be aiming for as teachers will be only evident in the lives of our students once they’ve left our buildings. But that sort of thing is about as immeasurable as it gets and is unlikely to be used by anyone other than teachers to prove that we’re doing our jobs.

How do we demonstrate that kids are learning in our classes? One route is obvious: give your kids a test that everyone takes and see how they do in comparison to everyone else. This seems to be the go-to choice for most educators these days, willing or not, given the corporate takeover of student assessment. The problem with a lot of these tests, though, is that they are usually one-time, shot-in-the-dark maybe-you-were-feeling-bad-that-day assessments that really don’t capture what a kid was able to learn and create over the 9 months that they were in your classroom.

That’s where portfolios can demonstrate achievement far better than tests, no matter how rigorous or authentic we try to make our exams. With a well-built student portfolio, educators can look for evidence of what they think is important by requiring students to provide evidence of those outcomes. Do you value collaboration in your classes? Then make a spot in your student portfolios where kids provide evidence of being able to collaborate. Do you value good communication skills? Include a portfolio page about communication. The structure of the portfolio defines what you hope kids will achieve while in your classes. It can include test scores, but a good portfolio is much more than test scores.

It might be clear by now that I’m in favor of creating the structure of the portfolio for the student. There are arguments against that, I’m sure, but if I am going to be held accountable for what my kids are learning, then I’m at least going to provide them some standards against which to measure themselves. For me that means using standards-based grading and portfolio templates for students to fill with evidence for each standard.

As for the portfolios themselves, there are plenty of tools out there for creating digital portfolios, but some have too much reliance upon the teacher (they upload everything, student does nothing) and some have no structure to them (“Here’s this thing I did in March”). I think a good portfolio tool or platform should have the following functionality:

    1. A blank portfolio can be delivered to the student with a built-in, standards-based structure designed by the teacher.
    2. Each portfolio should be continually updated and upgraded by the student as the school year progresses and they learn new content and skills.
    3. Students should be doing all the work of collecting their best work into the portfolio and defending why their work meets or exceeds the standards for the course.
    4. The portfolio should be easily accessible by both teacher and student from school and from home.
    5. The portfolio needs to have a variety of options for sharing with other students, educators, and community members who have a stake in particular students’ performances.
    6. Students should be able to customize the appearance of their portfolio to suit their tastes in graphics, design, and layout.

I’ve been having my students create Google Site portfolios for two years now, primarily because I can create template Google Sites that are populated with web pages for each standard that I want students to provide evidence for. At the beginning of each school year, students log into their school Google accounts, find my template site for their course in Google Sites, and then make a copy of it as their new portfolio. They then spend some time learning the ropes of Google Sites, if they don’t know them already, and customize their sites a bit with new graphics, fonts, and color schemes as they see fit.

The rest of the school year is spent engaging in learning activities that probably could be found in most any science classroom. The major difference is that in the back of students’ minds is always the question: how will I document this in my portfolio? Students are allowed to make decisions about how best to communicate learning. Will they just post a Google Doc copy of an activity or will they write a longer blog post about it? Will they do a certain lab report in Google Docs, Glogster, or Prezi? Will they do the lab report on their own or collaborate with their lab group? What goes into the portfolio is up to the student, so although the class as a whole might do a similar set of labs and activities, each portfolio comes out relatively unique due to the choices students make about how they document activities and which ones they choose to include in their portfolio.

One downside of using Google Sites is that, of course, the portfolio is tied to the student’s account. This means that these awesome showcases of student achievement might get deleted once students graduate and our IT department deactivates their accounts. As I mentioned at the top of this post, I’ve recently been archiving some of the most impressive portfolios to use as exemplars for next year’s classes. Our IT department was nice enough to make me a super boss in our Google Apps domain at least long enough to copy over some of the sites to my account.

Here are some students’ finished portfolios that I’ve archived, sorted by course:


AP Biology:



These are just a sampling of some of the better portfolios from the last couple of years. I’m sure there’ll be issues with permissions and such that pop up with some of the students’ artifacts, particularly for those that have used their school Blogger accounts, but these should at least give you a taste of the organizational schemes that I try to use for each course’s portfolio.

What makes these portfolios stand out from those of other students is not necessarily the quality of the artifacts that are linked in the portfolio, but that each of these students really understood the purpose of the portfolio, namely that of showing that they truly did meet the standards for the course. Not only did they do the required work, but they were also able to explain what they learned and why it met the course requirements.

A majority of the student portfolios shared above were already made public by their authors, although the default sharing setting is private within our school’s Google Apps domain. What does that say about the whole point of the portfolio process? Is it for me, the report card, or the junior college that might give them concurrent credit? Maybe all these things, but by choosing to make their portfolios public, these students have made a statement about what they believe the portfolio is all about.

These students have decided that their achievements are worth noticing. By everyone. In all the Internet. I doubt we’ll see that same kind of passion about their state test scores.


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I don’t know if this is happening in your school district, but around here we’ve been talking a lot about our Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum (GVC) project. Teachers have been working very hard under the tutelage of curriculum specialists to develop a GVC that spans all grade levels in our district using a common format. We’ve been told that without GVC teachers don’t know what to teach and students can end up with big gaps in their knowledge when they move between teachers, grade levels, or schools. Sounds great! But…

First, let’s agree on some definitions (lifted from

1. Something that assures a particular outcome or condition: Lack of interest is a guarantee of failure.
2. a. A promise or an assurance, especially one given in writing, that attests to the quality or durability of a product or service. b. A pledge that something will be performed in a specified manner.
1. Capable of living, developing, or germinating under favorable conditions.
2. Capable of living outside the uterus. Used of a fetus or newborn.
3. Capable of success or continuing effectiveness; practicable.
1. All the courses of study offered by an educational institution.
2. A group of related courses, often in a special field of study.

If we explain what GVC means to parents using these definitions we might get the following statement:

“We, the staff of (insert your school district name here), pledge to deliver an effective educational course of study, (insert curriculum project/vendor name here), to your children. These curriculum documents will be followed by your child’s teacher in order to guarantee that your child (insert the purpose of education here). You will be able to view these curriculum documents at (insert hyperlink here) to see exactly what your child is currently learning about.”

Perfect! We’ve just created something to put on the district’s webpage that will tell parents all about what their students will be learning. Or have we?

We can easily fill in most of the blanks in this statement, district name, fancy curriculum project name, and website where all the goodies are posted, but how about that one in the middle: insert the purpose of education here. How are we going to express that?

Let me throw out some options for what to write there:

“These curriculum documents will be followed by your child’s teacher in order to guarantee that your child

…can help America compete in the global economy.”

…can score proficient or advanced on the state exam.”

…gains entry into the college of their choice.”

…becomes a productive member of society.”

…gets the same education as everyone else.”

…learns critical thinking and problem-solving skills.”

Discuss among yourselves (or add a comment to this post): Which option (and I’m sure there are others) appeals to you? Why do we send kids to school? What is the purpose of our curriculum documents in light of this goal? Which of the above choices would the leadership of your district emphasize?

I recently saw this email from our curriculum consultant about the timing and placement of our curriculum units:

“I noticed in the 8th Grade Science Curriculum Map that all of the Earth Systems Science standards are located in 4th Quarter.  Please note that on the Colorado 8th Grade Science Assessment Frameworks, 34% of the total score points will be awarded from the Earth Systems Science Standards (see attached frameworks).

Please have your science teachers take another look at the La Junta 8th Grade Science Curriculum Map.  It appears, from what I can gather from the timing of the assessment, that all of the 8th Grade Science Standards will need to be taught by the end-of-third-quarter in order to be fully prepared for the 8th Grade Science Assessment. That will leave 4th quarter available for more extensive application or cross-content integration and/or preparation for 9th grade science.

There is a similar concern with mapping the 7th Grade Social Studies Standards in order to be prepared for the Colorado 7th Grade Social Studies Assessment.”

Just in case you missed it, the email says that our 7th and 8th grade teachers, and by extension everyone else in the district, have to cover all their required course content in the first three quarters of the school year.  The fourth quarter can be used for “more extensive application or cross-content integration” or preparation for the next level. An extreme interpretation of this email would be that 4th quarter curriculum doesn’t matter, since its after the test. The unavoidable conclusion from this email is that the curriculum should be designed to create the greatest possible chance of success on the state test.

Thanks to this set of instructions about my department’s curriculum, I can now accurately craft the message that our curriculum sends to parents. Here we go:

“We, the staff of East Otero School District, pledge to deliver an effective educational course of study, the La Junta Public Schools Curriculum, to your children. These curriculum documents will be followed by your child’s teacher in order to guarantee that your child can score proficient or advanced on the state exam. You will be able to view these curriculum documents at to see exactly what your child is currently learning about.”

Bummer. Talk about a missed opportunity. We could have made our curriculum about teaching kids skills that they’ll need when they leave our classrooms. We could have focused on making sure that we teach kids how to think for themselves and make informed decisions later in life.

Maybe we’ll work on that during 4th quarter.

A colleague of mine recently described what it was like growing up as the youngest kid in the family. His main point was that the youngest child sometimes learns a lot from watching the older kids fail horribly. Hopefully this post gives you a chance to benefit from being the little brother/sister learning from us older kids so you don’t have to make the same mistakes. Administrators, this one’s for you.

Fad: A practice or interest followed for a time with exaggerated zeal – Merriam-Webster 

As someone who has been experimenting with standards-based assessment and grading for a while now, I’ve noticed a few things that don’t seem to work when implementing SBG. The following is my list of ways to make sure that no one in your school district ever wants to use standards-based grading again.

1. Don’t get teacher input about the process of implementing standards-based grades.

One way that I’ve seen SBG get implemented occurs when administrators or superintendents attend a conference or read a neat blog post about how wonderful SBG is and how it rocked the world etc. etc. They proceed to get their school board on their side with arguments about how a standards-based education guarantees that all students will succeed and that the best way to guarantee this is to make teachers report their students’ progress not as points and percentages but as discrete standards.

Great! But how? Who will develop the standards? Who will decide the format of the standards-based report card? Will you turn the standards-based report into a letter grade? If so, how? So many choices to make, but who will make them?

If administrators go this alone, you’ll run the risk of making this just another educational fad. Fads seem to make teachers mad and reactionary. The more experienced among us shrug and smile at professional development sessions about the next new best thing and most of the time we take the resulting packet or binder back to our rooms and nothing comes of it but another surface for collecting dust. But when you mess with the fundamental structure of their classroom flow and their gradebook? Wow, do people freak out, especially if that directive comes purely from a top-down direction without teacher input. The fad then becomes something truly evil, more than a binder to be shelved, but an actual invader into the sacred space between a teacher and their students, a fundamental warping of the fabric of classroom space-time. Well, maybe not quite like that, but it does piss people off.

Exhibit A: Hundreds of Teachers Rally Against Standards-Based Grading

Don’t do this. If teachers beg you to allow them to implement SBG, let them. When they are ready they’ll make it work. Otherwise its a fad.

2. Require teachers to use state or national standards for their course/classroom standards.

There are a bajillion things out there masquerading as “standards.” Any group of people with sufficient money and political capital can put together a list of things that they think “everyone” should know. My state, your state, and some so-called national groups have certainly done this, recruiting committees of experts to sit in conference rooms for hours on end, word-smithing and getting these beauties just right for public consumption.

So there you are, in your quest to provide a standards-based education, staring at these lists of what kids should know and be able to do. Should you go with national (CommonCore, NGSS), state, AP, IB, college concurrent, or heck, even someone’s grandma’s chemistry syllabus from 1922?

Nope. Allow teachers to create their own standards.

Teachers can certainly borrow bits and pieces from all of these lovely committees who have spent hours consulting one another on the best bits of knowledge for a particular grade level or discipline, but to limit them to one interpretation of what kids ought to know is sort of the opposite of enabling good educators. Furthermore, most of these standards being published recently are written so poorly and so esoterically that teachers need to be trained for hours just to make sense of them. Is this the sort of language that you want to put on a standards-based report card that parents and students will see? They’ll just crumple up/delete it if we don’t write our standards in language that they’ll understand.

And that’s the real reason that teachers should create their own standards for their classes: only they know who their students are, the community context within which they work, and the kind of language (word-smithing) that needs to be used with their particular group(s) of students.

Take all those fancy-pants standards and make them your own. Otherwise, parents won’t understand them, kids will ignore them, and we’ll all hope that they’ll go away like all fads do.

Justin in overalls with the prime minister of Canada


3. Don’t train your teachers before you roll out SBG.

It might happen like this: You’ve done your research and have decided to use standards-based assessment and reporting in your school. You have at least a few teachers interested in using it. As for those other not-so-interested teachers, well, they’ll recognize the benefits, too, once they start using it. You go for it! At your first staff meeting in August you greet your returning staff with your vision of how they will run their classes this new school year. You have them start the new school year by writing their standards and assessments for the new grading system. Aren’t they excited?

Well, no, they’re not. If you haven’t done a lot of groundwork over two, three, or even four years, teachers are going to have a lot of reservations about your new initiative and a steep hill to climb to meet your sudden shift in paradigm.

Think about what you are asking teachers to do:

    • Wade through pages of local, state, and national standards to figure out what other people say they are supposed to be teaching
    • Select from that bloated body of standards the ones that students really need to know
    • Rewrite the clunky language of these standards into words that students will understand
    • Organize the new set of standards into an instructional plan in a way that makes sense thematically and chronologically
    • Learn to work with new or modified electronic gradebooks to collect and display grades using standards instead of points/percentages
    • Write and/or modify activities and assessments that align to the new standards
    • Write rubrics and/or set performance criteria for A/P/PP/U performance levels
    • Determine if and how students’ standards-based grades will be converted to a letter grade

If you want teachers to do all of these things on the fly during their first year of implementation of standards-based grading, be my guest, but don’t expect really stellar results and you should expect to lose the support of much of your overworked staff.

Instead, try implementing some of the steps that this district took before they went whole hog. Solon Community School District, you’re doing it right. Otherwise its a fad and its gonna die for lack of support.

4. Use SBG to provide even less information to parents than your traditional grading system.

One of the big benefits of standards-based grading is its potential to replace the nonsense of numerical points and averaging and zeros with a system that pinpoints a student’s academic strengths and weaknesses in order to help them get better in those areas. This works if students and parents can see which areas are deficient and if they can use the teacher’s observations of student performance to help plan ways to improve.

What often happens, though, is that poorly-implemented standards-based reporting kills any meaningful data that a teacher might have gained from their new system of assessing by standards. If all a parent sees is something like this, the system is in trouble. I can picture a kid getting this report card and the parent asking “Larry, why do you have a PP in Math Content 2? What is Math Content 2? And why is your ORC knowledge a U?” I doubt the kid could answer.

Unless there is an easily accessible, DETAILED collection of student assessments and performance data available for parents to see, the switch to a standards-based report card tells parents even less about their kid than your current rack-up-the-points system. At least in that sort of points system most parents can go to an online grade book and see that their kid didn’t turn in Math Content Sheet 91.1d or that they got a 78% on their last science quiz. Telling parents that their kid is partially proficient in Numeracy doesn’t really mean squat, especially if the parent only sees this judgement of their child at the end of the quarter or semester.

Try out ActiveGrade, BlueHarvest, Three-Ring, JumpRope, or have teachers make their own Google Spreadsheets to record feedback to students and parents. Get your current implementations of Infinite Campus or Powerschool to play nice with reporting standards-based data online. Make the evidence that your teachers collect visible to both parents and students. Otherwise its just a fad and nobody figures out how to improve.


So what does work? How do I start using SBG in a really meaningful way?

Teachers, this one’s for you: start with this article by Frank Noschese. All the fancy stuff will come later. You’ll figure out a system that works for you.

Edit 6/17/15: Also check out Bob Kuhn’s hints for starting SBG in a traditional grading system.

Best of luck to you all!


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I normally would automatically vote for Edmodo in a “best-of” web tools list, or maybe Prezi or Evernote, but lots of other people have written about these, and they have become uber-popular the last year or so and most educators have at least heard of them. Chances are that you use them, or at least have tried them once or twice.

My vote for a much more transformative tool goes to BlueHarvest, brainchild of Vic and Shawn over at ThinkThankThunk Industries.  And before you open another tab and search for BlueHarvest, here’s the link: If you jumped the gun and did the search already, you’ll find what my students did at the beginning of the semester: Star Wars references. Actually, even if you did click on the link, you’ll still find Star Wars references. Shawn’s kind of a fanboy, apparently. Regardless of his fanboy status, he and Vic put their collective nerd powers to work to create a very powerful service for communicating about learning with students and parents.

Since you likely haven’t seen BlueHarvest before, I’ll play tour guide here for a bit, from a teacher’s point of view. I’m going to skip the initial sign-up process which you can figure out for yourself. Its free to try, and apparently free for the first year and some dinky yearly charge after that. They’re not doing this for the money.

Groups and Standards

The first thing you’ll want to do is create groups either by course or by class period (My Students > Modify Groups). I found it easier to make groups by course topic so I currently use the groups Anatomy, AP Biology, Biology, and Chemistry. You’ll then want to enter your standards for each course (My Curriculum > Add/Modify Standards). These are the essential questions or targets that you want each student to be able to do by the end of that particular course. Creating these, of course, is the hard part. Entering them into BlueHarvest is easy. There’s even a mass-upload option, although I didn’t use that.

You’ll want to assign standards to each group so that when you add a student to the group (course), they automatically get that course’s set of standards. The easiest way that I found to do this was to go through My Students > Modify Groups.

When you are done entering standards and assigning them to groups, you should have a setup that looks something like this:

Some science process standards in BH

Science process standards in BlueHarvest

Tip: When creating standards, I found it better to create different standards for each course, even if some of the standards are the same between your courses. That way if you have a student that takes several classes from you, BH can keep track of that student’s performance separately for each class. For example, a student that takes both biology and chemistry from me has both Lab Skills (BioStd3) and Lab Skills (ChemStd3) assigned to them since they are going to be learning very different lab skills in the two courses.

Add Students

The next task in getting BH ready for use is adding in your students. This is accomplished either one at a time or using mass upload from spreadsheet or Powerschool files (My Students>Add/Modify Students). The big benefit of setting up groups first is that adding students to the right course is easy, just select which group they belong to as you set up each account.

Tip: BH can share students between teachers if more than one teacher in a school is using BH. If you are sharing students between two or more teachers, only have one of the teachers input the students into BH. I share several students with our Spanish teacher and at first we both input all of our students. This led to some of the students getting two different sets of login information, one for each class. Its best to only create one account for each student and then use the My Curriculum>Share window to pass those students on to the other teacher(s).

At this point you’ll have lots of student accounts in place and they should even be populated with your course standards. Student passwords are auto-generated by BH, although they can change them later. Most of my students didn’t change passwords, the auto-generated ones are too cool. I used Edmodo to share account names and passwords, but if you can get your kids’ emails in to the system (I didn’t) BH can send login info out.

Providing Feedback

Once you get past the setup phase you now have a way to write specific feedback to students about products that they create for your classes. When you select a student, a list of standards that that student is trying to meet will appear. You can click on one of these to open a dialog box like so:

From the screenshot you can see that you can add text, links, and even audio and video feedback. I’ll admit I haven’t used the audio and video much, but I’ll get there soon. You can leave a numerical score if you like, but I often don’t. Once you click “Leave Comment” the feedback is posted and both you and the student will receive a notification that there is a new comment ready on BlueHarvest. BH supports both email and text (SMS) notifications.

After you’ve done this enough and your kids have gotten the hang of it, some of the discussions start to look like this:



Part of a discussion with a student (name hidden) who is learning about cell membranes 


Once students have had chances to master several different standards, each with a conversation happening about it like the one above, a glance at their standards lets you know about where they stand, especially if you have chosen to use the option to mark some standards proficient, as in this example:

A list of all standards for a student

A list of all standards for a student

These features are great for keeping track of what a single student is doing, but BlueHarvest also has the ability to let you view the activity of all students in BH at once in the form of proficient, recent activity, and convo length reports (in Analytics). Here’s an example recent activity graph where each row is a different student (names hidden) and the brightness of the red color represents how recently any comments have been posted:

Recent Activity Report

Recent Activity Report

This graph reflects the fact that the second student recently asked me to review her online portfolio so there are new comments on several standards. You can also tell from this graph that I need to check in with the last two students on the report since there was a black row almost all the way across which usually means they aren’t producing anything for me to comment on.

These are the main features of BlueHarvest that students and I are using. There’s a lot more it can do that I haven’t touched on, such as numerical grades, which it can track too if that’s your way of operating.

While it might seem to some like just more work and another grade book to keep track of and update, in my experience, this is the grade book that matters most and it really is pretty easy to maintain. But then again, this is coming from a teacher who was managing student comments and grades in 120+ individual spreadsheets last year.

The Point: If you are interested at all in making learning targets or standards the focus of your class, BlueHarvest lets you keep track of student progress towards those standards and streamlines the process of providing timely feedback to students. This sort of tool can be transformative for your classroom if you can train yourself and your students to rely less on number scores and more on detailed, actionable feedback when discussing how much they’ve learned.

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In my last post I described how I might try to conduct my AP Biology class a lot like I conducted the (in)famous Phunsics Class of 2011-2012. (Phunsics side note: I saw one of the graduated seniors from that class recently. He told me the story of how over the summer he and another member of the phunsics class were at the local grocery store when a little kid that they didn’t even know walked up to them and said “Hey, you’re the guys who built the catapult-thingy, right? Yeah, I was at your Physics Day.” Instant celebs, just add physics awesomeness)

Since that post was written (wow, is it October already?) we’ve had a great time and discovered a few things along the way. So far we’ve learned that:

Documenting Black Widow BehaviorYep, its a wormGreen stuff needs light

  • ants make terrible pets, but they do have awesome battles when ants from different nests are combined together
  • the ends of our grow-light enclosure have far less illumination than the middle (sorry Michael)
  • worms need to be kept moist, but do seem to prefer outside dirt to wet potting soil
  • a mating population of 7 students violates the conditions for Hardy-Weinberg equillibrium (as well as other school policies)
  • Black Widow spiders are awesome pets (if they don’t get out)
  • the old saying may be true: you can’t teach an old dog new tricks
  • a ZPA is not something on the front of your pants, but it might have something to do with genes
  • really pretty green caterpillars sometimes turn into really ugly moths

How much of this was my doing? Just the fast plants, ma’am. That and I’m making them read “Your Inner Fish.” I tried to foist my usual pillbug behavior lab on them as well but they were too distracted by worms, dogs, and Black Widows. I suppose my critters weren’t as cool as theirs. They do like watching the parade of roly-poly’s come out when we water their soil, but the sheer carnage of a spider capturing and slurping down a grasshopper is in a completely different dimension of awesomeness.

So what is my role in this type of class, where students are driving a lot of the day to day activities? Besides being head of the spider containment team and he-who-finds-dead-worms-on-floor, I suppose one of my jobs is to give these kids grades that communicate how well they are doing in my class. Yet I consistently find, year after year and especially this year with the new and improved inquiry-based curriculum, that, out of all my courses, my AP Bio kids always have the fewest assessments listed in my gradebook. What is that about and should I (or their parents) be concerned? Isn’t AP Biology supposed to be a tough class, a Test-o-Rama? What about the piles and piles of learning objectives that are supposed to be assessed by the AP Biology Exam?

Its like this: sometimes stopping for formal assessments can feel like hitting a brick wall. Instead, we just go. We do science. Not in an unplanned and chaotic way, although there are certainly elements of randomness that come from being responsive to student interests. We do labs, hopefully mostly student-driven ones, because labs are way more likely to get students to learn how to think scientifically, not some vocabulary exercise followed by a quiz. Is there assessment of student learning? Yep. Assessment of learning is something that happens with every conversation about the lab procedure or results or omglookatthat and often doesn’t find it’s way into the grade book in the same way that a chapter test or a fancy blog post will. We’ll do those things, too, just not as often. For example, right now the students are working on a big writeup for their population genetics lab as well as a writeup of their observations of different animal behaviors.

But here’s the catch: it’s taken us over a month to even begin to get major assessments into the grade book and I’m starting to get twitchy over the massive scope of material that these kids are supposed to know. I’m already having to restrain myself from launching into a powerpoint-fueled frenzy of content-spewing vocabulary-laden gibberish in the name of “Getting them ready for the test,” and its not even March or April yet.

If you haven’t heard, the AP Biology course got a major overhaul this year with a focus on, you guessed it, inquiry. I’m down with that and love the emphasis on the seven science process skills outlined in the course description. But there’s a ton of plain ol’ biology factoids still inherent in the system, some of which are going to be pretty ugly to inquirify, if that’s a word. I suspect at some point that as a class we’ll need to start striking a balance between the wild carefree days of inquiry past and the rote memorization of tomorrow. AP Biology is a college-level course, you know ; )

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I’ve waited to post this set of thoughts until I was back at school, mostly because I was up in the mountains for the last bit of the summer. Yes, I had wifi, but, well, there were other things to do that were better than blogging.

But I’m back to writing, and in terms of changes for this school year that you might be interested in, there are two big ones:

1. I’m replacing my GoogleApp spreadsheets for tracking student progress with Shawn and Vic’s BlueHarvest. By the end of last year I was using the spreadsheets almost exclusively for comments back and forth with students so having to create and manage one for each student this year seemed silly when BH is built to do that. I’m through the setup phase with BH and have managed to get login info to nearly all of my 110 students. There were times that I wished that I knew how to pull all my student info (names with emails) off of Infinite Campus into a nice, importable spreadsheet, but in reality there have been so many schedule changes that I would have had to add/delete a bunch of kids anyway. The big downside of not adding emails for each kid was that I ended up having to get them their passwords via Edmodo, which took a bit of typing today to accomplish (harrywookiewookie is still my favorite).

2. SBG for AP Biology! Remember the experiment last year with my student-led Phunsics class? I’m going to apply some of the philosophy of that class to my teaching (or co-teaching, maybe mentoring?) of AP Biology this year. What’s that you say? There’s an audit process for approval of my curriculum documents? Oh dang. Guess we had better start writing them together.

Naw, it’ll be fun. The College Board was nice enough to follow my model of emphasizing skill standards for AP Biology students as well as providing a short list of content standards. Ok, maybe the list is a bit longer than I think is necessary, but I’ve grouped them into 13 content standards, not too far from my usual 10-or-so content area standards per course. With 7 skill standards and the 13 content areas (see the course description or the prezi linked on my AP Biology page), we’ve got a basic framework from which to set up the course. Once the students get over the rush of holding their newly-acquired iPads, we’ll get down to work on prioritizing our goals for the course and agree on a basic plan for the year.

The big difference between this AP Biology course and the phunsics course, besides the obvious content-area shift, will be in assessment. AP Biology will follow the pattern I’ve established for my other classes, namely activities->blogging->portfolio building. I think the new structure of the AP Biology course in the College Board’s documents lends itself pretty well to a standards-based portfolio that students can fill with evidence of each standard. I’ll post links to some apbio student portfolios once they are sufficiently underway.

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This post is an update to my older year end wrap up that seems to get a lot of traffic from people searching for “standards-based grades” and similar terms. I can only assume that there are lots of folks out there trying to get their heads around what SBG is about and how to do it. What follows will be a (hopefully) concise discussion of my spin on SBG and how I assess students using blogs and portfolios.

If you’ve drunk even a little bit of the SBG kool-aid you’ll know that the lofty goals of grading and assessment reform can be stated something like this:

  • have students show what they really know and can do
  • make learning rather than grades the focus
  • if you have to produce a “grade,” reform your grade book to reflect learning, not compliance/completion
  • ditch points-based, averaging nonsense and banish “zeros” since neither concept helps describe what a student knows and can do
  • since grades reflect learning, allow reassessments to show new understanding of concepts

If these sound like ideas you can get behind, read on. If you like your current, points-based system, read on too, because you’ll feel justified in a little bit.

How do you meet the lofty goals listed above? Here is roughly the sequence of steps that I would recommend:

Step 1: Define your standards

Notice I didn’t say to parrot back your state standards or (goodness gracious) our new national standards. These have to be yours. As in “these are the things that I really believe to be important” standards. There should be some overlap, of course, if your state department of education has done its job reasonably well. Different people will approach this very differently, from having lots and lots of standards to having only a few. Marzano suggests that we should “limit measurement topics to 20 or fewer per subject area and grade level.” I read this after I had done my standards-crunching, but I agree with it, since I identified just 9 major areas that I wanted to assess. These are Content Knowledge, Research, Lab Skills, Experimental Design, Data Analysis, Tech Savvy, Communication, Self-Analysis, and Contribution to Community.

The most unique thing about this set of standards compared to others I’ve seen is the smashing of all the content for each course into one standard. I teach science and so have lots and lots of content to discuss in each of my courses (anatomy, biology, chemistry, physics, and AP Biology and yes, I’m at a rural school with only 4 science teachers in grades 7-12 for 600 kids). I don’t think that content is the most important thing, though, not anymore, with the interwebz and such just a Google away. I don’t ignore content ideas, I just don’t overemphasize them in the final grade determination. Instead, I’m more interested in building a skill set for students that they are going to take with them regardless of which little factoids that they remember from my classes. But that’s my take on standards. Yours will be yours.

Step 2: Develop an Assessment Philosophy

Yes, I know this sounds like something that you did for an assignment once upon a time in teacher-school, but really, it will help you out greatly if you put it down in words, especially if you make it available to parents and students. Mine’s here, if you want an example. I’m sure it would fail all of the guidelines for an official teacher-school document, but there it is. This doc is where you need to think about what you believe about assessment of student learning: Do you give quizzes and tests to see what kids know? Does every student do the same set of assignments in the same way? Will you assess using your favorite worksheets but score them by standard? Can students make up for failing or missed assignments or is assessment a one-shot deal so they learn the value of deadlines?

Basically, what you want to do in this Assessment Philosophy is lay out how you plan on determining what students know and what they can do. Again, my way of doing it may be very different from yours. I have students do a ton of writing and creating in blogs and portfolios but do almost no formal testing. Other teachers that I adore do lots of tests and quizzes that show how much their students have learned. Good arguments exist for both kinds of assessments.

Step 3: Determine how you will assign final grades

Ah, the stickiest issue of all, particularly for high school teachers who get to deal with parents and students worried about class rank, scholarships, and acceptance to their favorite college. Woo hoo!? If you have to assign grades, and most of us do, this is the part where your idealistic standards hit the wall of whatever online gradebook your school happens to suscribe to. Some play nicer with standards than others, but in any case you are going to have to figure out how to mesh what you do with standards with what students and parents see in the gradebook. I happen to have been fortunate enough to be good friends with my tech director who set up some lovely manually entered standards within Infinite Campus so I can determine the grade however I want and just report it out online. Other teachers I’ve read about have not been so lucky, having to prove that x% of their grade comes from labs and y% from tests or whatever, which will take a bit more massaging in a standards-based system.
You will want to carefully consider how you convert what students do on lots of separate standards into a single letter grade. This task sucks and essentially reverse-engineers everything you’ve been trying to do, but until more teachers and school districts get behind just reporting learning standards, we’ll have to deal with it. Many options exist: Will you figure out an average score using scores from all the standards? Will you have basic and advanced standards and use achievement of the advanced ones to assign higher letter grades? Will you look at performance on all the standards at once and apply a set of rules to determine a final grade? I lean towards the latter and have a system in place that counts the number of advanced, proficient, partially-proficient, and unsatisfactory standards to determine the final grade.

Step 4: Try it out!

Implementation time! After a summer of planning and writing about your new standards-based grading system, the first days of school are going to be great! Except don’t expect students to want to hear every detail all at once. Spend some time getting to know your students and building up your classroom community before digging into the nitty gritty of how their grades will be determined. Oh sure, make your pretty documents and web pages available, but don’t expect students to read them right away, if ever. Instead, coach students on the philosophy of your class, about what they can do to show you that they are learning something in your class. Give them the tools to be successful on your assessments, even if they don’t quite see the big picture of how standards-based grading in your class works. And constantly remind them that they can improve on past failures and mistakes, if you allow that sort of thing, because chances are your students have been trained to fire and forget on most assessments. Its the mental shift that you need to work on, not just in yourself, but in your students as well for this sort of assessment scheme to succeed.

Be warned, though. These changes will come at a serious price: your time.

There are some school days that I look enviously at the student aides for one of my neighbor teachers, slogging away with an answer key and a red marker at piles of that teacher’s turned-in assignments. Oh, says I upon seeing such sights, why didn’t I stay with the worksheet and my lovely 10 (or 1) point grading system? I could have aides do my grading for me. It was so easy to check off whether someone had done some learning or not. But I know that system didn’t really do much besides speed up the process of assigning a grade, and wasn’t really about assessment at all.

It takes time to really get to know what kids are learning in your classroom. Anyone, including student aides, can grade a worksheet, tally a point total, and enter it into a grade book without knowing a darn thing about the student that turned it in. It will take more time to grade by standards, particularly if you are going to go the route I did and develop student blogs and online portfolios. Those sorts of things take time to make and take time to assess so be prepared to spend more class time on assessments and be ready to spend more of your own time on reviewing them.

I love this note that a reader left in a conversation on my Assessment Philosophy:

I’ve been reading this document and now have a clearer idea of what you were talking about. My principal question, which I’m sure is answered somewhere, is how does one manage it? Reading and commenting on scores of portfolios that vary greatly in quality would seem to be an extremely time-consuming endeavor. I have been in a 17 year struggle to have a normal life outside of teaching, one I have largely lost. I want the students to do most of the thinking and the work while I do relatively little, but for general classes anyway, the reverse seems to be most true. Do you know where in Chris’ webpage or blog he reveals the secrets to evaluating the portfolios without committing evenings and weekends to the task? Thanks,


Larry is absolutely in the right in thinking that reading and commenting on blogs and portfolios is extremely time consuming. But the tradeoff is that no two student blogs are the same and reading a student’s writing is so much more interesting than scoring worksheets. The digital artifacts they create will be very unique and entertaining if they are done well, as most are in my experience. Is it overwhelming at times? Sure! But strategies like using Google Reader to keep track of when students post and which ones I’ve read and using Google Doc spreadsheets (or Blue Harvest) for keeping track of comments helps a lot. I also keep links to all student portfolios in one place using Pearltrees, which makes access to the otherwise clunky Google Sites in our district much more useable.

I found, too, that as the school year progressed, I spent much less time “grading” the blogs and was able to just read them to keep tabs on what the students were writing about and making sure they weren’t straying too far afield in putting their portfolio together. This happened somewhere around the end of the first semester when there was an “aha” moment of sorts for a lot of students when they finally understood what the portfolio was about and how it was being used to determine their overall grade. From that point on, it was obvious to students that the blank portfolio pages that I provided for them represented what I wanted them to know before they left the class. From then on, they became much more aware of what had to be done and they just did it, regardless of whether I “graded” their posts every time or not. In fact, for most of 2nd semester I only graded the portfolio (since that’s what I said I would grade anyway) and just read the blog posts for fun as part of the portfolio.

I think there will always be some sort of “training period” each school year in which I have to do a lot of “grading” and actually give blog posts scores on the 4 point scale just to give students an idea of what I’m looking for, but from then on, they seem pretty capable of producing artifacts for the portfolio without me having to grade each and every one of them. Grading the portfolios was an awesome way to end the year and a real triumph for standards-based grading since the portfolio made it so easy to assess what a student had learned in specific areas.

Still, I won’t claim to be sad to hit summer so I can spend some more time with my own little grumkins:

Ludwig kids

Thanks for hanging on through this not-so-concise romp through how I implement standards-based grades in my classes. I encourage you to try even small steps to reform your grading system, if you haven’t already. As for all the details, I’m sure there’s tons of stuff I left out so drop me a comment and we’ll fill in the gaps together.

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I’ve been asked a few questions lately about what my classes look like: Are your classes “flipped?” What kind of assignments do you give? How much lecturing do you do?

I thought about writing a post answering these, but then today I was evaluating this portfolio and thought that I would just post a link to it instead.

If you spend some time with this portfolio you’ll see:

  • Assessment by skill and content-area standards
  • Extensive use of various web-based tools
  • Reflection on one’s own learning
  • Cooperative group projects
  • Content-area writing
  • Student-designed experiments
  • Use of multiple devices and apps

This is what my classes look like.

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Scott McLeod recently asked this question in his post Reconciling Convergence and Divergence:

How do you reconcile…

principles of standards-based grading; “begin with the end in mind and work backwards;” understanding by design; and other more convergent learning ideas


project-, problem-, challenge-, and/or inquiry-based learning; creativity; innovation; collaboration; and our need for more divergent thinkers?

My answer: I don’t reconcile the two, nor am I sure that I should. I do both. Separately.

As frequent readers of this blog will know, I’ve been experimenting with standards-based assessment and grading for a couple of years now and am to the point that I feel reasonably expert in structuring my classroom around standards. I typically start off each course in the fall by discussing the specific standards that students will meet during the year and explaining how they might go about proving that they’ve met those standards. We then proceed to work together as a class to do a variety of activities and labs designed to help students meet the standards that I have laid out. This works well in my biology, anatomy, and chemistry classes, all of which are concurrent college credit and so are matched to my state’s community college system guidelines for each particular course. Very, very convergent stuff. All students focus their learning on mostly the same set of ideas, even going so far as to complete electronic portfolios based on a common template that I provide for them. This system works nicely and the portfolios that students are producing are excellent, with lots of evidence that they’ve learned particular skill and content standards.

But what about physics? This year I had the opportunity to take over the job of physics teacher because: a) no one else wanted to teach it, and b) I had a lot of proto-engineers begging me to teach anything besides biology or anatomy.  This class turned out to be radically different from anything else that I’ve ever taught. It was radically different because I didn’t go into the class with a defined set of standards. The class was not concurrent college credit so I didn’t have to concern myself with matching a college syllabus. The state of Colorado does have physical science standards for students, but they had mostly fulfilled those in their freshman and sophomore level courses, and the kids taking physics were Juniors and Seniors.

With nothing to prove to anyone about whether I had correctly learnified my students, I was free to structure the class as I saw fit. I decided to let the students run it. On the first day of school I explained that they would be designing the class, not me. We spent the next few days brainstorming what sorts of things normally go on in a physics class, which topics they ought to leave physics knowing about, and how to do assessments of said goals. In other words, the students and I were still in a very standards-based frame of mind.

But then we diverged. Big time. Our brainstorming sessions had revealed a lot of different student interests: What about building that hovercraft you were telling us about and just how much power does a shop vac produce? Can we build some sort of catapult?  How about a potato gun? By the third week of school, we had all carried out a couple of the standard labs on measuring motion using video analysis and motion sensors but that was the last time we did anything as a whole group. The rest of the year was project based. Completely student designed and initiated to the point they started calling the class “phunsics.” My lesson plan book for the class was a mess. Usually it just said “Projects” until after class when I could actually fill in what students worked on that day, and when I did fill it in, I often had to summarize four or five different projects for the same class period. And so it went all year, sometimes in great bursts of activity, sometimes in lulls of senioritis and apathy, but always there were one or two major projects underway and several on the back burners.

To try to explain the course to future generations of phunsics students (and anyone else curious about what the class looked like), students created several videos about their experience.  A playlist of some of their videos is worth watching for some different perspectives on the class. Also, here’s my tribute video for the Phunsics team.


How then do we decide which type of course is better for learning, the convergent “let’s meet the standards” kind of class or the divergent “follow your interests” kind of class?  That all depends on how you measure learning, I suppose. On the one hand, students in anatomy, biology, and chemistry have portfolios of the work they accomplished during the year and anyone curious enough could see exactly what sorts of standards they had met. On the other hand, the phunsics students exhibited self-direction, organizational skills, coping with failure, teamwork, and creativity. Our current set of standardized assessments would completely overlook the achievements of these students, should we choose to assess them that way.

Would I teach the anatomy, biology, and chemistry courses the same way that I did physics this year? I’m not so sure I would. Some subjects lend themselves to true inquiry and self-direction better than others. Disciplines like physics and engineering will always have an advantage over subjects like biology and anatomy where real inquiry involves very specialized equipment and a ton of background knowledge that students may not yet possess. Likewise inquiry in chemistry has to be bounded both by safety considerations and the background knowledge of students. Don’t get me wrong, I work in as many open-ended and inquiry labs as possible in these disciplines but these labs or “problems” are still often defined by the teacher and not the learner. Probably I still suck at PBL and just need to get better at it, but for now any sort of PBL short of giving full control to students seems kind of artificial to me.

In conclusion, I’m going to try to offer the physics course as often as I can, which at this point is every other year in rotation with AP Biology. I think a student-designed course like that is vital to help students understand what real scientific inquiry is like, with teams working together to solve problems and meet design challenges they meet along the way. And, at least for now, I’ll keep the anatomy, biology, and chemistry courses as standards-based courses, but attempt to move them in a direction of more student control about how and when they meet the particular standards.

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I’ve had three chances now to assess my students’ eportfolios for letter grades, and I love ’em. Portfolios and students, that is, not grades. Yes, my school still requires letter grades each quarter, but I hope that someday these sorts of learning portfolios that we are building can be shared without having to be cheapened by labeling them with a simple letter rating. A good portfolio can stand on its own and doesn’t need somebody like me to point out whether it is awesome or not. In fact, in my perfect future world each kid who applies for college or a job fills in their application (most are online by now) and pastes in a link to their portfolio. Colleges and employers can click to see what sort of person they are getting, complete with writing samples, content-area knowledge, evidence of skills gained and so on. No more silly essay questions and no more inflated resumés full of made up extracurricular activities, just a real record of what the student actually accomplished in school. Yes, I know they will take time to read, believe me, but you are about to create your future student body or workforce. Don’t you want to know what they’re capable of?

Vision of a grade-less future aside, here are some reasons why I’ll keep using online portfolios at least into next year:

1. The portfolio fills the gap in evidence for Standard 8: Self-reflection

Ever since I started using standards-based assessment, I’ve used 9 major standards as the backbone of all my classes. One of the nine (insert Lord of the Rings reference here) is content-specific knowledge, four are science process skills, two are communication/tech/21stC skills, and two are the touchy-feely standards of self-reflection and contribution to the learning community.

Before the portfolios were implemented, students managed to produce a wide variety of evidence for the community standard (successful group projects, blog comments from within and beyond the school, stats on page views for certain blog posts) but had a rough time performing self-reflection. Sure, a few people got it and wrote long, involved blog posts about what they did best and what they would change about their work habits, but most students were flummoxed by the idea of writing what seemed to them a fake-sounding, possibly brown-nosing post full of what the teacher wanted in a “reflection.”

With the eportfolio, though, self-reflection and analysis of one’s work are built into the system. Students are given a blank Google Sites template for the portfolio at the beginning of the year and are asked to select the evidence of learning that goes on each page. They not only have to include links to relevant blogposts or other artifacts that they have created, but they also need to justify to the portfolio reviewers why they feel that a particular artifact meets the goal of that particular section of the portfolio. So on each portfolio page, if done well, there exist links to student products and the students’ rationale for why they believe that those artifacts demonstrate that they have mastered a particular standard. Win! There’s even an entire page of the portfolio devoted to the self-reflection standard so that students can’t miss the fact that it’s a major skill that I want them to practice. That page gets used differently from student to student, but some of the most impressive ones I’ve seen have a running dialog with themselves from quarter to quarter about how the portfolio is shaping up.
For example:

sample student Standard 8 portfolio page

another sample student Standard 8 portfolio page

2. The portfolio streamlines the demonstration of evidence of learning in a standards-based course

Instead of poking through blog posts on a student blog, which are organized by whenever the student decided to sit down and create them, the portfolio allows the reviewer(s) to see at a glance which major topic and skill standards have been addressed by each student. Don’t misunderstand me, the blogs are a vital piece of communication between the student and I as they are learning, but when the quarter or semester grade rolls around and I need to switch to judge mode, it’s a lot easier for me to do SBG with the portfolio than it was with a student blog by itself.

3. The portfolio can be an amazing record of progress towards specific goals.

As mentioned above, I use only 9 major standards for the whole year for each class. You can bet we have repeat attempts to demonstrate each one, that’s kinda the point of choosing only the 9 really important things that I want kids to be able to do. In the example Standard 8 pages above, you can see that this plays out in the portfolio on individual portfolio pages where students have retained their discussion of that standard from previous quarters and so can refer back to what they previously said or thought.

So, yes, I will keep using the portfolios. They aren’t all perfect and there are, of course, varying levels of student commitment to the idea. But, for not a lot of extra work, students leave each of my courses with a record of what they really did to earn that lovely letter on their transcript. I can only hope that someday someone important in their life will find their portfolio more useful than that lovely letter.

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