Standards-Based Grading: Skepticisms

My new school uses standards-based grading, and I’m pretty pumped about it. I think the structures that are already in place are really great, and I’m excited to make the change from a more traditional gradebook. I was really influenced by Shawn Cornally’s thoughts on standards-based grading, which are a big portion of his awesome blog, but in particular when he described standards-based grading as putting lipstick on a pig — hacking a system that really doesn’t have any great optimization points. (Watch that last video if you want to completely blow up your idea of what school can look like.) This post is meant to remind me of my skepticisms toward standards-based grading. These aren’t reasons not to use it, but things I want to remember about the limitations of my grading system — what it does, what it doesn’t do, and some of the illusions that it can create that I want to avoid.

Nuts & Bolts
Here’s what my school does. Standards are graded on a 1-4 scale. 4 means full understanding. 3.5 means full understanding with a small error that doesn’t take away from full understanding. 3 means they mostly understand. 2 means they kindof don’t understand. 1 means they don’t really understand at all. No 2.5s. We have a whole system for turning those into letter grades — they aren’t percentages. Kids can reassess, and the reassessment replaces the old score. We also give students some assessments multiple times, so it isn’t always a one-shot deal. Last year, both math teachers used this for 75% of the students grades. One teacher graded kids on mathematical practice standards for the last 25%, the other teacher gave “problems of the week” that were a type of problem solving assessment. Not sure exactly what I’m going to do with that.

I’m excited about this. It sends some important messages about what it looks like to learn, as well as what grades actually mean. But there are some challenges, and I want to articulate them now before I get knee-deep in SBG kool-aid.

Kids Forget
This is so easy to forget, because adults forget too, but in general math teachers have the background knowledge to incorporate new knowledge quickly and retain it for longer. The average student doesn’t. And we act like that’s a surprise. That’s the faculty room conversation — “they could do it last week, I don’t know how they forget it!”. Taking away summative assessments can delude us into thinking that, because this kid has all 4s, they must know everything. But let’s be honest, kids forget. I’m glad we already have a system for assessing multiple times, but I want to be really deliberate about the spacing and choice of reassessments. One of my favorite insights from this summer is that forgetting is fine. It’s what the brain does. What’s even more powerful is how much better we remember something after we’ve forgotten it, and then relearned it.

No Standard Is An Island
This is one of the fundamental challenges of standards-based grading. How big is a standard? We can make them really specific, and break learning down into tiny little targets. We can make them huge, and messy and hard to assess. Or try to find that balance in the middle. For practical purposes, big ideas need to be broken down into small pieces. But what I really want students to take from my class are broad, abstract ideas that they can transfer between contexts and apply someplace new. That is pretty difficult to assess in standards-based grading — or any grading — and I’m fine with that. I just want to remember, as I plan my lessons, that students should be doing math that transcends individual standards.

SBG Is Not Feedback
SBG is a form of evaluation. It is telling kids what they know and don’t know. Feedback is not telling someone what they know and don’t know, feedback is about giving them a concrete next step that furthers their learning. There are some go-getters out there that can take standards-based grades as feedback and learn from them, but most students can’t. I think that grading like this and offering reassessment can create the illusion that I’m giving my students excellent feedback, while leaving them feeling lost and helpless because time I could have spent giving comments on that task last week was instead spent dealing with the deluge of grading to keep this system afloat. This is going to be a tough one — giving excellent feedback has never been a strength of mine, and I need to remember this year that just because my grades come with this fancy rubric and a standard attached doesn’t mean my students are able to use that to further their learning.

There are definitely more challenges to come, but these are the three big ones I’m thinking about as I make plans for this year. I’m thinking about systems I can use to alleviate these issues — as well as the reality that there will be no perfect system, and I will also have to make deliberate decisions over the course of the semester to respond to each of these issues. That said, I’m excited to dive into standards-based grading, and see what all this fuss is really about!

10 thoughts on “Standards-Based Grading: Skepticisms

  1. jnewman85

    Wait, you have even tried SBG and you’re already recognizing these elements as potential problems?!? Great post–I like the skepticism. I’ve got some push-back and questions for you.

    You say “kids forget” but I’m not sure why that’s a negative for SBG. I can recognize that retesting throughout the semester/year will reveal this fact (as Shawn Cornally points out) and likely lower grades, but to me this is a benefit of SBG. It makes students (eventually) do deep learning instead of cramming, which is a better habit for them in their future.

    “No Standards Is An Island” This is one of the most significant for me. As you pointed out, it’s difficult to assess in any grading system. Last year I tried to make the standards “larger” so many connections were within the standard. This year I’ve got skill standards, understanding standards, and “connection” standards. I’m still working it out.

    Good luck with SBG. I’m looking forward to how it works out for you this year!

    1. dkane47 Post author

      Thanks Jonathan, this is awesome.

      Re: kids forget — I totally see your point. I am coming from the perspective that I don’t know what my structure will be for reassessing, and I’m worried that will be something I struggle to keep up with. And in general, if I do an exit ticket … quiz … unit test .. mid-term, I am getting a whole bunch of data points. SBG can reduce the data points for any specific standard, and I want to be very aware of that as I implement this, in particular from the perspective that I don’t want to interpret a 4 as “kid knows and will remember forever”. I think you’re pointing out all the right tools, I just need to make sure to put them into practice.

      Re: no standard is an island — I absolutely love the differentiation between skill standards, understanding standards, and I’m making a note to myself to return to these ideas as I put together my curriculum for the year. I’m thinking a lot about the functions strand in pre-calculus right now, and think there are a lot of opportunities for using that perspective to break down my standards and better match my assessment to my values. I will hopefully have a chance to write some more on that area soon.

  2. msjwright2

    My limited experience with SBG was subbing for several months for a teacher who used it. I taught with it in mind and designed assessments for it and so on, but it was kind of like living in somebody else’s apartment for a while, and I had no real training. So take anything I say with a grain of salt.

    I think you nailed some of the main issues, although your colleagues can likely help you deal with some or all of them. The most perplexing one for me is the narrowness of assessment questions (though CC standards are much less narrow than the Oregon standards we were testing to in 2010). I wonder, though, if there could be some complicated multi-standard extension (non-required) questions that help separate A’s from B’s? I could live with that, myself, assuming all kids were getting complicated problems in classwork.

    I originally intended to switch to SBG (they call it proficiency-based in the Portland area) by now, but other classroom changes have seemed more urgent. It will be really helpful to you that your colleagues use it and the grading system is ready to go. It’s still something of a mess in our electronic gradebooks, although they’ve been working hard on improvements. Whenever I do switch, I expect I’ll be glad I waited till I found the MTBoS.

    1. dkane47 Post author

      Thanks, Julie. I really like the idea of having a certain “threshold” for students that they need to meet, with respect to multi-standard questions. Jonathan commented above on breaking standards down into skills, understanding, and connections standards. I think that’s another great way to think about the issue you’re bringing up.

      Thanks for your thoughts — I’m hoping to have some things figured out before the year starts so I /don’t/ have to feel like I’m living in somebody else’s apartment.

  3. findingemu

    Nice honest post!
    Can you elaborate how the scores on standards are turned into a grade? I have a rubric that I currently use, but it is not without it’s drawbacks – especially regarding the online grading program we use.

    1. dkane47 Post author

      Good question. I’m basing this off of documents the other math teacher sent me, as I haven’t started yet, so I might be missing some subtleties, but here’s my impression:
      An average of a 2 is a D, an average of a 3 is a B, an average of 3.5 is an A. There’s a gradient in there for + and – grades. Any grade of B- or above requires a minimum as well. For instance, a B- is a 2.75 average, and the student can’t have any assessments below a 2. In order to get an A-, a student needs to have a 3.25 average and no assessments below a 3.

      I don’t know the details of how that is done digitally — it sounds really complicated at the end of a term. I do like the message it sends around the importance of every standard, though. Does that answer your question?

      1. findingemu

        Yes, that is similar to what I do, but I don’t really average at all. A is “all 3 or better with at least half at level 4.” B is all 3’s with option of up to 1/4 of scores at level 2 as long as there are at least the same number of scores at level 4. C is at least half of scores at 3 or better. D is at least 1/4 of scores at three or better. Plus and minus are determined by how close they are to the next set of criteria. Each time I put in a set of scores from an assessment (multiple scores – one for each standard) I “re-calibrate” to enter overall grade. It was easier when I taught part time, with fewer students, but I am now fairly proficient at looking at all of the scores, quickly counting, and assigning a grade. We start over every quarter, so the number of scores never gets unmanageable.

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  6. Tina C.

    Hello! This post was recommended for MTBoS 2015: a collection of people’s favorite blog posts of the year. We would like to publish an edited volume of the posts and use the money raised toward a scholarship for TMC. Please let us know by responding via email to whether or not you grant us permission to include your post. Thank you, Tina and Lani.


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