Reflections on My First Year of Standards-Based Assessment, Part 1

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A year and a half ago, the 5th-grade science teacher and I asked for and were given permission to launch a pilot program to try out standards-based assessment and reporting (SBAR) in our school.  We read lots of stuff, checked out what other people were doing and had done, and spent plenty of time thinking about how we wanted this to change the way our gradebooks classrooms operated.  Joined by a physics teacher, we dove into the 2013-14 year armed with a new way of doing business, a way that turned my calculus class on its head and more closely aligned with my educational philosophy.

For the next few posts, I’m going to talk about SBAR in general, how things went with my first year, and some things I’m thinking about for the coming years.  (Parts 2 and 3 are here and here.)

To begin, I’m going share my responses to some interview questions I was posed back in October by one of our students writing an article about the new grading system.  I think this pretty clearly explains why I am interested in transforming assessment and what I hope to achieve by doing so.  It also lays out some of the details about how I implemented things last year.

What prompted you to make the switch? What drew you to the new grading system?

Philosophically, several things about the way grades are typically assigned have always bothered me.  The grading system I am currently using in my Calculus classes addresses many of my issues with grades.

I’m uncomfortable with the idea of a student’s grade being negatively affected if that student simply took longer than expected to learn material.  I feel strongly that a grade should reflect what a student knows and is capable of doing rather than how fast they learned it.  To require students to master material according to my arbitrary timeline seems unfair and it most certainly discourages perseverance.  So long as you know what you need to know and can do what you need to be able to do by the end of the course/semester, you have learned what I’ve tried to teach you and your grade should positively reflect that.  It makes me feel guilty if students have a low test grade on the books for something that I know they now understand.  Just saying, “Well, you’ll make up for it on that part of the exam,” isn’t quite good enough for me.

On the flip side, I dislike the tendency that many students (understandably) exhibit regarding genuine learning and retention of material.  If you are permanently rewarded for temporarily understanding something, then we (teachers) are setting up a system where the smartest way for you to play is to binge and dump material, i.e., cram before tests and forget most of it within the next week.  I believe in a system where the way to win the game is to learn as much as possible, not scrounge for points and totally lose track of the goal of all this: learning.  Again, I think your grade should reflect where you are in your learning at the end of a course and nothing else.

I also take issue with the disconnect between what I (and most teachers, as far as I can tell) think grades are for and what students see grades as being for.  When I return your work with a grade on it, I’m trying to communicate what you do and don’t understand, what you need to work on.  Unfortunately, in a system where students are just trying to accumulate all of the points that they possibly can, grades end up getting viewed as judgments and punishments, understandably so, since any points lost are likely gone forever.  It seems strange that students should feel bad about getting feedback about what they can do to improve their understanding.  This sort of system ends up taking the focus away from growth and learning and instead putting it on the mindless pursuit of a certain number or letter.  I have a hard time sleeping at night when I think about my role in encouraging that game.  Seriously.

Systems like standards-based grading have appealed to me since I first read about them toward the end of grad school, but I was always afraid the logistics involved would be overwhelming.  Last year, Mr. Cooper (5th Grade Science) told me about a web-based grading system he had discovered called ActiveGrade which makes things easily manageable.  We both decided then to begin preparing to make the leap with our classes this year.


How does the grading system work?

Every class using standards-based grading is a little different.  It’s all about each teacher deciding how they want things to run, what behaviors they want to encourage in their students, and what they see as the most important aspects of their class.

As for my classes, at the beginning of each semester, I give my students a list of the learning goals, i.e., the things I want them to understand and be able to do by the end of the year.  I don’t want to be mysterious about what I expect or how the final grade will be determined.  I think it’s important to be very direct and transparent about what I want you to learn.

From there it’s a regular class with activities, (limited) lecturing, discussions, and assessments.  The piece that is drastically different is how the assessments are scored and how grades are determined.  We have regular quizzes over the course material, but students don’t receive a single score at the top when the quizzes are returned.  Instead, they get a list of scores, one for each of the learning goals that was covered on the quiz.  While I’m not sure if seeing “84” at the top of a quiz conveys much meaning to you about where you are in your learning or what you can do to improve (Did you understand precisely 84% of the material? Did you understand one of the topics covered but not another?), I am certain that when you see an individual, disaggregated score for each goal, you know exactly what you get and what you don’t (and more importantly, what you need to work on to improve).  The scores are done on a five-point scale, but that’s just a reflection of the fact that I don’t really understand the difference between an 87 and an 89; you either get the material or you don’t, and I can convey where you are on that spectrum with something between 0 and 4.

The biggest difference between this system and what I’ve done before is that grades are not determined by calculating the usual mean.  I use a decaying average (giving more weight to the most recent assessments) to determine an average score for each learning goal.  So if I’ve asked you questions dealing with one goal several times, you will have an average score for that goal which is more heavily weighted to where your understanding is at the moment.

An overall grade is computed at the end of each grading period according to a rubric which we’ve spent considerable time discussing in class.  The most notable difference with grade determination is that it is primarily based on your lowest learning goal average.  That means that if you don’t understand one of the learning goals, you will end up with a low grade.  To do well you must learn everything covered in the class; you can’t make up for lousy understanding of one topic with high scores in another area.

The best part of the system in my mind is the ability of my students to reassess on any learning goals they want (nearly) as often as they want.  This means that if they don’t like their current score, then they can fill out a form and come show me improved understanding.  When they do that, their grade will immediately change to reflect that improvement.  In this way, no grades are permanent until the end of the semester.  With nothing carved in stone until the end, I hope to see a drop in test anxiety as students adjust to the system.

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