Back to Basics


It’s not easy to admit, but I’ve made things too complicated.

I hit this difficult realization over the summer and I have been trying to deal with it during this school year. First I pared down the number of websites that students needed to manage by ditching the separate student portfolio site and blog and combined those by using Seesaw. That made our workflow a lot more streamlined and students and I are benefiting from having fewer sites to manage.

I also turned my attention to streamlining my grading and reporting system. What aspects of my standards-based system was I using well?  What was useful for parents and students?

I came to this depressing startling conclusion: no one in my school really cared about standards-based grades except me. One of the only other teachers in my building to use standards-based grading had the same exact realization: standards-based grading was way more work for us and no one expected us to do the level of work we were doing, so why were we? Both of us are currently in the process of ditching standards-based grades.

In part, I blame my use of Seesaw for bringing attention to the fact that no one was using my standards-based grades in any meaningful way. Seesaw has a great skills-based grading module for keeping track of whatever you want to keep track of, but students do not see teachers’ ratings. Therefore the SBG in Seesaw does not function as student feedback. At best the color-coded standards-based scores are something to share at parent conferences or for teacher-only use in determining student progress and final grades. After a few months of using Seesaw and no one asking me about their standards-based grade, I stopped using the standards module.

Through this and other channels, I got a clear message that students and parents didn’t want to see standards-based grades, at least as I was presenting them. Parents (including me) are happy with simply knowing if their kid is doing what they need to be doing, and right now in my District that expectation is met by letter grades and assignment completion tallies in an online gradebook. A separate, novel grading system sorted by learning targets was definitely outside of District norms and therefore was confusing, no matter how well thought-out or documented it was.

l was also under some serious pressure to be “normal” in my concurrent credit courses. I teach college-level biology and anatomy courses for college credit and I need to have my syllabus reviewed by the local junior college to see that I’m teaching the same topics as the college professors teaching the same course. This syllabus vetting also includes the section on grading procedures and there we were at a serious disconnect as long as I was using SBG. I think that for the past few years the science department chair at the college humored my system, perhaps in part because the portfolios we were using showed exactly what we were doing and he could judge their quality. In the last two years, though, the college has been under review by the Higher Learning Commission and their concurrent credit courses have been under a lot of scrutiny. Recently, I was more or less told by the college folks that my grading system had a lot of padding from standards like Experimental Design and Arguing from Evidence and that I should have far more weight on tests and quizzes to match the college courses. It’s certainly true that most college classes bounce from chapter test to chapter test, including my own Pathophysiology class that I’ve taught there in the past.

Almost every major group of people to which I am answerable as a teacher was displeased with or at least indifferent to my use of standards-based grades.  Admin didn’t really care as long as I could explain my system to parents and as long as I posted a weekly letter grade for sports eligibility. Parents were largely ambivalent about SBG but I did hear rumors of and participated in a few nasty conversations. I think students experienced my SBG as an overly-complicated system that made them do more work than other classes. Some staff of the college that certifies my classes as concurrent-credit were not fans of SBG. Probably the only constituency that was supporting me in using SBG was the far more distant Edu-Twitter and Edu-blogger intellectual community that had inspired me in the first place.

In some ways it is very liberating to go back to a simple grading system that involves accumulating points towards a letter grade. These days I tend to grade formative learning activities for completion and let summative assessments like tests and essays carry the weight of the points towards the final grade. But yeah, I’m back to using points to calculate a grade like most everyone else.

I haven’t abandoned all my ideals. I still leave comments on student work and allow for corrections to be made based on those comments. I still have very flexible due dates and believe that students learn at different rates. I still try to allow student choice in their work products and I still hate rubrics for grading those products.

To those fans of SBG who stop by this blog for hints and inspiration: sorry y’all, but I’m going to be a lot more traditional for a while at least.

To those of you in teacher-prep programs or new to teaching I’ll say this: you should use a standards-based mindset in all that you do. Learn about (or write) the standards that your students are expected to be able to know and to do. Design activities and assessments to teach and measure those standards. Just because you work like I do in a system of points and oh-so-important letter grades doesn’t mean there isn’t some way to sneak assessment of your standards into how that final grade is determined.



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