C is Not for Compliance: Another Grading Reform Story

Like a straight-laced teetotaler at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, I am a horrible ambassador for grading reform.  I am possibly the worst person to try to explain how to change someone else’s classroom into a standards-based learning environment because it was never much of a struggle for me. I saw a need to reform my grading practices and I did it. Most of what I read leading up to the changes I’ve made said that it would be a tough and nasty fight, mistakes would be made, and that I should expect resistance from all the different stakeholders in the system. Mistakes have been made, for sure, but I’d call that “learning what works.” The fights and nastiness have never really materialized, save for a few parents of “A students” who were less than thrilled to suddenly have “B students.”

With that said, I now find myself advocating for SBL/SBG and am being mentioned/linked occasionally here and there, including at my own little high school. My principal has asked me, along with 3 other teachers trying various implementations of SBL, to present the topic at an upcoming faculty meeting.

Here’s my problem: how do I go back and put myself in the mindset of someone who is just now hearing about this “new” standards-based learning/grading stuff and make the case that teachers should make sweeping changes to how they assess and grade students? How do I show how awesome standards-based learning can be for them and their students without seeming to preach that everyone needs to drop what they’re doing and adopt it now, now, now!?

Its probably going to sound preachy no matter what I do, that’s in the eye of the beholder and can’t really be changed on my end, but I think the message will be better received if I focus on describing my journey rather than telling people how to do SBL in their classroom. After all, a science teacher like me sure isn’t going to know much about what standards an English teacher wants to use in their classroom. Best to stick to the why, and not so much the how.

To my mind there are three “why” questions that keep popping up about SBL that teachers will want to hear about. They are interrelated “whys,” but are indeed separate aspects of the reasons lots of people, myself included, are trying out standards-based learning systems.

Q #1: Why use standards-based learning instead of a points-based system?

A1: Because assessment of learning and Assignment of Grades Should be completely separate.

Assessment of learning lets both you and the student know whether they understand the content knowledge and skills that are needed to master a particular course. Grading, however, is a teacher’s judgement call about the relative location of a student’s performance on some scale of “gradations” that has been established for the purposes of comparison.

If we start from a mindset of assessment of learning, then we have to start from an exploration of the standards and performance indicators for students: What is it that I need to assess? What content and performance standards do students need to demonstrate? How will everyone know that they’ve been successful at meeting these learning targets? The observation of performances of specific learning targets helps focus such a system on assessment of student learning and does not necessarily have to lead to a letter grade.

However, if I start from a mindset of assigning points for each assignment, and those points always go into the gradebook to help me determine a student’s grade, then I am not assessing learning, I am grading, right from the start. There is only one measurement that happens when everything students do is worth points, and it is not measurement of learning. Accumulated points measure assignment completion; they measure compliance. Which is fine, if you believe that teaching compliance is the goal your classroom. However, if you are one of the thousands of teachers struggling to write lesson plans that claim to assess the CCSS and NGSS or CAS or whoever’s “S”, just so you know, “S” is for Standards, and “C” is never for compliance. It should be about the learning.

I tackled this issue a while back by reducing point values to almost nothing, a simple binary grading system of 1’s and 0’s for most assignments. It worked to some extent, in that it minimized the point values given to formative assessments that really had no business being included in a final evaluation of a student’s learning. Most points came from tests and quizzes, which were more appropriate assessments of student learning, but still, the signal to noise ratio was pretty terrible for everyone concerned. If you were getting a 78% in my class back then, you only knew that you had to work “harder” or turn in more stuff to move up to a B. That 78% rating didn’t tell students what they were good at, only that they had turned in or “earned” 78% of the points possible. They might not even have to change a thing about their performance in the class if I curved the grades to make them more “realistic.”

Even with points minimized, my students were still at the mercy of the numbers game, portrayed so well in this pic taken from this awesome resource by Thomas Guskey (via Scott McLeod):


Short answer to the question: None of these mathematical tweaks is best. No single one is any more fair than the others. They are all horrible at showing exactly what a student did or did not do to earn those numbers. Does your gradebook look like this? Mine did. It annoyed me, so I ditched it completely (and no, you don’t have to–see the first paragraph of this post).

Q #2: Why allow for multiple chances to prove mastery of a standard?

A2: You don’t have to.

Admit it. You hate the idea of retests, reassessments, and grading the same assignment over and over forever and ever until the end of the semester.

But there is no set rule in the (non-existent) SBL playbook that says that you have to give students every chance in the world to pass a test about one of your standards. Nor is there a rule that says you have to give different assessments for the same standard. In fact, there are no rules about the “right” or “wrong” way to do reassessments in SBL.

A rational person will, however, recognize that the goal of a teacher-student relationship should be to demonstrate learning, and if we are talking about a standards-based classroom, then the learning should correlate to particular learning targets. If a student happens to miss the target or fail to provide evidence for learning that standard, wouldn’t the kind thing to do be to give them another shot at it?

Normal (i.e. non-SBL) teachers have a word for this: its called differentiation. Differentiation happens easily in an SBL system, but too often I hear people bashing SBL for its mushy deadlines and hippy-dippy approach to letting students have one more chance to prove themselves. Honestly, if you are really into training students to be compliant with your one-shot tests and strict deadlines, then maybe this whole differentiation thing isn’t exactly for you anyway. (I’d start working on your grading curve now)

Q #3: Why use standards-based portfolios of student learning?

A3: Because communicating standards-based learning in a report card is awful.

One of the noted failings of SBL is how ironically terrible the communication of student achievement can get. Standards-based report cards are notoriously cryptic if short enough for human consumption (STD3.1.1a = P) and horrendously long if written so that anyone other than a curriculum specialist can understand it (Learn and Understand Biology-Related Terminology, Concepts, Representations, and Models: Biomolecules: Understand the structure and function of important biomolecules such as carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins). Furthermore, SBL-based grade reporting usually requires tweaks of existing online gradebook programs and parent info portals, often with confusing and inconsistent results. I’ve seen those kinds of report cards. They are not helpful.

Instead, why not give parents something to see that demonstrates their kids’ achievements in your class. Show them the actual work that demonstrates that their child can analyze data, communicate well, or work in collaborative groups for the betterment of all. Show off your student’s work, sorted by standard. This communicates both your standards and the efforts that students have put in to meet those standards.

Also, portfolios give students a guide to what they need to accomplish while in your classroom. A blank portfolio delivered to them at the beginning of the year is the gauntlet that you throw down to challenge them: “I dare you to fill this in with proof that you can learn how to do all these things.” Its one more tool that helps hand off the burden of learning to the student.

Alt A3: You don’t have to.

Standards-based learning is just that: a system of activities and assessments centered around defined learning goals rather than accumulation of points for a grade. Each and every way that teachers use to keep track of learning by standards will work, even without portfolios. Make a spreadsheet. Use your existing grade book, just change the headers on your columns. Even if you use (gasp) numerical representations of learning, a.k.a points, to keep track of achievement in individual standards, you’re still ahead of where you and your students were back when they were counting up how many points they needed for an A and you were wondering how far to curve the latest exam to make the class average a 75%.

7 thoughts on “C is Not for Compliance: Another Grading Reform Story

  1. Aaron Bieniek

    Chris – would it be possible for you to talk a little about feedback?

    More specifically, I’m trying to get a feel for how daily learning activities are handled differently than “desks in rows” paper and pencil assessments when it comes to feedback. Does all of your feedback end up in Blue Harvest or is some feedback written directly on work the students do?

    1. Chris Ludwig Post author

      Nearly all written feedback goes through BlueHarvest. I’ll sit down with my RSS reader apps for reading student blogs and as I read them I’ll jot some comments down in BH if I see that there are some things to fix or that are really praiseworthy.

      We did have a major paper due recently in biology about the Eugenics movement, and for that I had students share the paper with me via Google Drive so I could comment right on the paper. That was a lot easier than trying to edit/improve papers using BH. Students could see and respond to my comments, make changes, then upload or link a final copy into their blog.

      Those are the two main feedback streams I use along with conversations with students in class. We rarely do paper assignments so there is no scribbling on paper, just the digital commenting. I’ve resisted commenting directly on student blogs since those would be public comments and when first published the blog is in rough draft form anyway, so no one wants to see a critique of a post in the comments.

  2. Dan Reid

    Chris–I enjoyed reading your assessment of SBG. I agree with you that teachers should have the choice of giving re-takes. Sometimes I give a retake, but only one per test or quiz, not multiple tries. That’s partly for my sanity and the fact that I’ve seen too many kids in other classes take advantage of the unlimited re-take policy and they are not learning the material, only learning how to manipulate the system. But retakes can only be earned if they have done all of the formative assessments (HW) beforethe summative assessment. Other times, I don’t give a retake. I let the kids know if there’s going to be one or not. Usually in my AP chemistry class, I give a retake on the really hard topics but not the historically easy ones. I also agree with the policy of making HW not count for a grade since the HW is used as a formative assessment. Plus, this saves me tons of time with grading. What I struggle with is the idea that you have to assign a grade based on a 4, 3, 2, 1, 0 scale. There are arbitrary cut-offs in any scale whether it’s out of 100 points and you use an 80% as a B or on a 0-4 scale and you think that a 3 is a B. Teachers that have used SBG scales in our school have half-points available (i.e.–3.5, 2.5, 1.5) to help when they are grading a summative assessment and they are struggling with the choice of giving a student a score of a 3 or a 2. Anyway, what’s silly about SBG in our building is that these numbers of 4, 3, 2, or 90%, 80%, 70% still get turned into a letter grade on the final report card. So either way, you are telling a college that a kid is an A, B, or C student no matter what system you use. Finally, can you tell me how all of your SBG grades for the semester get combined into one final score? Do you use the mean, median or mode or some other system?

    1. Chris Ludwig Post author


      Aaron nailed it in his comment: I have 7 major standards and use a conjunctive system to arrive at a letter grade. A student needs to show that they are advanced in a couple areas for an A, proficient in all for a B, proficient or partially proficient in most for a C, no more than one U for a D, and multiple areas of U end up as an F.

      I agree that as long as there are numbers involved that there will be arbitrary cutoffs, which is why numerical measurements of student learning are still a judgement call even though they have a veneer of scientific measurement. All grading is subjective and the sooner we admit that and stop playing mathematical games with grades in the name of objectivity, the better the system will be.

  3. Aaron Bieniek

    Dan, I hope it’s ok if I throw in here until Chris responds. Under the system I currently use we have defined the scores 1-4 to mean something other than A, B, or C. So a 2, for example, means that you can accomplish the task but need a little assistance to get there. Scoring a 1 means that you need additional teaching. A three means that you have accomplished the task without any additional help – on your own. And a 4 means you have been able to show understanding that goes beyond what is explicitly taught in class. The strength of these definitions is that a student or parent can look at the grade book and instantly see where help is needed – namely any score that is a 1 or 2. It is very easy to get parents and students to understand that 1 and 2 mean “needs to get some more help and you know when I am available to get it”. Whereas under the old system a 75% might be ok or not ok depending on the student and parent. The hope is that we replace the old thinking – “Oh, I got a 75%” with new thinking – “Oh, I got a 2, that isn’t good enough yet so I better get in for some help.” The weakness in the system is that although a score might indicate more help is needed, it doesn’t actually provide any help. So I am at a point now where if something isn’t a 3 or 4 I don’t score it and just provide feedback and time for the students to respond to the feedback. Really, the system needs to be “good to go” or “not yet”. So, I guess my grade book would have 3’s, 4’s, and blanks (or incompletes?) in it as we go through the semester. My plan for next year is to leverage Blue Harvest for facilitating the conversations about the feedback I give.

    Right now then, turning all the 1’s, 2’s, 3’s and 4’s into one letter means defining what each letter means. So maybe 4’s on all standards is an A. All 3’s with some 4’s is a B. All 3’s is a C and then whatever you decide for D’s and F’s. It is an “at least this, but none of that” kind of conjunctive system.

  4. Aaron Bieniek

    Chris – I was talking to a colleague today about the portfolio/blog plan and he raised the following concern: How do you know if the work you are seeing on the blogs actually reflects what that student knows? How do you know the ideas expressed there are not “borrowed” from someone else?

    The implication is that unless a student works alone in a controlled “testing” environment – we can’t be sure what that student knows on his/her own.

    How would you answer that? How much of a role do typical tests play under your system?

    1. Chris Ludwig Post author

      This was such an awesome set of questions that I had to take the time to reply in a whole post which can be found here on the blog (http://wp.me/p2Hjzq-hb). Thanks to you and your thoughtful colleague for helping me put down in writing what has been rolling around in my head for a while about the role of testing in my classes.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.