Grade police vs SBG: Does anyone win?

I’ve been struggling with having to cram my SBG system into the constraints of my school’s antiquated system of grades. As much as I’d love to say that I’m happy with the results, I’m not.

This week I’m faced with the task of finally making students responsible for a grade that will appear on a report card. Even though it actually doesn’t mean anything in terms of my course grades (I carry over standards scores from quarter to quarter), students seem to be finally paying attention to their standards-based grades and freaking out.

Before I get to the freaking out part, let me remind you that I am using standards-based assessment and reporting for the first time at our high school, as is my fellow troublemaker and art teacher Justin Miller (@boundstaffpress).  We deal with the school’s accountability system of printing student grades every week and threatening the wrongdoers (F-troopers), some of whom even get pulled out of class every Monday. I suppose they are given a stern lecture or some such punishment. Clearly the whole system is NOT student-driven and relies on administrators and athletic coaches being the big brother watching over students’ grades to tell them when they are off track.

Meanwhile, in my idealistic little corner of the universe, I figured that SBG was going to increase students’ independence. They would see their grades listed by standard and take charge of which types of evidence they wanted to use to show me that they were learning each standard. Sure, we would work on some core ideas as a class and take the occasional quiz, midterm, and final exam together, but overall, students would show me what they were learning more or less independently.

You see the conflict coming now I’m sure. What I forgot to take into account was how trained students are by our school’s systems of points and eligibility lists.  It turned out that as long as they were not failing my class, an alarming number of students assumed that they were doing fine in my class, even though their blogs and SBG gradesheets (reasonably frequently updated, I might add) were practically empty of any evidence of learning. Parents, too, seemed happy with student grades as long as the overall percentage “grade” was high enough, even though some standards were not yet met.

I had been reserving judgement on some of these students who seemingly had a hard time getting assignments done, preferring to keep their grade posted at a 62% D, which meant that for most of the quarter, no one was failing my classes. But this week, reality set in. I had to match my system to that of the school and punish the unworthy who were not doing their work. F’s in abundance arose all at once because many students had missed at least one chance to meet one of the standards.  And in my system, each standard counts Marzano/Buell conjunctive style. So one standard not met (there’s only 9, by the way) meant a stinky F appeared.

So now I have students flipping out and frantically trying to complete required blog posts that most students finished weeks ago. A few have even resorted to copying others’ posts in their panic to get off the ineligible list. Some are doing reassessments for a lab quiz that few students appeared to take seriously the first time around (sadly, it was the only assessment for the lab skills standard in that course so now their grade is hosed).

It probably doesn’t help that I don’t push hard and fast deadlines for blog posts so some students never wrote them.  It also doesn’t help that some standards were only assessed once or twice in the quarter so that I didn’t feel confident enough in students’ ability on that standard to give them a ‘real grade’ until just this week. Maybe it’s just that I’ve been teacher-centered way too often (the students I have this year certainly expected to be taught that way when I met them) and haven’t allowed students to be more in charge of their own assessments and reassessments.

That was my downfall this quarter- I bought into the system that said I needed to have specific assignments from students or else they have to report on Monday mornings to the grade police.

That’s what will change next quarter- I’m giving them their independence back.

We will do labs and activities to help them meet the various content and skill standards. The rest is up to them. They have a place to post evidence of their learning (their blogs). They know what general skills I expect them to master (the Standards). They know that they can succeed if they work hard on each standard. I’ll probably need to throw in “forced reassessments” (Matt Townsley’s term) along the way if some of the standard scores appear to be getting stale, but hopefully it won’t come to that too often if students are demonstrating their learning.

Then we can sit down together in December and have a real conference where they can defend a grade for the standards-based portion of the class grade instead of having to freak out at the last minute when “real grades” appear out of nowhere. Will I continue to “grade” along the way? Probably, since both parents and students seem to really key in on a number. The grade police, too, are watching. Let’s show them what kids can do with a little independence.

8 thoughts on “Grade police vs SBG: Does anyone win?

  1. gasstationwithoutpum

    It seems that you threw the kids into the deep end and were surprised that they didn’t swim. The transition from one assessment method to another needs to be scaffolded. If students have developed a method for scheduling their time based on deadlines, and you don’t have deadlines, then you need to help them develop a different way to schedule their time (most adults I know have trouble with this).

    If you are going to report their grade as the minimum over all standards, then they need to see that in their grade reports every week, not just at the end of the quarter.

    If you want kids to make learning a priority, you can’t just assume it will happen if you just give them freedom to fail.

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  2. Michael Rees

    I also think that students were still adapting to the system and didn’t really realize that one missing assignment was enough to derail the entire letter grade. Once the poor guy changed the letter grades to reflect this aspect of SBG, was made, I think students learned that this could happen and will hopefully take steps to prevent this in the future. I also think that the independence is important because it gives students the tools to be self-driven and forces the students to take the initiative and work for their grade.

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  3. Chris Ludwig Post author

    @gasstationwithoutpumps I guess what I was most surprised about was the degree to which students seemingly failed to grasp the basic tenets of my system, namely that each standard score contributes to the final grade but you can reassess each standard. I attribute that to having to switch kids from an “assignment” mentality (this assignment is worth 10 points) to a standards mentality (I have learned how to do this and here is my proof). The way that I required specific blog posts for certain standards on the quarter grade does feel like scaffolding, since that harkens back to the assignment mentality where the teacher dictates exactly what students produce. I think, as Michael (one of my students) says above, students might understand it more now that they have seen it in action.
    You are absolutely right in your comment that the process of breaking them into the numerical side of the system should have happened sooner than it did. But I hate the numerical “grade” and was avoiding it as long as I could, perhaps to students’ detriment.

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  4. Jonathan Bjork

    What grade level(s) are you dealing with? I can’t help but think there’s a maturity gap present here. My initial SBG attempt is with AP Biology (jrs/srs) who are motivated, interested, and responsible. If I was to do this with my elective courses (mostly sophs) I can’t help but think it would fail miserably the first time around. Also, is SBG present anywhere else in the school? At our school both math and foreign language has a sort-of SBG system in place so the kids have some familiarity with the concept in general when I see them (though the rubrics and expectations vary from content to content, and teacher to teacher, which I’m ok with).
    I would have to think that more real-time “grade” feedback could help instill some responsibility and motivation (albeit grade-driven), rather than a one-shot grade at the end of the term.
    Hopefully the independence you’re going for helps this as well. As in, “write up your lab report as you see fit (don’t necessarily conform to one exact form), just get the information across to me so I can gauge your understanding.”

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  5. Chris Ludwig Post author

    @jonathan: I work with mostly juniors and seniors in four different preps, all of which are using the same sort of SBG system with different content standards. I’m with you that AP Biology students are not the issue. In fact in that class, I’ve had some great input from the students into which standards we should focus on (more content, less article reviews and self-analysis). Most of the issues that I have had are from some not-so-motivated seniors in Anatomy and juniors in my regular Biology class.

    It is probably hugely important to realize that I am the only core content teacher trying SBG at our school for the first time so students have no clue what it is about. I think they do now that they are paying attention to how their grade is being determined. Some got it right from the start, but for most the quarter grade deadline has been the wakeup call.

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  6. Alex Rosenwald

    You’re not alone in this struggle, believe me. As the only teacher in my building implementing a standards-based grading system (my first time, as well!), I’m also feeling some stress due to the “programming” of students to work for the reward of a grade, rather than for the reward of knowledge and understanding. It’s helping me out that I am teaching Honors and AP Physics classes, as they are (mostly) motivated and hard-working.

    You’re also not alone in having to force a unique and different grading system into an existing framework – exceedingly frustrating. The one thing I’ve got on my side is that the parents are buying in to what I’m selling.

    Keep the faith. Your students will be better off in the end, and working through the kinks now only means more success next year.

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  7. Justin Miller

    I think that you went about it the right way. You did in fact give a deadline for all work. That deadline was the end of the quarter. When the deadline came, it was time to pay the piper. You are also spot on that our students are not prepared for this kind of reckoning. They had just never experienced it before. Fortunately for them it came at the quarter when grades are reported as progress reports and not GPA determinations. Now they can use this new data to prepare for the semester deadline.

    When new systems are presented, to students, or even to myself, I think there is a waiting period or trial period. I usually wait out admin to see if they mean business about new paperwork or PD. Students are no different.

    Something that I find helpful with an online class I teach is to publish an order of events. It doesn’t hold the students to many specific dates, but it does allow them to see where they are in the requirements for a quarter or semester. I organize mine by weeks, but there are no fixed deadlines until midterm.

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  8. Tosca Necoechea

    Brother, you just said a mouthful. I have done something similar in my second-year Spanish classes, and it’s tough. On the one hand, you kind of have to drop them in the deep end, and let them sink. I think the line graph that Shawn Cornally posted recently shows that even a teacher who has been using SBG for several years experiences a significant time period in which students either don’t try very hard or don’t make a lot of progress, in spite of trying very hard. What Justin Miller is saying about a “waiting period” also resonates with me. Students are used to teachers babying them, taking responsibility for their learning, and saving them if they mess up. They are also used to completing sheets of paper and then being done. This is not learning.

    Some strategic “waiting them out” is critical. It’s true that some students will do nothing. It’s also true that if admin or parents jump in to save them, it will really kill the deal.

    One idea I could see working as a way to ease them in would be to publish a set of graded expectations for each term. You mentioned Marzano and Buell. I set up my grading policy in that fashion. In retrospect I could have started out light-handed but shown them a increasingly strict grading policy for each quarter. However, in general I feel that they are doing more for themselves than my students have previously, and so I’m considering this semester reasonably successful.

    Keep the faith 🙂

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