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I’ve had three chances now to assess my students’ eportfolios for letter grades, and I love ’em. Portfolios and students, that is, not grades. Yes, my school still requires letter grades each quarter, but I hope that someday these sorts of learning portfolios that we are building can be shared without having to be cheapened by labeling them with a simple letter rating. A good portfolio can stand on its own and doesn’t need somebody like me to point out whether it is awesome or not. In fact, in my perfect future world each kid who applies for college or a job fills in their application (most are online by now) and pastes in a link to their portfolio. Colleges and employers can click to see what sort of person they are getting, complete with writing samples, content-area knowledge, evidence of skills gained and so on. No more silly essay questions and no more inflated resumés full of made up extracurricular activities, just a real record of what the student actually accomplished in school. Yes, I know they will take time to read, believe me, but you are about to create your future student body or workforce. Don’t you want to know what they’re capable of?

Vision of a grade-less future aside, here are some reasons why I’ll keep using online portfolios at least into next year:

1. The portfolio fills the gap in evidence for Standard 8: Self-reflection

Ever since I started using standards-based assessment, I’ve used 9 major standards as the backbone of all my classes. One of the nine (insert Lord of the Rings reference here) is content-specific knowledge, four are science process skills, two are communication/tech/21stC skills, and two are the touchy-feely standards of self-reflection and contribution to the learning community.

Before the portfolios were implemented, students managed to produce a wide variety of evidence for the community standard (successful group projects, blog comments from within and beyond the school, stats on page views for certain blog posts) but had a rough time performing self-reflection. Sure, a few people got it and wrote long, involved blog posts about what they did best and what they would change about their work habits, but most students were flummoxed by the idea of writing what seemed to them a fake-sounding, possibly brown-nosing post full of what the teacher wanted in a “reflection.”

With the eportfolio, though, self-reflection and analysis of one’s work are built into the system. Students are given a blank Google Sites template for the portfolio at the beginning of the year and are asked to select the evidence of learning that goes on each page. They not only have to include links to relevant blogposts or other artifacts that they have created, but they also need to justify to the portfolio reviewers why they feel that a particular artifact meets the goal of that particular section of the portfolio. So on each portfolio page, if done well, there exist links to student products and the students’ rationale for why they believe that those artifacts demonstrate that they have mastered a particular standard. Win! There’s even an entire page of the portfolio devoted to the self-reflection standard so that students can’t miss the fact that it’s a major skill that I want them to practice. That page gets used differently from student to student, but some of the most impressive ones I’ve seen have a running dialog with themselves from quarter to quarter about how the portfolio is shaping up.
For example:

sample student Standard 8 portfolio page

another sample student Standard 8 portfolio page

2. The portfolio streamlines the demonstration of evidence of learning in a standards-based course

Instead of poking through blog posts on a student blog, which are organized by whenever the student decided to sit down and create them, the portfolio allows the reviewer(s) to see at a glance which major topic and skill standards have been addressed by each student. Don’t misunderstand me, the blogs are a vital piece of communication between the student and I as they are learning, but when the quarter or semester grade rolls around and I need to switch to judge mode, it’s a lot easier for me to do SBG with the portfolio than it was with a student blog by itself.

3. The portfolio can be an amazing record of progress towards specific goals.

As mentioned above, I use only 9 major standards for the whole year for each class. You can bet we have repeat attempts to demonstrate each one, that’s kinda the point of choosing only the 9 really important things that I want kids to be able to do. In the example Standard 8 pages above, you can see that this plays out in the portfolio on individual portfolio pages where students have retained their discussion of that standard from previous quarters and so can refer back to what they previously said or thought.

So, yes, I will keep using the portfolios. They aren’t all perfect and there are, of course, varying levels of student commitment to the idea. But, for not a lot of extra work, students leave each of my courses with a record of what they really did to earn that lovely letter on their transcript. I can only hope that someday someone important in their life will find their portfolio more useful than that lovely letter.

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I was recently invited by my colleague Kelly Jo Smith to participate in a podcast discussion about standards-based grades. There has been enough of a stir about SBG at our school lately that she thought it would be good to get several teachers who are trying it out to go “on tape” discussing our experiences of SBG.

I was joined by Justin Miller (art teacher), Eva Rodriguez (Spanish teacher), and Kelly Jo (language arts and drama teacher) for a great conversation that I managed to record and push out as a podcast. It really was a very affirming conversation and I think we all came away feeling a little less alone in our struggles with reforming our grading systems to reflect learning rather than completion.

I’m not a huge fan of podcasts due to my short attention span, but I think this sort of extended conversation about a topic is exactly why podcasting was invented. If you are at all interested in how teachers in several disciplines are using standards-based grades then you might want to give it a listen.



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Q: What’s an ePortfolio?
A: Let me start by saying that, like most of what I use in my teaching, I didn’t invent ePortfolios and I can’t answer for everyone since ePortfolios mean different things to different people. But I will define an ePortfolio as an online space that gets used to collect and showcase evidence of individual student learning.

Q: You mean its like a blog?
A: Sorta. Blogs certainly can be used to show what a student has learned. In fact, thats how my classes operated last year, with student work nearly exclusively being posted to personal blogs. But an ePortfolio is different from a student’s blog. A blog is organized chronologically by date of publication, but an ePortfolio is organized by skill and content area standards and represents an attempt to prove that those standards have been met.

Q: Why add another site for students to manage? Isn’t a blog enough work?
A: What I found with the blogs was that students worked incredibly hard and produced amazing pieces of work but often couldn’t tell me which standards their posts met. As long as I was the only one evaluating their work, the standards for the class mattered only to me. Self-reflection of learning was really missing.

Q: So how does creating an ePortfolio lead to more self-reflection?
A: For starters, students have to look through all the blog posts that they have written so far and select which ones will go into their portfolio and on which pages to include them. This leads naturally to a discovery of which standards have a lot of evidence of mastery and which have less. Furthermore, there is a page within the portfolio that is for evidence of self-reflection, either in blog posts or as demonstrated while completing the portfolio. Many students used this page to assess the current status of their learning as shown by the portfolio.

Q: You mention pages in the ePortfolio and have many references to “standards.” How are the two related?
A: Each skill and content area standard gets its own page in the portfolio, which will vary with the content of each course.

Q: How did you decide which skill and content area standards to use for the pages in the portfolios?
A: The short answer is that those are the standards that I piloted last year as I implemented standards-based grading in each of my anatomy, biology, and chemistry courses. All of my science courses share the same set of 9 major skill standards, the first of which is broken down into specific content areas for each course. The common skill standards are those things that usually get called science process skills: graph interpretation, experimental design, lab and research skills, to name a few. The content-specific standards were derived from the Colorado Community College standard competencies for each individual course.

Q: These portfolio pages you keep referring to, where are they, exactly?
A: In a student-owned Google Site.

Q: ?
A: Early in the school year, I built a template site for each subject area course in Google Sites and then shared those templates to our district’s GoogleApps domain. Students could then go into Google Sites and create their own portfolio site from the template that I had created. Since the template had pages set up for each skill and content area standard, each student portfolio site also had these pages set up automatically as well. All students have to do is edit each page of the portfolio to include their blog posts, reflections, and other artifacts such as test scores that demonstrate mastery of that particular standard.

Q: So when do I get to see one of these ePortfolios?
A: The ePortfolios live within our schools’ GoogleApps domain and are mostly set to be visible only within our district at the moment. However, a few seniors have hit on the idea that colleges and scholarship providers might be interested in their work, and so have made their portfolios publicly visible. Here are a few links that I think will work:
Steven’s A&P ePortfolio
Audie’s A&P ePortfolio
Katrina’s A&P ePortfolio
Steven’s Chemistry ePortfolio
I hope to convince more students to make their portfolios public and will add links as they do so.

Q: Ok, I’m interested enough to want to know more. Got any references for me?
A: Here are a couple links to get you started:
Levels of eportfolio development in k-12 schools
Creating student portfolios with Google Sites

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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.

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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:

Guiding instruction

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:

Evidence of content knowledge 1

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.”

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Ever have one of those moments where something so cool happens that it makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up? Maybe its hearing an awesome piece of music or viewing an amazing piece of art. For me, this happened the other day in class while talking with students. I’m sure some of my fellow teachers have had this happen too, where you really connect with one or more students and you can tell with absolute certainty that they get whatever it is you are trying to teach them.

There I was, talking with biology students about some of the work we’ll be doing over the next couple weeks as we wind down the school year.  I mentioned that I thought it would be fun for some of them to make “advice” videos to students who will take my classes next year, sort of a how-to-survive-Ludwig’s-classes sort of thing. I mentioned that it might be helpful to include their take on standards based grading and the blogging we’ve been doing all year. That’s when the hair-raising moment happened. Students began to testify about how much they like standards-based grading. I wish I’d have had a video camera rolling, we would have been done with our project right then and there. Several spoke to how they liked knowing exactly what they needed to do and know in the class. Some spoke to how they liked the flexibility to do different things to meet the standards, not just the same project as everyone else. I wish I would have written it all down for you (and me). But mostly I remember just standing there in the midst of my students, neck prickling, and all I could say was “Yep. That’s how its supposed to work.” I suppose I was smiling at them too.

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

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.

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Since I teach several science courses that are concurrent with similar courses at our local community college, I have the chance to be formally evaluated by students each semester as do all “regular” college faculty. The most recent batch of evaluation results turned up in my box a few days ago, and I was eager to see what students were saying about my classes. I’d given a survey a few weeks into the school year, but the results of these evaluations would be another chance for me to gauge student reactions to this year’s implementation of skills-based grading. As soon as I could, I cracked the envelope containing the summary of student responses and read what my students had to say.

I’ll skip over the numerical averages for my “performance” (this is a mostly standards-based blog after all) and cut right to my favorite part: actual student comments. Overall, the written comments were very well thought out and were pretty positive about my class (Anatomy and Physiology in this case). One comment in particular stuck with me and I’ve been trying to figure it out. Its the one I used for the title of this post: “I do not think the grading system was appropriate for the course. I felt like I was teaching myself!”

Are students really “teaching themselves” in my skills-based grading system? Does this comment mean that I run the sort of classroom where the teacher sits at their desk while students run amok? Does it mean that students feel there is no direction to the class? Those issues would certainly be worth fixing, if that is indeed what my class is like.

This comment came right after a couple others in which students claimed to be disappointed that we weren’t using worksheets very much and were using too much technology. Taken together, these comments highlight the fact that at least a few students are uncomfortable with how they are being assessed in my classes. In fact, there were a couple of low votes in the “fairness of grading” category that I can only assume came from the students who wrote the comments mentioned above.

I’m left with some confusion, though, as to how to help students who are not taking advantage of the structure of my classroom. What to some is “teaching themselves” and a lack of worksheets and lectures has been a very different experience for many others who have embraced different ways to learn and to show that they are learning in my class. Some students treat me as their coach for learning the course content and skills, but many students are still wrapped up in getting a good grade, passing the class, or simply not failing it. I’ve taught too long the way some students expected, with worksheets turned in for points, often copied from neighbors and not true products of learning. Some students were clearly expecting more of the same and are still parsing out how to achieve a “good grade” without doing much learning.

I’ve got some work to do, obviously. My first step will be to look carefully at my instructional practice to make sure that I am supporting students as fully as I can for them to be successful. If that is in place, then I’m going to move on to the bigger job ahead of me, that of tackling “the system” that makes completion of assignments equal to measuring learning. Part of that work is happening right now, as I write this post to proselytize for a careful reassessment of what we do in our classrooms. If I can convince some or all of my colleagues to stop giving grades for completion and maybe even get them to try some sort of standards-based assessment and reporting system, then students should arrive in my classes already expecting to be held accountable for their actual learning.

In some ways, “I felt like I was teaching myself!” is the most complimentary comment of all. If they are learning to teach themselves, then I’m on the right track. If students can leave my classroom knowing how to learn, I’ve done my job, because I won’t be part of their lives forever. They’ll have to be able to do it on their own, and they might as well learn how to learn now before it really matters in college or their careers.

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Superman pushing kid off cliff

We seem to be at a critical moment in education with regards to widespread adoption of  Standards Based Grading (SBG). The #sbar edublogger crowd is doing a great job proselytizing to the masses and winning converts to grading reform. There was even a session on standards-based grading at the recent Educon at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. Its not that SBG is brand new, but it does seem to be on the upswing of late, gaining potential to be the latest trend (fad?) in education.

I have some concerns, however, as we move forward with a wide-scale roll-out of SBG. One of these concerns is whether SBG means the same thing to everyone and whether we are sometimes talking past each other about ideas that could really help students achieve their goals.

For example, my school district is in the process of district-wide leadership training that hopes to address, at least in part, our low-performing status and high poverty levels. As part of this training, the out-of-district facilitators often mention “standards-based teaching and learning” in their discussions as a goal for our district, although our sessions have not yet focused on what this means exactly. It will be interesting to see how everyone on the leadership team reconciles their different ideas of what it means to be “standards-based” in some of our future conversations. Are we just talking learning cycle stuff here? I think most teachers would claim to have been “standards-based” in how they teach for a while now. Most have lesson plans they can point to that are linked to state and/or national standards. If not curriculum standards, are we talking “standards-based grading?”  That will be new to most teachers, many of whom are teaching “standards” but not using standards for assessment.

Let’s assume that eventually we have a discussion as a leadership team about this issue of “standards” and decide that “standards-based teaching and learning” is pretty much the same as SBG/SBAR and that having standards-based assessment systems is a good thing for our district. Assuming we decide such a thing, should a small body of leaders in a district get to tell every other teacher how to run their classrooms?

As a practitioner (experimenter?) of SBG in my classroom, I cringe at the thought of a system like mine being forced on other teachers. Yes, students would probably benefit from the new system, if it were carried out in the correct spirit, but that’s sort of the hang-up, isn’t it? How does anything that’s forced upon us ever get carried out in the correct spirit? I can remember hating  books that my English teachers assigned to me simply because I was being made to read them. When I read many of the same books later of my own free will, I enjoyed them a lot. Something about being made to do things pisses us off, at least the more cantankerous amongst us.

I guess I’m worried that decisions will be made that somehow make teachers convert to SBG and so a system that, for me, has been incredibly liberating and positive will be made into a hammer for inflicting the “best practices” upon other teachers. I’d love, instead, to continue doing what I have been all year: helping students, tinkering with my system, and spreading the word to other interested teachers as to how things might work for them in a SBG system. I get it that administrators and leadership team facilitators might love to see widespread sweeping changes to revolutionize instruction in a district, but I’d hate to push everyone to do something they didn’t believe in. It will be far better to let the climate of the school be changed from within by example, rather than by executive order.


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.

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