Tag Archives: standards based grading

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.

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A tale of two gradebooks – my SBG journey continues


I realized this morning that I could look back at the assignments from my PowerSchool gradebook from a year ago and see the distribution of assignments I had by the end of the semester:
Screen Shot 2012-12-12 at 8.32.14 AM

My grades were category based – 5% class-work, 10% homework completion, 10% portfolio, 60% unit tests, and 15% quizzes. This comprised 80% of the semester grade, and was the grade that students saw for the majority of the semester. A semester exam at the end made up the remaining 20%.

While I did enter some information about the homework assignments, my grade was just a reflection of how they completed it relative to the effort I expected them to make while working on it. No penalty for being wrong on problems, but a cumulative penalty developed over time for students tending not to turn it in. This, however, was essentially a behavior grade, and not an indication of what they were actually learning. The homework was the most frequent way for students to get feedback, and it did help students improve in what they were learning, but the completion grade was definitely not a measure of what they were learning at all. There were six quizzes that fit into my reassessment system. Not important enough to matter, I realize now with 20/20 hindsight.

The entire Standards-based-grading community shoots me a look saying ‘we told you so’, but only momentarily and without even a hint of snark. They know I am on their side now.

Here is a screen shot of the assignments in my grade-book as of this morning:
Screen Shot 2012-12-12 at 8.35.40 AM

There is a clear indication of what my students have been working on here. With the exception of the portfolio, a student can look at this (and the descriptions I’ve included for each standard) and have a pretty good idea of what they did and didn’t understand over the course of the semester. They know what they should be working on before the semester exam next week. The parents can get a pretty good idea of what they are looking at as well. I knew making the change to standards based grading (SBG) made sense, but there have been so many additional reasons I am happy to have made the change that I really don’t want to go back to the old system.

I’ll do more of a post-game analysis of my SBG implementation in PowerSchool soon. I will be making changes and enhancing parts that I like about what I have done so far. I have to first make it through the busy time ahead of marking exams, submitting comments, and getting my life ready for the extended winter break that is peeking its beautiful head over the piles of reassessments on my desk. It is really satisfying to see that my students have weathered the transition to SBG beautifully. Their grades really do emphasize the positive aspects of learning that a pure assignments & points system blurs without thinking twice.

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Rubrics & skill standards – a rollercoaster case study.


  • I gave a quiz not long ago with the following question adapted from the homework:

The value of 5 points for the problem came from the following rubric I had in my head while grading it:

  • +1 point for a correct free body diagram
  • +1 for writing the sum of forces in the y-direction and setting it equal to may
  • +2 for recognizing that gravity was the only force acting at the minimum speed
  • +1 for the correct final answer with units

Since learning to grade Regents exams back in New York, I have always needed to have some sort of rubric like this to grade anything. Taking off  random quantities of points without being able to consistently justify a reason for a 1 vs. 2 point deduction just doesn’t seem fair or helpful in the long run for students trying to learn how to solve problems.

As I move ever more closely toward implementing a standards based grading system, using a clearly defined rubric in this way makes even more sense since, ideally, questions like this allow me to test student progress relative to standards. Each check-mark on this rubric is really a binary statement about a student relative to the following standards related questions:

  • Does the student know how to properly draw a free body diagram for a given problem?
  • Can a student properly apply Newton’s 2nd law algebraically to solve for unknown quantities?
  • Can a student recognize conditions for minimum or maximum speeds for an object traveling in a circle?
  • Does a student provide answers to the question that are numerically consistent with the rest of the problem and including units?

It makes it easy to have the conversation with the student about what he/she does or does not understand about a problem. It becomes less of a conversation about ‘not getting the problem’ and more about not knowing how to draw a free body diagram in a particular situation.

The other thing I realize about doing things this way is that it changes the actual process of students taking quizzes when they are able to retake. Normally during a quiz, I answer no questions at all – it is supposed to be time for a student to answer a question completely on their own to give them a test-like situation. In the context of a formative assessment situation though, I can see how this philosophy can change. Today I had a student that had done the first two parts correctly but was stuck.


Him: I don’t know how to find the normal force. There’s not enough information.


Me: All the information you need is on the paper. [Clearly this was before I flip-flopped a bit.]


Him: I can’t figure it out.

I decided, with this rubric in my head, that if I was really using this question to assess the student on these five things, that I could give the student what was missing, and still assess on the remaining 3 points. After telling the student about the normal force being zero, the student proceeded to finish the rest of the problem correctly. The student therefore received a score of 3/5 on this question. That seems to be a good representation about what the student knew in this particular case.

Why this seems slippery and slopey:

  • In the long term, he doesn’t get this sort of help. On a real test in college, he isn’t getting this help. Am I hurting him in the long run by doing this now?
  • Other students don’t need this help. To what extent am I lowering my standards by giving him information that others don’t need to ask for?
  • I always talk about the real problem of students not truly seeing material on their own until the test. This is why there are so many students that say they get it during homework, but not during the test – in reality, these students usually have friends, the teacher, example problems, recently going over the concept in class on their side in the case of ‘getting it’ when they worked on homework.

Why this seems warm and fuzzy, and most importantly, a good idea in the battle to helping students learn:

  • Since the quizzes are formative assessments anyway, it’s a chance to see where he needs help. This quiz question gave me that information and I know what sort of thing we need to go over. He doesn’t need help with FBDs. He needs help knowing what happens in situations where an object is on the verge of leaving uniform circular motion. This is not a summative assessment, and there is still time for him to learn how to do problems like this on his own.
  • This is a perfect example of how a student can learn from his/her mistakes.  It’s also a perfect example of how targeted feedback helps a student improve.
  • For a student stressed about assessments anyway (as many tend to be) this is an example of how we might work to change that view. Assessments can be additional sources of feedback if they are carefully and deliberately designed. If we are to ever change attitudes about getting points, showing students how assessments are designed to help them learn instead of being a one-shot deal is a really important part of this process.

To be clear, my students are given one-shot tests at the end of units. It’s how I test retention and the ability to apply the individual skills when everything is on the table, which I think is a distinctly different animal than the small scale skills quizzes I give and that students can retake. I think those are important because I want students to be able to both apply the skills I give them and decide which skills are necessary for solving a particular problem.

That said, it seems like a move in the right direction to have tried this today. It is yet one more way to start a conversation with students to help them understand rather than to get them points. The more I think about it, the more I feel that this is how learning feels when you are an adult. You try things, get feedback and refine your understanding of the problem, and then use that information to improve. There’s no reason learning has to be different for our students.

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