2012-2013 Year In Review – Standards Based Grading

This is the first in a series of posts about things I did with my classes this year.

When I made the decision last fall to commit to standards based grading, these were the main unknowns that hung at the back of my mind:

  • How would students respond to the change?
  • How would my own use of SBG change over the course of the year?
  • How would using SBG change the way I plan, teach, and assess?

These questions will all be answered as I reflect in this post.

What did I do?

In the beginning of the year, I used a purely binary system of SBG – were students proficient or not? If they were proficient, they had a 5/5. Not yet proficient students received a 0/5 for a given standard. All of these scores included a 5 point base grade to be able to implement this in PowerSchool.

As the semester went on, the possible proficiency levels changed to a 0, 2.5, or 5. This was in response to students making progress in developing their skills (and getting feedback on their progress through Blue Harvest but not seeing visible changes to their course grade. As much as I encouraged students not to worry about the grade, I also wanted to be able to show progress through the breakdown of each unit’s skills through PowerSchool. It served as a communication channel to both parents and the students on what they were learning, and I could see students feeling a bit unsatisfied by getting a few questions correct, but not getting marked as proficient yet. I also figured out that I needed to do more work defining what it meant to be proficient before I could really run a binary system.

By the start of the second semester, I used this scheme for the meaning of each proficiency score:

  • 1 – You’ve demonstrated basic awareness of the vocabulary and definitions of the standard. You aren’t able to solve problems from start to finish, even with help, but you can answer yes/no or true or false questions correctly about the ideas for this standard.
  • 2 – You can solve a problem from start to finish with your notes, another student, or your teacher reminding you what you need to do. You are not only able to identify the vocabulary or definitions for a given skill, but can substitute values and write equations that can be solved to find values for definitions. If you are unable to solve an equation related to this standard due to weak algebra skills, you won’t be moving on to the next level on this standard.
  • 3 – You can independently solve a question related to the standard without help from notes, other students, or the teacher. This score is what you receive when you do well on a quiz assessing a single standard. This score will also be the maximum you will receive on this standard if you consistently make arithmetic or algebraic errors on problems related to this standard.
  • 4 – You have shown you can apply concepts related to this standard on an in-class exam or in another situation where you must identify which concepts are involved in solving a problem. This compares to success on a quiz on which you know the standard being assessed. You can apply the content of a standard in a new context that you have not seen before. You can clearly explain your reasoning, but have some difficulty using precise mathematical language.
  • 5 – You have met or exceeded the maximum expectations for proficiency on this standard. You have completed a project of your own design, written a program, or made some other creative demonstration of your ability to apply this standard together with other standards of the unit. You are able to clearly explain your reasoning in the context of precise mathematical definitions and language.

All of the standards in a unit were equally weighted. All units had between 5 and 7 standards. In most classes, the standards grade was 90% of the overall course grade, the exception being AP Calculus and AP Physics, where it was 30%. In contrast to first semester, students needed to sign up online for any standards they wanted to retake the following day. The maximum number of standards they could retake in a day was limited to two. I actually held students to this (again, in contrast to first semester), and I am really glad that I did.

Before I start my post, I need to thank Daniel Schneider for his brilliant post on how SBG changes everything here. I agree with the majority of his points, and will try not to repeat them below.

What worked:

  • Students were uniformly positive about being able to focus on specific skills or concepts separate from each other. The clarity of knowing that they needed to know led some students to be more independent in their learning. Some students made the conscious decision to not pursue certain standards that they felt were too difficult for them. The most positive aspect of their response was that students felt the system was, above all else, a fair representation of their understanding of the class.
  • Defining the standards at the beginning of the unit was incredibly useful for setting the course and the context for the lessons that followed. While I have previously spent time sketching a unit plan out of what I wanted students to be able to do at the end, SBG required me not only to define specifically what my students needed to do, but also to communicate that definition clearly to students. That last part is the game changer. It got both me and the students defining and exploring what it means to be proficient in the context of a specific skill. Rather than saying “you got these questions wrong”, I was able to say “you were able to answer this when I was there helping you, but not when I left you alone to do it without help. That’s a 2.”
  • SBG helped all students in the class be more involved and independent in making decisions about their own learning. The strongest students quickly figured out the basics of each standard and worked to apply them to as many different contexts as possible. They worked on communicating their ideas and digging in to solve difficult problems that probed the edges of their understanding. The weaker students could prioritize those standards that seemed easiest to them, and often framed their questions around the basic vocabulary, understanding definitions, and setting up a plan to a problem solution without necessarily knowing how to actually carry out that plan. I also changed my questions to students based on what I knew about their proficiency, and students came to understand that I was asking a level 1 question compared with a level 3 question. I also had some students giving a standards quiz back to me after deciding that they knew they weren’t ready to show me what they knew. They asked for retakes later on when they were prepared. That was pretty cool.
  • Every test question was another opportunity to demonstrate proficiency, not lose points. It was remarkably freeing to delete all of the point values from questions that I used from previous exams. Students also responded in a positive way. I found in some cases that because students weren’t sure which standard was being assessed, they were more willing to try on problems that they might have otherwise left blank. There’s still more work to be done on this, but I looked forward to grading exams to see what students did on the various problems. *Ok, maybe look forward is the wrong term. But it still was really cool to see student anxiety and fear about exams decrease to some extent.

What needs work:

  • Students want more detail in defining what each standard means. The students came up with the perfect way to address this – sample problems or questions that relate to each standard. While the students were pretty good at sorting problems at the end of the unit based on the relevant standards, they were not typically able to do this at the beginning. The earlier they understand what is involved in each standard, the more quickly they can focus their work to achieve proficiency. That’s an easy order to fill.
  • I need to do more outreach to parents on what the standards mean. I thought about making a video at the beginning of the year that showed the basics, but I realize now that it took me the entire year to understand exactly what I meant by the different standards grades. Now that I really understand the system better, I’ll be able to do an introduction when the new year begins.
  • The system didn’t help those students that refuse to do what they know they need to do to improve their learning. This system did help in helping these students know with even more clarity what they need to work on. I was not fully effective in helping all students act on this need in a way that worked for them.
  • Reassessment isn’t the ongoing process that it needs to be. I had 80 of the 162 reassessment requests for this semester happen in the last week of the semester. Luckily I made my reassessment system in Python work in time to make this less of a headache than it was at the end of the first semester. I made it a habit to regularly give standards quizzes between 1 or 2 classes after being exposed to the standard for the first time. These quizzes did not assess previous standards, however, so a student’s retake opportunities were squarely on his or her own shoulders. I’m not convinced this increased responsibility is a problem, but making it an ongoing part of my class needs to be a priority for planning the new year.

I am really glad to have made the step to SBG this year. It is the biggest structural change I’ve made to my grading policy ever. It led to some of the most candid and productive conversations with students about the learning learning process that I’ve ever had. I’m going to stop with the superlatives, even though they are warranted.

11 thoughts on “2012-2013 Year In Review – Standards Based Grading

    1. Hi Amanda,

      All of the standards were content based. No homework grades or behavior were part of the overall grade. I certainly addressed them in my feedback to students on their progress toward the learning standards, but I think that keeping behavior separate from the grade as a measure of learning is the way to go.

  1. Hey Evan,

    Great post! Met you in Hong Kong this year and wish we had had more time to chat!

    I love your description of the progression from the binary system to the system with more levels. Now that you’ve had a year under your belt and you are more familiar with the standards do you see yourself ever going back? What if you had a standards-based report card? (I’m assuming that you currently do not at your school, like me.) The more I try and make the SBG structure fit into a traditional 0-100 system the more I think I would want fewer levels when we’re reporting on the standards as a school.

    -Jake (from Delhi)

    1. Hi Jake – nice job on getting started with blogging! It’s good to hear from you since we met in January.

      I don’t think I’m going to go back, unless required to do so by administration. A standards based report card would be interesting but I’m pretty sure we aren’t headed that road. The 1-5 works well for me – fewer levels than that make me a bit uneasy in terms of describing progress, as I described in the post. The main thing I like about my system in the context of my current school is how it matches with the six level scale it has devised from novice to experienced. I didn’t know about this when I put it together, but the alignment makes me feel good about it.

      I love the fact that you made a similar reflection on SBG on your own post – clearly we were on the same wavelength during the writing process!

  2. Hi Nate,

    The standards grade has two components. One is a set of five points that are automatically given to each student for each standard for each unit. I call this the base grade. This means that a standard grade of 1/5 really is a 6/10 when the five base grade points are put in. This is initially confusing to students, but they learn pretty quickly what it means. When they see their grades on PowerSchool (which is what we use) they see both a series of standards grades (1,3,1,5,2,2,3,4) and base grades that are all 100%. I like that the students see a 3/5 as a 60% and are unsatisfied, so they work to raise that to a 4 or 5. It doesn’t always translate that they are really pushing themselves from an 80 to a 90 by working to push a 3 to a 4.

    Does that make sense, or do you want me to clarify further?

    1. Evan,
      Thank you, this clarifies things for me. It makes sense to have that base grade, otherwise I was wondering how to justify 4/5 with an 80% when it is showing high proficiency.

  3. Yes, thank you for clarifying things. That seems to make a lot of sense. Otherwise I was confused on how to justify a 4/5 as being an 80% in the gradebook.

  4. Hi Evan,

    As someone who’s also trying to tweak and adjust an SBG system, I really appreciate the way you described your levels 1-4 in terms of what a student can do in relation to how independent they are (ie: a 1 is completely non-independent, a 3 is almost-independent, etc). I also like your explicit description that this is the *maximum* score you can get while still making these types of mistakes. Finding the right words to describe what separates a 1 from a 2 from a 3 has been the most difficult part of implementing SBG for me, and I think your descriptions are a step-up from mine. Reading your description made me realize that I’ve been making the same judgments, especially about independence, without communicating that to my students. So, in summary: I’m stealing some of your words. Thanks for sharing.

    -Mathy McMatherson

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