Category Archives: SBG

The Limitations of Improving Summative Assessment

A year ago my school started a project of trying to improve the way we do summative assessment. We had lots of different systems and not a lot of coherence, and decided to move in the general direction of standards-based grading.

A year in, it was a great learning experience for me. I had used elements of standards-based grading before, but working to assess students in consistent ways across classes and deciding what is worth being consistent with was a valuable exercise.

Here’s the thing. We put in a ton of effort over a year. Assessment was a huge focus of our meeting time. And I’m not sure we saw particularly strong results. I do think what we did helped, I’m just skeptical that fiddling with grading is the best way to improve a school. As Shawn Cornally says, it’s like putting lipstick on a pig. The pig is the collection of institutional obligations we have that mean we have to give grades. The lipstick is our fancy new assessment plan, which is really just tinkering around the edges of a broken system.

I’m not an expert on the literature around professional learning, but I’ve been diving into research on how teachers improve this summer. When research looks at the elements of teaching practice that help teachers improve, summative assessment is conspicuously absent. Improving the curriculum matters, teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge matters, purposeful formative assessment matters. I’m sure more deliberate summative assessment helps too, but of all the levers that help to improve schools, it doesn’t seem like it’s very high on the list, and we only have so much time to spend on new initiatives.

This is also consistent with conversations I’ve had with lots of teachers who jumped on the standards-based grading train five or ten years ago when it was the hot new idea in town. Most of them are still using some elements of standards-based grading, but they’re also not too starry-eyed about the transformation that standards-based grading has the power to bring.

None of this skepticism makes me regret the work we’ve put in. I’m a more thoughtful teacher now than a year ago when it comes to assessment. But it does make me want to put my effort elsewhere in the coming year.

I know there are folks out there who disagree with me. I’m curious for some pushback. What am I missing?

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!