Standards-based grading: Chemistry vs. Biology standards

I’ve made a little progress towards implementing standards-based grading (sbar) for next year and thought I would throw it out there for those of you in the same boat and for the sbar pros to critique.  It was actually pretty easy to choose the standards that will go in the grade book for my classes, since I teach mostly concurrent credit classes which need to be articulated with Colorado’s Community College Common Courses guidelines.  The guidelines are very handy in that they have lists of “standard competencies” that students are supposed to master in the course.  I have simply reworked those a bit to give my students the learning targets to achieve during the school year.

So far I’ve worked on my chemistry and biology preps and it is remarkable the difference between them in terms of the standards that are linked to each course. I am currently thinking of trying out 8 biology standards and 10 chemistry standards. As Shawn Cornally has pointed out here and here, there seems to be a difference between qualitative courses like biology (lots of facts to memorize) and quantitative courses like chemistry (lots of procedural skills to master) in terms of the standards one focuses on.

The biology standards are much more process-oriented and not necessarily tied to specific content topics. I like this set of standards because it downplays the sometimes disconnected trivial knowledge tidbits that we biology teachers get hung up on. Sure, the content is still important, but it will no longer make up the bulk of the grade.

Chemistry standards were much easier to organize, as I suspect physics standards would be, because we tend to teach sets of skills that build on each other as the course progresses. Understand atoms to understand compounds to understand reactions and so on. Hopefully with a standards-based system in place, I can have an easier time of reevaluating and assisting students who may take longer to acquire some of the skills taught earlier in the course so that they are not so lost in the later stages.

What I have yet to figure out, and some of you sbar pros can weigh in on this, is how to translate the standards that I have into what actually appears in the gradebook for students to see. I want students and their parents to know where their strengths and weaknesses are in terms of content and procedural knowledge, but I also want to keep the reporting and grade calculation as simple as possible: mutually exclusive goals, perhaps.

My initial thought is to have only the 8 or 10 major standards appear in my online gradebook along with midterm and final exam grades.  Progress towards the standards would be tracked separately, perhaps in a student-accessible spreadsheet or using Shawn’s SBG gradebook. I’ve wondered, too, about visualizing student progress using Roambi if I go the spreadsheet route.

I’ll be working on the standards for my other two preps, Anatomy and Physiology and AP Biology, over the next few weeks, but I suspect that the standards for those classes will look a lot like the biology standards, given their qualitative content. I’ll also be working out the mechanics of how to track grades, keep students informed of their progress, assess and reassess, and compute final grades in an sbar system. No small task, but that’s what summers are for. (Update: revised standards and the philosophy behind them are discussed here)

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  1. Ellena Bethea’s avatar

    I am very interested in your binary grading system to deal with daily chemistry assignments, and I think that this standards-based approach is particularly helpful in moving in the right direction for grading labs and larger assignments. Depending on what form your feedback takes, it could be very informative and useful to the students as well as teachers.

    It might even be helpful to have students assess their own ability to meet these standards. Will you make them available to your classes?


  2. Chris Ludwig’s avatar

    I would love to have students use the standards to self-assess. They will certainly have access to the standards from the very beginning of the year so that they know exactly what is expected of them in the course. It should be interesting to see how I work self-assessments into the overall grade, but I know that I want to. Thanks for the comment!


  3. Ellena Bethea’s avatar

    Another thought:

    Let’s say you have a constantly recurring standard (Significant Figures, for instance). If a student’s grades for SigFigs look like:

    Test 1: 0% (0/2 pts)
    Test 2: 50% (1/2 pts)
    Test 3: 0% (2/2 pts)
    Test 4: 100% (2/2 pts)
    Final Exam: 0% (0/2 pts)

    What will a summative grade for this skill look like? Would it be an average? Or reflect the most recent assessment, where the grade is constantly replaced? Or will the points for each skill be cumulative (Out of 10 points, 5/10 are earned)?

    Mastery-based grading would favor the second option, and therefore, the student would earn a zero for sigfigs.


  4. Chris Ludwig’s avatar

    The situation you describe is one that I’ve seen drive the SBG people nuts. Different people seem to have different ways of dealing with this situation. I would vote for using something like Shawn Cornally’s system in which he has the standards-based stuff be 85% of the grade with a midterm and final each worth 7.5%. That keeps kids on their toes in terms of taking summative assessments but does let them improve their grade during the year on the core concepts and skills. In the situation you describe, the final exam score would be lowered by the student’s lack of recall on sig figs but they might have saved their grade somewhat by their most recent performance on that standard. When in doubt, I suppose some sort of “tiebreaker” assessment or student conference could be used to nail down the current status of a student’s knowledge of a particular standard.


  5. Bev’s avatar

    I use the CCCS for my dual enrollment classes; thanks for giving me a visual of how to use as sbar! I also like the 10 you have chosen for chemistry. Now to work out my own point system . . .! Do like your 85% but I also rely heavily on projects instead of tests for final grades so fine-tuning will have to be done before start of school.


  6. Hadley Hentschel’s avatar

    Chris, this is a huge challenge. I have been trying to work within the SBG for my 8 years of teaching. I like that you have committed to just a few essential standards for each class, that was the hardest lesson for me to learn. I think what has helped me and my students the most in this endeavor has been to write a series of essential questions that go with each standard. I can put one or two of these questions on the board each day as a learning objective and the kids really can self-assess based off of the key questions for each standard.
    As far as grading goes, Ellena brings up some great points. Our district tried to pitch SBG as more objective, but there is an incredible amount of subjectivity to it, which is really hard to defend. I still don’t feel like I have a magic answer because there are always exception to each “rule” I figure out. Best of luck.


  7. Chris Ludwig’s avatar

    Thanks for the insight from your experiences. I’ve wondered, too, how objective SBG is. But the more I read lately, the more I’m convinced that what we need is not standardized, objective grading systems but more subjective grading systems, those that allow the teacher to personalize assessment for each student and students to have a role in defining the assessments. This should be done, though, in the framework of high expectations and defined learning targets. I’m still new enough at this to be idealistic, but I think SBG is the way to allow this to happen.


  8. Jason Buell’s avatar

    @Chris: Your last comment was OUTSTANDING. You’ve got to spin that off into a full blog post.


  9. Dawn Posekany’s avatar

    Thanks for the link to your biology standards. I am working on examining curriculum to determine the learning targets for my bio class, too. I was excited to see inquiry based standards. I wish in science we could just focus on that! Have you considered breaking up your first standard or why didn’t you? Do you think there is value in parents and students knowing where they stand on each of those areas within biology? Thanks! Great work!


    1. Chris Ludwig’s avatar


      I wondered, too, about breaking out the first standard into individual content areas, but I decided that in terms of what appears in the gradebook for final calculation of student grades, content memorization and recall should not take up a massive percentage of the grade. I’m more interested in assessing scientific process and critical thinking skills. I will have another channel for communicating particular content knowledge strengths and weaknesses other than the online gradebook.


    2. Ellena Bethea’s avatar

      I would think that your biology standards (2-8) would be applicable to any lab science, qualitative or quantitative. Scientific process and critical thinking in particular are important in chemistry. Your chemistry standards seem overwhelmingly detailed in comparison (For instance, “5.a.i. Use Lewis dot structures to explain the formation of ions for the representative elements.” – Would a student who understands how and why ions form need to use a Lewis dot structure to do so? If so, why would using other means demonstrate something less than mastery?)

      As I’m developing my own list, it seems that there’s a fine line between making a checklist of tasks to be performed (ie, specific labs, calculations) and an accumulation of essential understandings. I’m trying to start each unit with main ideas (i guess essential questions) and building from there. But considering I’ve made little progress so far, maybe you’re on to something. :)


      1. Chris Ludwig’s avatar

        You are absolutely right about the chemistry standards being more detailed. I think as they evolve over the next few weeks before school, I might modify them to be more like the biology standards. I think I intended the 10 major chemistry standards to be the gradebook columns, but I just got more detailed in the supporting content than maybe was necessary. Having done the chemistry standards first, maybe I need to go back over them with a focus on simplicity that I seemed have when working with the biology standards.


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