As I’ve written elsewhere, my focus this year has shifted from tinkering with educational technology to tinkering with, well, most everything else about my classroom. The main focus has been about changing how I grade students. When I started teaching I used the typical points-based grading structure where 10 or 100 point assignments are given and students rack up points towards a total. From there, as I got sick of the points game (can you say cheating?) and tried to limit it, I moved to a more streamlined system in which students still earned points, just fewer of them. This year has seen the implementation of a standards-based assessment and reporting system, variously called standards based grading, or occasionally skills-based grading.
The main focus of this system is to provide feedback to students, parents, and myself about how students are performing on specific, predefined learning targets. This puts the focus on learning specific skills and content, not simple completion of tasks for points. So how was this accomplished? In short, I had to restructure my gradebook to reflect each major skill or content area in which I wanted students to be able to demonstrate proficiency. This meant that I first had to define the standards that I would assess students on. This task was not too terrible, since I teach a variety of concurrent credit (sometimes called dual credit) classes and had great guidelines from the college-level classes to pull from.
Next, I had to decide what tool to use to do the actual reporting of student progress on the standards. Our school’s online grading program was certainly not up to the task, so I designed a gradesheet in GoogleDocs instead. This let me set up conditional formatting of spreadsheet cells to use different colors to highlight areas of strengths and weaknesses. Once an appropriate gradesheet was created for each course I taught, it was a straightforward task to clone the gradesheet for each student and share it with them via their GoogleApps account. Using GoogleDocs also gave me the option to share students’ gradesheets with their parents as the need arose, since the school’s online gradebook really doesn’t show the detailed feedback that the gradesheet does.
Then, of course, came the real test of the system: actually using it with students. This meant having to explain standards-based grading to them during the first few days of class. Let’s just say there were lots of blank stares. Talking about standards-based grading with students was probably a lot like talking about dancing, you might get the general idea and like the theory, but until you do it for yourself, there is no real sense of how it works.
But students did figure it out and, by the end of the first semester, they had a pretty good feel for what their gradesheets were all about and were beginning to use them to guide their learning. I began to hear the language of the classroom change a bit to where students began talking about which standards they still needed to meet instead of asking how many points an assignment was worth. Some students even asked me to give other students access to their gradesheets so that they could discuss them together and figure out what steps to take next.
It wasn’t all rosy, of course. Some students were so used to a points system that the idea that one unmet standard could lower their grade was really foreign to them. Even some of the higher-performing students, used to building up a surplus of points, had to think a bit differently. But most students caught on, and many seemed to really enjoy the flexibility of the system.
Here is a quick rundown of the things that impressed me about a standards-based grading system:
If you really want to know what your students are learning, try laying it out visually in your gradebook. For me, the big aha moment came after several weeks of school when I realized that there was no evidence of one of the major standards, Experimental Design (Std 4), in anyone’s gradesheet. Why not? I hadn’t provided them any opportunities to meet that standard yet. After that, I tried to plan activities that would help students design their own labs. I struggled with that standard all year, actually. Looking ahead to next year, I know for sure that one of the areas that I need to work on is to get students more involved in performing real scientific investigations.
Informing students of specific strengths and weaknesses
After several weeks of trying standards-based grades, it became obvious in the gradesheet what I knew from my experience of teaching over several years: each student brings a different set of skills with them to my classes. Some students were rocking the technology savvy standard (Std. 6) with their prezis, videos, and animations while others were brilliant writers that were at high levels for their communication standard (Std. 7). Each student gradesheet was unique, but having the gradesheet as a reference made conversations with students about their grade much more meaningful than simply saying “you have to work harder”or “just turn stuff in.” We could see exactly which content or skills each student needed to work on.
Allowing for mistakes and experimentation
One of the great things about standards-based grading using a 4 tier scale is that students don’t dig themselves into holes like they can in some points systems. Using cumulative points, the kid who forgets to turn in an assignment loses points and their grade suffers (sometimes drastically), unless you later give “extra credit,” which is usually unrelated to any real learning. Instead, standards-based grades separate out the areas of difficulty into discrete chunks which can be addressed individually without necessarily dragging down the entire grade. My students were allowed multiple chances to meet each skill or content area standard, a fact that they really appreciated. This meant that students could botch a quiz or try some web tool that didn’t work, but they could try again with a different assessment to try to show an increase in their ability or understanding. For example, here’s part of a gradesheet from a student who fixed some misunderstandings:
In at least three of the standards (columns), there is evidence that the student performed better on a second try at each standard.
Showing student progress and achievement over time
This is perhaps my favorite part of using standards-based grades and the individual gradesheets. Each gradesheet starts out the year as a blank slate, but as we work together through the year, encountering new challenges, students begin to see a color-coded record of their achievements, sort of a trophy case, perhaps, of all that they have done throughout the year. Yes, numbers are involved (0-4) just like a regular gradebook, but there is something about color that draws the eye and paints a picture of what has been achieved in a way a numerical score cannot. For example, here are the content knowledge (Std. 1) gradesheets for a few of my students:
Content area knowledge learned by Student A
Content area knowledge learned by Student B
Content area knowledge learned by Student C
You can see at a glance that Student A had some strengths and weaknesses throughout the year, Student B showed excellent understanding in all that they did, and that Student C struggled to produce evidence of learning for a number of content areas.
I’m going to let my students have the final word in this discussion of standards-based grading. I asked students in my biology classes to produce a short “advice” video that I could share with next years students to make the transition to SBG easier on them (and me). Here and here are a couple of the videos that best explain what students think about my grading system. I love the quote at the end of Cherlyn’s and Tenchita’s advice video: “Its different, but you’ll get used to it. Its better than anybody else’s.”