I’ve become pretty well sold on standards-based grading. This image from Frank Noscheese is a good summary of why I believe it’s the best assessment system for me:
While I have no plans to change my approach, I’ve felt more and more like SBG is really just the least bad out of my options for assessing — that I’m, as Shawn Cornally describes it, putting lipstick on a pig.
If you’d like to check out what I do, I wrote about it here. Short version: units are broken down by skills. Students get assessment scores from 0-4 based on understanding of individual skills. Unlimited reassessments (until the end of the semester), on student initiative, new grade replaces the old grade. There’s another 25% that tries to grade on transfer of skills, but most of my system is based on these assessments.
My particular issue recently is that I think standards-based grading can be deceptive — it can create certain traps that, if I’m not thinking carefully, perpetuate counterproductive views of student learning.
Standards-based grading is not effective formative assessment. It attaches a grade to everything, washing out many (or, depending on your reading of the research, all) of the benefits of any feedback. While it does give me better information about what students know and don’t know, assessments don’t come until the end of that self-terminating skill. Standards-based grading doesn’t preclude the use of systematic formative assessment early on, but assessments take a great deal of time, and can make me think that they are serving as effective formative assessment when they’re not.
Understanding as a Binary Operation
This happens all the time: student gets a 2 on a skill. I say to myself, “ok, student doesn’t understand X.” Student reassesses, gets a 4. I say to myself, “ok, now student understands X!” I feel great about myself.
Then I throw in a reassessment on that skill in two weeks. Student gets a 2 again.
I’ve been thinking of understanding less and less as a “they know it or they don’t” and more and more as a continuum of skill. Some students have developed more sophisticated skills in (arithmetic with rational expressions/solving related rates problems/graphing trig functions). Those students are likely to get 4s. Some students have much less sophisticated skills, and are unlikely to get 4s — unless they happened upon a key idea relevant to the assessment question recently (because they reviewed for the assessment) and managed to piece together enough to get it right. That student is more likely to forget, and forget quickly. A lack of longer-term, summative assessments means I can delude myself into thinking that all those 4s in the gradebook from two months ago represent my student’s current level of understanding, but learning is far more complex than that.
My Most Struggling Students
There’s an illusion that, because students can reassess, standards-based grading is particularly good for students who don’t do well on an assessment the first time. And it has the potential to do exactly that. But my experience is that, for a significant majority of students who really need it, I need to badger them to get them to reassess. And if I’m doing all of that legwork, what’s the point of a more informative grade anyway?
Instead, I see grade inflation for my students whose understanding probably deserves a high B or low A, but put in the effort to reassess until they get everything perfect. It creates a bimodal distribution, between students who insist on reassessing everything, and students who settle for lower grades.
Why Stick With It?
Well, standards-based grades more accurately reflect student learning, which helps me sleep at night. It also creates an incentive, whether students heed it or not, to get more practice in areas where students have a relative weakness. That’s not a bad thing.
That said, standards-based grading has the potential to give me excuses for a lack of sound pedagogy. I don’t give students an exit ticket, many of them do poorly on an assessment, and I say, “well, they should figure out what they don’t know and reassess.” I get positive results on an assessment and move on. Then when that skill is necessary to move on to a harder topic, students have forgotten, and I say, “well, I’ve already taught that, they should have remembered it.” I have a student who is failing, and I say, “well, they can reassess and improve their grade if they put the effort in.” In reality, I need to be deliberate about continual formative assessment, ongoing cumulative review, and targeted interventions for students who need extra help. Standards-based grading isn’t a substitute for this pedagogy. It’s just an assessment system, an assessment system that does a slightly better job than my current alternatives.