Tag Archives: grading

Zero Points Were Given

This post is about the “points” game that schools play and how to avoid it. By points I mean those numbers we award to students for performances of learning in our classes. Such numbers must have something to do with measuring student learning, but how points-based grading is being used and abused is worth a deeper look.

Why do teachers use points to quantify student learning?

I suspect this answer varies from person to person, but probably for most of us it comes down to tradition. Its “always” been done this way: the teacher sets a maximum number of points possible on an assignment or test, kids do the task and turn it in, then the teacher rates the work as some percentage of the maximum value possible.

These numbers are collected, processed, massaged, and ultimately used to determine an “objective” numerical score that measures learning. Its easy. Any of the popular gradebook software programs will take whatever numbers you throw at them and crunch them into something seemingly meaningful. For example, one student is an 87%. Another is a 57%. Parents, students, and teachers “know” what this number tells us about the student. We use this type of grading system because it provides us the illusion of scientific observation of a student’s achievement.

We train students to want more points (or give up entirely when they fail to get them)

Another use of points is as a reward system. “Oh, you completed that worksheet? Here’s 10 points. You did well on my test? Here’s 89 points. You didn’t annoy me in class today? Here’s 5 points. Didn’t turn that in on time? Oops, that’s 5 points off for late work. Gotcha! That will teach you some responsibility.”

Students love points. They are like coins in Temple Run, gold in WoW, and experience points in Fallout/Skyrim/etc. Gotta rack ’em up if you want to succeed. Our message with points-based grading systems is that students are in our rooms to collect points towards a grade, to get that great level-up rush (to extend the gaming metaphor). Sadly, students don’t automatically get new skills and abilities in real life just because they’ve racked up points.

Earning and withholding points is a game we play at school

Since we’re talking about games, I think that we can game a points-based system in so many ways that the entire enterprise has to be questioned. Do you give extra credit points for extra effort or bringing in a box of tissues? Gaming. Do you give points when lab safety agreements are turned in? Gaming. Do you give a student who is at 89.4% an A even though 90% is the cutoff? Gaming.

Do you slap a kid with zero points for missed assignments? Most thinking people agree that zeros devastate a student’s overall grade if you are summing all points earned as a fraction of the total possible. At least give the kid 50/100, but again you’re gaming the system to get closer to a number that you know the kid “deserves.”

Did your students not do as well on a test as you hoped? Guess what? We’ve got a game for you too. Its called curving the results. Just tack on 15 points for everybody! We all win when we play that game.

Do you average all assignments together into one score? This is everyone’s favorite game to play while trying to observe and document student learning. Unfortunately, averaging all points into a final grade loses any information that the original scores may have had about exactly what a student did and did not know. By the end of a grading period we’ve reduced our information about learning down to our One Number to Rule Them All and no one can tell which topics and skills a student is good at, just whether or not they’ve been playing your points-collecting game.

Changing the game

If you want to abandon a points-gaming system, you’ll need to find a replacement, perhaps something with a bit more narrative component to it. The requirements of such a system are these:

      1. Provide content area and skill goals for students and use these in your grade book instead of columns of point totals for individual assignments.  Some people call this kind of system standards-based grading. Others just ask “what do you want students to know and be able to do?” and “what will you be looking for in their performances of learning?”
      2. Provide actionable feedback to students so that they can understand what they know and don’t know and can and can’t do. This replaces points. Instead of telling a student that their project is worth 67 points out of 100, tell them what was wrong and what to do about it. Don’t even give them a number, just feedback on how to make it better.
      3. Let them make it better. If you give feedback, you really should let students respond to your feedback by fixing what needs fixed or digging deeper into whatever it is you are trying to get them to learn or demonstrate.
      4. Keep records of student learning without resorting to using number scores. If you are giving students narrative feedback in a system like BlueHarvestFeedback or using your own spreadsheets that students can access, you’ve already done this step.  As soon as you post student feedback it is recorded somewhere where you and your students can get at it again to check for improvement and plan next steps and future learning activities.
      5. Connect your grading system to whatever system you are working within or convince your school to change its grading system along with you. Out of necessity, most of us find ourselves, especially at the high school level, bowing to the demons of class rank GPA battles and scholarship applications and need to produce letter grades “because colleges need them.” Just do it honestly and consistently and stick to a set of published guidelines for how you are going to arrive at the letter grade. It will be subjective. But so is everything about teaching if you are doing it right and responding to different student needs and abilities.

Student ownership of learning

I always had the sense that when I was giving a numerical score (1-4 scale) along with feedback that I was doing all the work of judging the quality of their work and that students would ignore the feedback as long as the number was something they found pleasing. If narrative feedback is the only thing happening (and I’m still learning how to do it well) then students are more likely to read it and respond by improving their work.

Weekly Progress in BlueHarvestFeedback

This year I’ve started using student-generated weekly progress updates in BlueHarvest Feedback. Every Friday students log in to BlueHarvest and post a comment on the Weekly Progress standard that I created for their course. Students suggest what letter grade I should put in to our Eligibility grade in Infinite Campus and they have to justify why they think they deserve that grade for the week. This does two things: 1. it forces most students to actually log in to BlueHarvest where they have an opportunity to see the feedback that I’ve left them on their work and 2. it lets students practice self-analysis and argument from evidence.

Thus far in the school year I’ve found that most students are quite good at determining and defending their own weekly progress grade and usually land pretty close to what I would have assigned from a teacher’s perspective. There are many who still need some practice with arguing from evidence for their grade (“I think I deserve an A because I got all my work done”) but that’s not a bad thing in a system that aims to show student improvement.

Its a new game, to be sure, but hopefully its one in which each student is more active in determining their overall grade rather than letting the teacher or an algorithm in a software program calculate how much they’ve learned.

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 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.

Student-designed physics class: barely controlled chaos for the win

The experimental experiential student-designed entity that is my physics class is up and running for the year. We’re about three weeks in now (one of which was homecoming week, thank you very much) and we have some sort of structure to the class, but not much, or at least not as much as I’m used to (yes, I used to lecture a lot not too long ago).  The 18 students (was originally only supposed to be 8!) started off the year by getting a feel for what they might want to learn about this year in their physics class and they started making wish lists for major projects to undertake during the year. So far they’ve set up their own wiki for collecting ideas about what they should probably learn about this year for those going on to Colorado School of Mines or some other technical field. They mostly landed on the AP Physics standards, just because they are so accessible and well documented, but they borrowed some topic lists from some of the physics teachers I keep track of too. They divided themselves up into six groups to tackle what they thought would be the six major units for the year (Mechanics, Electricity and Magnetism, Waves and Optics, Thermophysics, Fluid Dynamics, and Atomic/Nuclear Physics) then did some research into what those different topics were about. At the moment, the wiki is a work in progress, as it should be, but we’ll probably keep referring back to it and adding to it all year.

Currently, we’re multitasking in a big way as a class. One group of students built our prototype hovercraft and did some pretty extensive testing of it in the halls last Friday. There’s a pretty extensive collection of videos of the event being produced at the moment (Thanks Kiel!) that will be linked here and/or on the wiki shortly. Another group (and by group I mean those people working on it that particular day, our groups are pretty fluid) is putting together the specs for a trebuchet that they want to build around Halloween to help dispose of some of the excess pumpkins in our valley (I help out by blowing some up in Chemistry class, but there’s always a surplus around here). Other students have been tinkering with the Vernier Video Physics app and other motion-capturing software so we can gear up for analyzing the motion of anything we build and/or videos and video games we play. Oh, and another set of kids is starting to learn how to set up a wifi signal-bouncing network across our town.

Okay, so there’s an awful lot going on. But how do I grade such a class? That’s my job, apparently. I gave the class the option of writing the set of standards that would go into the gradebook, but they were strangely more interested in building stuff and getting ideas from YouTube and Instructables than in dealing with writing a grading system. They told me to deal with that part of the class. I’m currently putting together some sort of standards document, but at least a part of me thinks I’m going to merely use it to keep them on track this year and not as some massive spreadsheet for grading them SBG-style. The verdict is still out on that one. If you have ideas on how to assess individual kids in a chaotic (yet fun!) group-project-oriented physics class, I’d be happy to hear from you.

Blogs, portfolios, and feedback (oh my!)

This is a work in progress, as most of my stuff is, but here is my Assessment Philosophy for the 2011-2012 school year that I’ll be sharing with students and their parents.

Some key new features I’m trying:

  • student blog posts will receive only feedback, not grades
  • the spreadsheets I used last year will be editable by both myself and the student for each to add comments
  • students will create portfolios of their work by selecting and analyzing their best evidence of learning
  • portfolios will be organized and assessed using standards-based criteria
  • the only letter grades used will be assigned when portfolios are assessed at the ends of grading periods

Some things still to work out:

Feel free to leave suggestions for improvements/implementation in the comments and please snag a copy for yourself if you want to borrow any of it.

The tyranny of grading: a grade-hater’s defense of standards-based grades

Tyranny: arbitrary or unrestrained exercise of power; despotic abuse of authority. -dictionary.com

Its time to give quarter grades again, truly one of my least favorite things to do with (to?) my students. But, of course, as a teacher I am being asked by my school (and perhaps parents) to provide a single quantitative measurement of all the fabulous things that my students have done this past quarter. I know that there are some fine arguments about grades being useful but I am pretty sure that putting student achievement in my class into a single percentage or letter grade is doing a disservice to that student. So what if Beth has a 91% A? That might mask the fact that she struggles with interpreting data in charts and graphs.  And how about little Timmy with his 65% D? That might mask the fact that he has awesome skills in writing and using cool web tools for his blog. Every student has their strengths and weaknesses and I find myself, now that I’ve taken averages out of my grading system, annoyed that I have to put them back in somehow when quarter or semester grades are due.

I can give a kid a letter grade, but I don’t have to like doing it. My grading system is based on collecting a body of work from each student over the course of a grading period and I can point to exactly where students have or have not demonstrated particular skills or content knowledge. I even have a decent system for determining the final grades for each student based on this body of work. But I don’t like the switch from Advocate to Judge (from Jason Buell’s notes on Guskey and Jung) that has to happen at the end of a grading period.

I really love teaching, when I get to be an Advocate for learning, and have been pretty good at keeping up with the work that students are submitting to me. I read their blog posts, grade their quizzes and have discussions with them in class.  I provide comments on the work that students submit and have helped students through several cycles of revisions to help produce better products. But when the end of the quarter arrives and I have to give kids a “grade” in a formal way, I need to evaluate their effort on ALL of our learning standards, not just the ones for which they have submitted evidence. Switch to judge mode. Bring out the Punisher.  I have to switch from evaluating the work that they HAVE completed to grading the work that they SHOULD HAVE completed.

What is the difference? For some students, there is no difference. These are the students who understand standards-based grading to the extent that they have gone out of their way to make sure that they have evidence that they are meeting all the standards. For these few students, their running estimate of a grade from what they have turned in is equal to their quarter grade because they’ve made sure that they have met every standard.

For other students, though, the quarter grade was vastly different from the grade based on what they had turned in during the quarter since I felt obliged to put on my Judge hat. Here’s an example: a student who takes several quizzes (demonstrating decent content knowledge) and writes a single blog post on a web-based research project still has not met any of the lab skills or data analysis standards.  So what they accomplished might have been graded at a B level during the quarter, but when the quarter grade is figured based on their total evidence of learning, they only rate a D since several standards remain unmet.

Needless to say, the sudden grade swings at the quarter surely seemed tyrannical to some students. After all, having an A one day and a C the next is outside of most students normal high school experience. Tyranny indeed. Or not.

Consider for a moment the purpose of the quarter grade, this number and letter that I got to dish out so tyrannically. Is it to label students: you are bad, you are ok, you are a good student? Not in my classes.  Is it to add a data point to students’ permanent records that will forever haunt them or gain them college admittance? Nope. Is it a measure of student progress towards the standards that parents and administration will see? Yep. That’s it exactly. A quarter grade in my classes is nothing more than a snapshot in time of a student’s current progress on the standards. It counts for exactly zero percent of the course grade. Its true purpose is to draw attention to the content areas and skills which students still need to master. It does that by speaking the language that most students and parents understand, that of the outdated A, B, C, D, F scale and the language of percentages.

To get to a percentage and letter grade from SBG requires a bit of translation, but it can be done. I’ll admit, though, that I find myself wishing that I taught in a school that has gone all SBG so that report cards would share out achievement of content and skill standards instead of the rather uninformative letter grade. Until then, my students will suffer the tyranny of 1st and 3rd quarter grades that seem arbitrary and weird until they stop and look closely at their gradebooks. Hopefully, the quarter grade will be another aid to help students realize what it is they need to accomplish before the semester grade becomes final.

A minimalist standards-based grading system: dream version

Jason Buell got me thinking again with his latest post in which he gives some great tips for all the SBG newbies. A main point of his post was for us to not be too self-satisfied with our pretty lists of standards. Instead, according to Jason, we should be taking a close look at the assessments that we are going to use so that we can define our anchors and give concrete examples of good (and bad) work for students to follow.

Thinking about assessments, here’s what I realized that I needed to clarify about my classroom:

  • Will some (or all!) students be doing something unique to meet a certain standard?
  • Is it possible for one of my biology classes to decide to learn about a slightly different set of ideas about biochemistry than another biology class?
  • How do I go about writing the assessments ahead of time if these two conditions apply?
  • Most importantly: why did I write my standards and learning goals so broadly that they don’t drill down to specific content knowledge?

To answer these questions for myself and the occasional reader stumbling across this post, here’s how I picture my classroom in a couple weeks when school starts:

(insert dream sequence sound effect and shimmery visuals here)

Students will be introduced to the new system of assessment, we’ll call it SBG for now, in which points are not summed, averages are defunct (except in the inflexible beast of the school’s online gradebook), and the highest number anyone will see on an assessment is a 4. After the initial shock, the students and I will look at examples of what the record-keeping system will look like (in my parent lettersbgradebook.com, and a spreadsheet or two) and discuss the 4 level rubric and its descriptors.

We’ll talk about why we have major Standards and Learning Goals to focus us so it is not a completely student-driven system. (I do need students to meet the Colorado Community College Common Course guidelines for each course, if they are to deserve college credit for my classes. That’s why I have the Standards and Learning Goals that I do. They are borrowed directly from what the colleges of Colorado have requested as the SLO’s, the student learning outcomes, that students are to master.)

Then we will get down to the business of starting on our first units of study. Here’s where the classroom becomes intentionally unscripted, or at least less scripted than in past years. I hope to be the guide-on-the-side type and give students some freedom in what they study in my classes, so long as they are making progress both in the content-specific Learning Goals and the performance-based Standards.  The students and I will probably have a chat at the beginning of each topical unit to define in more detail the supporting concepts worth focusing on, both in my mind and theirs. From there, they will pursue their own paths to demonstrating mastery of the skill and content standards for that unit. Surely some Web 2.0 stuff will be generated. Some inquiry-ish lab experiments will be performed. Portfolios and blogs will be created. Much fun will be had by all.

(insert exiting dream sequence sounds and return to reality visuals here)

So that’s what my classroom might look like, based on a vision derived from my summer reading and the communal brain that was ISTE10, that students need to be producers of content and they need to follow their passions whenever possible.

With this sort of idealistic, student-driven philosophy, I don’t think I can write many assessments between now and when school starts.  I haven’t met my students yet.

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…