On why standards-based grading isn’t enough to transform a classroom

Mediocre Physics Teacher has an interesting question for the SBG crowd:

The worst epithet an SBG teacher can hurl at another teacher seems to be “Your grading is nothing but a game for points.” I don’t understand how replacing 70s, 80s, and 90’s with collections of 2’s, 3’s, and 4’s changes the motivation of college-bound students from achievement toward learning. I don’t understand how it’s not points.

There are two issues to address here: the grading system itself and the level of motivation of students.

Is it possible to do SBG where its still just about points? Sure, if your assessments of learning suck like mine often do (did?). For me, implementing an SBG grading system isn’t what transforms what I do. It’s mostly a new structure to my gradebook.  I could theoretically take every assignment that I gave last year and shove it into a standards-based category in my gradebook to spit it back to kids this year. This wouldn’t be a shift in how I teach at all. Kids would still complete the same worksheets and study guides that I used to give out,  but they would just find weird subscores written on each one for each standard that the worksheet met in the gradebook.  They would play the same games of copying their neighbors work without putting much thought into the assignments, because no real thought was needed for some of the stuff I used to grade for points.  Its not about points, its about crappy, weak assessments.

What  needs to happen to transform your classroom is a very careful weeding out of what finds its way into your gradebook.  If you are still giving out worksheets and study guides like I do, recognize that they are practice activities and shouldn’t be in the gradebook at all.  If a kid doesn’t complete it, that’s their missed chance to learn the material, or perhaps they’ve found another way to learn about it through some other resource. There’s this thing called the Internet these days that has way better learning activities than half of the stuff I throw at my kids. These sorts of practice activities, like homework, webquests, and study guides don’t need to be graded.

Next, kids need to be doing lots of formative assessment before they hit anything that is going to become a permanent fixture in their gradebook. For me, this takes the form of student blogs. After the practice activities are over and they have some new learning to show off, my kids head to their blogs to tell each other about it.  Posts on each student’s blog reflect their current understanding of a topic. If that understanding changes, then another post is in order or corrections can be made to the original post. Its not set in stone: everything is editable. If a student wants to “reassess,” they write another post. We do a few quizzes and tests, but since the best test questions are of the free response variety anyway, why not let students write all the time whenever they want? Throw in some spicy, fun web 2.0 tools and some students will produce artifacts for you like crazy. I keep tabs on students’ blogs and write comments and a “grade” that I think represents their current level of understanding of the different standards. This “grade” is very fluid and represents formative assessment. I put it into our school’s online gradebook for parents and students to see, but they know that it can fluctuate a lot before the end of a marking period.

There is some summative assessment (a.k.a. big tests) that happens towards the end of each quarter in the form of a midterm or final exam, but those are not nearly as important to the students’ final grades as are their efforts to explain their learning in their own words.

Back now to the second issue raised in the quote above: motivation. If a student’s grade is the sum of all their points, they will try for more points to add to the total. If a students grade is the sum of all standards where each and every content and skill standard matters for the final grade, they will try to provide evidence that they have learned each skill.  I highly recommend abandoning (or subverting) grading programs that average a student’s numerical scores. Each and every standard should be considered separately.  That way the goal of each student is to demonstrate mastery of each standard so that no unmet standard pulls down their grade due to lack of effort to understand that topic.  It works that way about 80% of the time with my students, with an unfortunate few unwilling to put forth the effort (samjshah has a great rant about that here).

In summary, get your kids used to the terms “practice,” “formative assessment,” and “summative assessment.” Do lots of the first, keep track of the second in a flexible sort of system, and only sprinkle in the last when you feel its really needed. If you want to do this in an SBG system, so much the better, because then you can more easily keep track of where students are at on specific learning standards and learn what you need to do as an instructor to help them grasp the important ideas of your discipline.

12 thoughts on “On why standards-based grading isn’t enough to transform a classroom

  1. Ryan McClintock

    I like the blog idea … and appreciate both this post and the Learn/Share reference. Seeing some of your kids’ posts is very helpful! Thanks Chris.

    1. Chris Ludwig Post author

      The subversion I refer to is the need to tweak our online gradebook (GoEdustar) away from calculating averages by having it take my 9 standards grade columns out of the average. I then have a 10th column that I manually enter a percentage score from your Google gradesheet. Its not pretty, but it works ok.

  2. Joe Rineer

    Hi, Chris. We just started the 2nd semester and already I ahve had students ask if they got points for answering questions right on an introductory game. I guess this is just what they are used to. I am an SBG newbie and also teach bio. I have incorporated scientific inquiry skills into the standards that will be graded. I routinely have the students work in groups to complete projects as well as labs. This is where the inquiry skills are really tested. My question is how do you go about determining an individual’s skill level at forming and revising hypothesis or communicating their conclusions, etc. if we do not use group grades. I understand how to assess the concepts from the projects individually, but the inquiry skills I am having a problem with. Any suggestions?

  3. Chris Ludwig Post author

    I’m in my second semester of SBG and I still have a few kids who look at me crosswise after we complete a practice activity and they realize they did it for zero points. Lots of other kids get it, though, and go on to write a blog post about what they’ve learned. I’ve struggled a lot with assessing group work too, so I’ve tried to figure out more individualized ways of having students show off their inquiry skills.

    To begin with, I assess the more “cookbook” lab procedures and principles separately, often with quizzes after a lab, which are pretty good at picking up individuals who were or weren’t paying attention to the lab. Data analysis also gets its own standard, which is easy to assess independently with quizzes or blog posts where students graph data and describe what the graph shows.

    Experimental design gets its own standard which students have met in a variety of ways by designing both real and simulated labs. This one is tricky with real labs because we are usually in small groups and its hard to tell who did a lot of the thinking and designing of the lab. I have found a “dry lab” activity or two that gives students the ability to tell me how they would set up a lab on their own, which did give me some better idea about individual skills. But as a rule I would rather do real inquiry labs, so I’ll probably just fall back on a lot of informal assessment that I somehow document and use for determining student performance on the experimental design standard.

  4. Joe Rineer

    Thanks for the quick response. I thinking about something along these lines, but wanted to see what others are doing. I think this is the trickiest part of incorporating inquiry skills. I often walk around as students are conducting their labs and I hear a lot of great ideas as they are doing the labs/projects. I think I will have to include these as formative assessments as well. I appreciate all of the resourcesand advice you have offered. Thank you.

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