An analysis of “Binary Grading”: spring semester 2010 in review

School is out! The dirty glassware that had been on the lab counters all year is finally washed and put away.  The MacBooks have been reimaged, cleaned, and their batteries pulled for the summer. I even managed to complete an inventory of the chemicals in our science storeroom (NaOH-coated asbestos pellets anyone?).

One remaining task, though, is to analyze how my assessment system worked for me this semester. Some readers have asked for a review of Binary Grading, and here it is, now that the chaotic last days of school have been successfully negotiated.

Back in January, I began experimenting with Binary Grading, a simple change in my grading system that made my 10 point assignments worth 1 point instead. Quizzes, tests, and projects would be worth higher point values and so would make up the bulk of the final grade.  The idea was to have the final course grade reflect individual student learning and not be heavily weighted with completion grades for daily assignments. For example, these are the point values for some of the 4th quarter biology assignments:

In reflection, here are a few observations about the experience of binary grading:

  1. There was less copying of assignments overall.  I think students understood that each assignment had a learning target that they were to accomplish, and that if they copied from a neighbor, they would miss the target.  But my inner cynic says that there was just as much copying as before, except now no one was really rewarded for it in the gradebook.
  2. Assignments were completed at the same rate as when they were worth 10 points last semester.  Students could have blown off the 1 point assignments, but instead completed them just as if they were worth a lot of points.  It seems that a zero in the grade book can motivate students to turn in assignments regardless of the ultimate point value of the assignment.
  3. The 1 point assignments in the gradebook served to tell parents what we were doing in class if the online gradebook was their only window into their student’s education.  I post my daily lesson plans online, but that does not mean that parents routinely view them to see what we do in class. Assigning a point to these assignments did, in a rudimentary way, keep parents informed about what their students were studying in my classes.
  4. It was a lot easier for me to grade assignments. Either yes, a student did most of the work and understood the content, or no they did not. No more sorta-kinda grades.
  5. Overall, students were just as successful in my classes this semester as judged by their final grades in each class.  No major upward or downward trends in student grades were observed from last semester’s grades.  There were a few students whose grade did drop compared to last semester, but these were students that leaned heavily on others and who resorted to cheating on their major essays. If anything, most student grades improved this semester, but that could be due to different course content or other factors.

These observations are trivial, though, compared to how binary grading forced me to focus on appropriate and excellent assessments. In most classes, I really struggled to find ways to have students get points towards the course grade other than just daily assignment 1 point grades. I’m pretty sure I did not give enough quizzes and tests, according to some teachers.

What I did focus on, though, was project-based assessment. In anatomy and physiology, students carried out self-designed cardiovascular function labs and presented scientific posters of their results to the student body. Chemistry students tinkered with the solubility of compounds in crystal growing experiments as well as completing their major project on chemistry and technology (see here for details). AP Biology students created a boat from plastic that they had collected from their households over the course of a week as a visual aid to a presentation on the perils of plastics. Biology students compiled information about various lines of evidence for evolution and wrote about their own current level of understanding of how evolution is thought to occur.

What these projects led to was a huge drop in the number of multiple choice exams that I gave this semester, down to nearly none, in fact. I gave a few essay exams, like the Central Dogma exam mentioned in the figure above, but most major assessments of student knowledge this semester were from projects and take-home essays. Granted, the course content lends itself to project-based learning this time of year, with major dissections in biology and anatomy and physiology (pig and cat, respectively).  But even so, it was striking to me how different this semester was in terms of the major grades that students received. Last semester, I gave a bunch of multiple choice tests that students generally did not do so well on, but their grades were propped up by the daily 10 point assignments.  This semester, the daily stuff mattered, but only as guideposts to the project-based learning that students were doing.

So what will my assessment scheme look like next year? Would I use binary grading again? I’m sure that it works better than my last grading setup, but I’m not convinced that it is perfect. Reading Joe Bower, Matt Townsley, and others, I’m beginning to think that my grading system doesn’t go far enough to communicate to students and parents exactly what students have learned. I plan on working this summer on creating standards-based grading systems for each course.

I suspect that the binary grading system will live on in some incarnation as part of a larger standards-based framework, but that remains to be determined. So much for a relaxing summer…


  1. MsGajda’s avatar

    I really appreciate this analysis. I will be starting my first year teaching and in planning my grading strategy I am trying to find a balance between using assessment for learning and needing to take down marks in a grade book for the end of year evaluation. I like the idea of a binary system for small assignments. What kind of feedback did you provide when you returned assignments? Did students ever perform any sort of self-assessment, or peer-assessment, in order to get more out of the assessment process?

    Also, you mention at the end of your post about standards-based grading system. Could you expand on that? I’m not familiar with that term. Cheers!


    1. Chris Ludwig’s avatar

      Thanks for reading!

      I’ll answer the question about standards-based grades first, since that is where my head is at the moment. Basically, standards-based assessment and reporting (sbar), if done properly, looks to be a great way to let students and parents know exactly what skills and knowledge each student has learned. As I understand it, sbar breaks your course content down into specific learning goals that students can work towards at their own pace, including multiple chances to prove that they have met particular targets. The main folks that I am reading at the moment about sbar are Matt Townsley, Shawn Cornally, and Jason Buell. I also recommend searching the #sbar hashtag for some others on Twitter.

      As a first year teacher, you have a lot on your plate so sbar might seem a lofty goal. The binary grading idea might be a place to start, since it keeps track of assignments without giving them too much weight in the gradebook and it does not need to be all planned out before the school year starts. The one-point assignments can be for those types of activities that are great learning practice, but they might not necessarily be assessments of learning. Feedback to students on these assignments can vary depending on the assignment, from a little to a lot.

      The key is to have multiple ways for your students to gain points and for you to get a chance to assess what they know. Personally, I’m trying to get away from the race for points, which is why I’m struggling with setting up an sbar system for next year.

      Good luck!


Leave a Reply