Standards-Based Grading in the land of portfolios, blogs, and other time-sucking grumkins: a how-to guide

This post is an update to my older year end wrap up that seems to get a lot of traffic from people searching for “standards-based grades” and similar terms. I can only assume that there are lots of folks out there trying to get their heads around what SBG is about and how to do it. What follows will be a (hopefully) concise discussion of my spin on SBG and how I assess students using blogs and portfolios.

If you’ve drunk even a little bit of the SBG kool-aid you’ll know that the lofty goals of grading and assessment reform can be stated something like this:

  • have students show what they really know and can do
  • make learning rather than grades the focus
  • if you have to produce a “grade,” reform your grade book to reflect learning, not compliance/completion
  • ditch points-based, averaging nonsense and banish “zeros” since neither concept helps describe what a student knows and can do
  • since grades reflect learning, allow reassessments to show new understanding of concepts

If these sound like ideas you can get behind, read on. If you like your current, points-based system, read on too, because you’ll feel justified in a little bit.

How do you meet the lofty goals listed above? Here is roughly the sequence of steps that I would recommend:

Step 1: Define your standards

Notice I didn’t say to parrot back your state standards or (goodness gracious) our new national standards. These have to be yours. As in “these are the things that I really believe to be important” standards. There should be some overlap, of course, if your state department of education has done its job reasonably well. Different people will approach this very differently, from having lots and lots of standards to having only a few. Marzano suggests that we should “limit measurement topics to 20 or fewer per subject area and grade level.” I read this after I had done my standards-crunching, but I agree with it, since I identified just 9 major areas that I wanted to assess. These are Content Knowledge, Research, Lab Skills, Experimental Design, Data Analysis, Tech Savvy, Communication, Self-Analysis, and Contribution to Community.

The most unique thing about this set of standards compared to others I’ve seen is the smashing of all the content for each course into one standard. I teach science and so have lots and lots of content to discuss in each of my courses (anatomy, biology, chemistry, physics, and AP Biology and yes, I’m at a rural school with only 4 science teachers in grades 7-12 for 600 kids). I don’t think that content is the most important thing, though, not anymore, with the interwebz and such just a Google away. I don’t ignore content ideas, I just don’t overemphasize them in the final grade determination. Instead, I’m more interested in building a skill set for students that they are going to take with them regardless of which little factoids that they remember from my classes. But that’s my take on standards. Yours will be yours.

Step 2: Develop an Assessment Philosophy

Yes, I know this sounds like something that you did for an assignment once upon a time in teacher-school, but really, it will help you out greatly if you put it down in words, especially if you make it available to parents and students. Mine’s here, if you want an example. I’m sure it would fail all of the guidelines for an official teacher-school document, but there it is. This doc is where you need to think about what you believe about assessment of student learning: Do you give quizzes and tests to see what kids know? Does every student do the same set of assignments in the same way? Will you assess using your favorite worksheets but score them by standard? Can students make up for failing or missed assignments or is assessment a one-shot deal so they learn the value of deadlines?

Basically, what you want to do in this Assessment Philosophy is lay out how you plan on determining what students know and what they can do. Again, my way of doing it may be very different from yours. I have students do a ton of writing and creating in blogs and portfolios but do almost no formal testing. Other teachers that I adore do lots of tests and quizzes that show how much their students have learned. Good arguments exist for both kinds of assessments.

Step 3: Determine how you will assign final grades

Ah, the stickiest issue of all, particularly for high school teachers who get to deal with parents and students worried about class rank, scholarships, and acceptance to their favorite college. Woo hoo!? If you have to assign grades, and most of us do, this is the part where your idealistic standards hit the wall of whatever online gradebook your school happens to suscribe to. Some play nicer with standards than others, but in any case you are going to have to figure out how to mesh what you do with standards with what students and parents see in the gradebook. I happen to have been fortunate enough to be good friends with my tech director who set up some lovely manually entered standards within Infinite Campus so I can determine the grade however I want and just report it out online. Other teachers I’ve read about have not been so lucky, having to prove that x% of their grade comes from labs and y% from tests or whatever, which will take a bit more massaging in a standards-based system.
You will want to carefully consider how you convert what students do on lots of separate standards into a single letter grade. This task sucks and essentially reverse-engineers everything you’ve been trying to do, but until more teachers and school districts get behind just reporting learning standards, we’ll have to deal with it. Many options exist: Will you figure out an average score using scores from all the standards? Will you have basic and advanced standards and use achievement of the advanced ones to assign higher letter grades? Will you look at performance on all the standards at once and apply a set of rules to determine a final grade? I lean towards the latter and have a system in place that counts the number of advanced, proficient, partially-proficient, and unsatisfactory standards to determine the final grade.

Step 4: Try it out!

Implementation time! After a summer of planning and writing about your new standards-based grading system, the first days of school are going to be great! Except don’t expect students to want to hear every detail all at once. Spend some time getting to know your students and building up your classroom community before digging into the nitty gritty of how their grades will be determined. Oh sure, make your pretty documents and web pages available, but don’t expect students to read them right away, if ever. Instead, coach students on the philosophy of your class, about what they can do to show you that they are learning something in your class. Give them the tools to be successful on your assessments, even if they don’t quite see the big picture of how standards-based grading in your class works. And constantly remind them that they can improve on past failures and mistakes, if you allow that sort of thing, because chances are your students have been trained to fire and forget on most assessments. Its the mental shift that you need to work on, not just in yourself, but in your students as well for this sort of assessment scheme to succeed.

Be warned, though. These changes will come at a serious price: your time.

There are some school days that I look enviously at the student aides for one of my neighbor teachers, slogging away with an answer key and a red marker at piles of that teacher’s turned-in assignments. Oh, says I upon seeing such sights, why didn’t I stay with the worksheet and my lovely 10 (or 1) point grading system? I could have aides do my grading for me. It was so easy to check off whether someone had done some learning or not. But I know that system didn’t really do much besides speed up the process of assigning a grade, and wasn’t really about assessment at all.

It takes time to really get to know what kids are learning in your classroom. Anyone, including student aides, can grade a worksheet, tally a point total, and enter it into a grade book without knowing a darn thing about the student that turned it in. It will take more time to grade by standards, particularly if you are going to go the route I did and develop student blogs and online portfolios. Those sorts of things take time to make and take time to assess so be prepared to spend more class time on assessments and be ready to spend more of your own time on reviewing them.

I love this note that a reader left in a conversation on my Assessment Philosophy:

I’ve been reading this document and now have a clearer idea of what you were talking about. My principal question, which I’m sure is answered somewhere, is how does one manage it? Reading and commenting on scores of portfolios that vary greatly in quality would seem to be an extremely time-consuming endeavor. I have been in a 17 year struggle to have a normal life outside of teaching, one I have largely lost. I want the students to do most of the thinking and the work while I do relatively little, but for general classes anyway, the reverse seems to be most true. Do you know where in Chris’ webpage or blog he reveals the secrets to evaluating the portfolios without committing evenings and weekends to the task? Thanks,

Larry

Larry is absolutely in the right in thinking that reading and commenting on blogs and portfolios is extremely time consuming. But the tradeoff is that no two student blogs are the same and reading a student’s writing is so much more interesting than scoring worksheets. The digital artifacts they create will be very unique and entertaining if they are done well, as most are in my experience. Is it overwhelming at times? Sure! But strategies like using Google Reader to keep track of when students post and which ones I’ve read and using Google Doc spreadsheets (or Blue Harvest) for keeping track of comments helps a lot. I also keep links to all student portfolios in one place using Pearltrees, which makes access to the otherwise clunky Google Sites in our district much more useable.

I found, too, that as the school year progressed, I spent much less time “grading” the blogs and was able to just read them to keep tabs on what the students were writing about and making sure they weren’t straying too far afield in putting their portfolio together. This happened somewhere around the end of the first semester when there was an “aha” moment of sorts for a lot of students when they finally understood what the portfolio was about and how it was being used to determine their overall grade. From that point on, it was obvious to students that the blank portfolio pages that I provided for them represented what I wanted them to know before they left the class. From then on, they became much more aware of what had to be done and they just did it, regardless of whether I “graded” their posts every time or not. In fact, for most of 2nd semester I only graded the portfolio (since that’s what I said I would grade anyway) and just read the blog posts for fun as part of the portfolio.

I think there will always be some sort of “training period” each school year in which I have to do a lot of “grading” and actually give blog posts scores on the 4 point scale just to give students an idea of what I’m looking for, but from then on, they seem pretty capable of producing artifacts for the portfolio without me having to grade each and every one of them. Grading the portfolios was an awesome way to end the year and a real triumph for standards-based grading since the portfolio made it so easy to assess what a student had learned in specific areas.

Still, I won’t claim to be sad to hit summer so I can spend some more time with my own little grumkins:

Ludwig kids

Thanks for hanging on through this not-so-concise romp through how I implement standards-based grades in my classes. I encourage you to try even small steps to reform your grading system, if you haven’t already. As for all the details, I’m sure there’s tons of stuff I left out so drop me a comment and we’ll fill in the gaps together.

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  1. john’s avatar

    Chris,
    Thanks for writing this. It’s an excellent resource. One question—it seems like your assessment philosophy google doc is only one page, or all the pages of text after the first page are blank. Is that intentional?

    Reply

    1. Chris Ludwig’s avatar

      John,
      Thanks for the note. As far as I can tell, that doc is all there. As long as you can see point 11 and my signature at the end, you’ve got it all. Peeking at it on a mobile browser just now (not signed in to Google) looks normal and doesn’t show the extra pages you mention. Hopefully it’s just some weird temporary browser issue, but if others report it too, I’ll see what I can fix.

      Reply

    2. Ericka Ann Lawson’s avatar

      Thanks for this blog post. I have tried to use a more portfolio based approach in the past and gotten hesitation and resistance by my school. I’m switching districts and schools this year and am glad to see a refresher on how others are approaching this valuable way to provide valued feedback and nurtured growth to students. Thanks a bunch!
      Ericka Ann

      Reply

    3. Carolyn Durley’s avatar

      Thanks you so much for unpacking and sharing your process here. It is a big task to re-think assessment practices and reading through your process has helped me immensely.

      Just a question for you around your standards: Do standards 8 and 9 (progress and process) go in to the creation of the final mark in the course or do students just keep track of these in their portfolios? If you do use these standards in their final mark I was just curious about your thinking behind including them?

      I am excited and nervous to dive into the e-portfolio jungle, your blog was pivotal for me in shifting my thinking. Again heart felt appreciation for sharing!
      best,
      Carolyn

      Reply

      1. Chris Ludwig’s avatar

        Standards 8 and 9 do find their way into the final grade. In my experience some students excel at self-reflection and others are great at helping others learn in different ways. I want to reward those students for their skills and push others to develop in those areas, although I rarely use those standards to bring down student grades. The only case I can remember of using std 9 in a punitive way was for a student who was trolling an online chat room and using abusive language. Still, it was handy to have a standard to which I could hold that student accountable.

        Reply

      2. Brandi Bliss’s avatar

        Thank you so much for all of the info you posted about your standards based grading. My old school is going to a system that is like this. It is a lot of work upfront, but in the end, there are much fewer papers to truck home and grade. You are saving yourself time, but putting it in in the beginning.

        Thanks again!

        Reply

      3. molly’s avatar

        I’m really interested in learning about problem based learning. Thank you for this site.

        Reply

      4. Lori’s avatar

        Chris,
        Thank you for such great information. I started having the students blog about their experiments and learning this year and have found it to be very rewarding, informative, and…of course a bit time consuming. Love the Pearltrees program as well. I wanted to ask, did you ever have trouble with the students’ blogs on the pearls being updated (synced?)? I am having trouble seeing their current posts when accessing their pearls. Thanks again!

        Reply

        1. Chris Ludwig’s avatar

          Lori,

          I haven’t seen the problems you describe with Pearltrees. I would think that since Pearltrees just stores the URL of a website, that as the website or blog is updated the link shouldn’t change and should take you to the updated page. As long as your pearl is the top level address for the student blog and not a bookmark (pearl) to a specific post, then you should see students’ changes.

          Reply

          1. Lori’s avatar

            Chris,
            Thank you so much! That is what I was thinking originally. I will go back and check what address I was transferring. Thanks again for such great insight and sharing of your teaching.

            Reply

          2. Doug Cullen’s avatar

            Chris
            A very interesting approach. I’m interested in your statement that you give your students blank portfolio pages. Are you actually adding pages to their portfolio, or just providing instructions/requirements for pages in their portfolio e.g “Add a page to Standard 1 labeled “B: Organization of the Body” with the following goal “Goal: Describe the levels of structural organization and their relationships and learn the medical terminology used to describe relative position, body sections, and body regions.”?

            Reply

            1. Chris Ludwig’s avatar

              Doug,
              Our school uses Google Apps so its easy to share a template portfolio site with students. I build a template for each course and name it something clever like “Anatomy Portfolio Template” which students then select when they first set up the Google Site that will be their portfolio. By choosing this template to build their site, they get a web page for each standard that includes a statement of the goal and blank space to fill with links to the different artifacts. Beyond that, it’s up to the student to tweak the site settings to customize it as they see fit.

              Reply

            2. Chris Ranker’s avatar

              Can you provide an example of a “unit” you would do in biology and what the day to day would look like? I have been attempting to make the “final jump” off the SBG cliff but have struggled with what that will look like on a day to day basis.

              Reply

              1. Chris Ludwig’s avatar

                Chris,
                Probably the closest I can get to sending you one of my biology units would be to refer you to my post on building a NGSS-aligned biology curriculum (http://wp.me/p2Hjzq-gS) in which I’ve linked an outline of my biology units along with some of the activities, labs, and assessments. See if those give enough detail. Going SBG doesn’t necessarily mean that you change how your class operates on a day to day basis, just how you collect and assess student work. Ease into SBG by making some changes to the gradebook first based on your standards then work on how you will change your activities and assessments to match. Good luck and keep me posted on how it goes.

                Reply

                1. Chris Ranker’s avatar

                  Thank you very helpful. The student portfolio was very cool to see as well. Do you provide the goals on each of the student portfolio topics? Also, would you be able to share a sample of what a blog between you and a student looks like? Your experiences have been very inspiring. Thank you for sharing!

                  Reply

                  1. Chris Ludwig’s avatar

                    I post links to all current student blogs on my Parents page so you can browse to see how the blogs play out in my different classes and with different students. Thanks for following!

                    Reply

                  2. Keith Devereaux’s avatar

                    How do students determine what they want to blog about and how often to do it?

                    Reply

                    1. Chris Ludwig’s avatar

                      Keith,

                      I try for a gradual release of responsibility with the blogs. Towards the beginning of a school year I’ll have some specific question sets, webquests, or other required blog prompts that all students do. As the year goes on I try to be more open ended about what needs to be in the blog. This is where SBG allows me to point kids towards general topics (standards) that they need to show evidence of understanding in, i.e. blog about. Remember, too, that creating a blog post can involve making a movie, concept map, or other artifact that shows learning. The blog merely organizes evidence of learning chronologically. Different students might choose to demonstrate the same standard in very different ways on their blog, especially later in the year or after they’ve had me as a teacher for a previous course.

                      Reply

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