Year three of a journey through Standards-Based Grading has wrapped up, and my reasons for using it are similar but different from 3 years ago. It began with a desire to promote positive mindsets and perseverance in students, and that’s where I still stand today. However, I’ve realized that in order for this system, or any system, to be effective, it has to start with a vision. The outcomes of SBG will not necessarily be different than any other grading system if a different vision isn’t in place. I’ve realized that even though my reasons for use are similar, the vision behind it has changed. So, the following is a long flow of thoughts about the vision I currently have for grading.
Actions Speak Louder…
The old saying that actions speak louder than words drives my approach to grading and assessment because I believe the way we assess and evaluate students is the loudest action in our classroom. At the end of the day, whatever values we’re trying to promote can only go as far as the way we assess and evaluate the kids. If we say mistakes are a good thing, this has to shine through in the way students’ grades are developed. If we say that it’s important to persevere and keep working even when it’s difficult, this has to shine through in the way the students’ grades are developed.
This statement is what fuels most of my decisions when thinking about assessment, when to quiz, and when to grade. However, the words are empty if I don’t back them up with my embedded practices. I actually have to believe this message myself and seek to follow through with my actions. So, I put it in front of the kids every quiz to reinforce and remind them of what the class is about, but more importantly, to hold myself accountable. The kids will call me out either directly with their words or indirectly with their body language if they know I’m not implementing this well.
With all this in mind, it’s crucial to create a system that speaks the values we want to promote. Here are some of the hopes and values embedded in the vision I try to implement.
Promoting perseverance is the overarching goal to the system, and every point after this aims to support it. So far, I’ve found that a great way to promote perseverance is to allow full-credit retakes (with healthy boundaries) for any assessment. This is the way I’ve been able to back up my words that mistakes are a good thing, and that it’s important to keep working hard even when times are tough. When I didn’t allow retakes, my actions were telling kids that mistakes were not okay because mistakes led to permanent bad grades. I saw so many students give up completely whenever they made low test grades. For a while, I didn’t understand why this was happening, but then I realized that the kids were actually making a good observation. They realized that once they made a really low test grade, there was almost no hope to recover. It was better to not take the time and make the effort to get out of the hole because it would hurt too much to do that and in the end come up short. Retakes give the kids hope, and I believe this is true even if kids don’t really take advantage of it. I’ve found that most kids don’t retake on their own, but just the option to have it helps so much.
Side Note: The way I’ve countered the underutilization of retakes is to offer 1 retake in class on the same day we take a quiz for the next concept in our curriculum. There’s more explanation about this here.
2nd Side Note: I like the quiz approach of SBG because a retake isn’t as intimidating as a 30 question test. I’ve heard students say that they decided not to retake another class’ test because it was too long and not worth the effort. I don’t want to have kids give up because of intimidation, and it’s another reason why SBG is my current favorite.
In addition to retakes, it’s been helpful to make the lowest possible grade a 5 (50 in the gradebook) instead of a zero. This is huge as well because it’s much more motivating and attainable to try to bring up a 50 instead of a 0 and keeps more kids bought in. Also, it doesn’t completely put a kid in the dumps if they aren’t initially understanding concepts. Instead, it communicates the message, with my actions, that it’s okay if you’re not understanding yet. I’m still here with you and am ready whenever you are to get you where you want to be.
At first, allowing a 50 instead of a 0 almost sounds like a sympathy grade that may enable lack of effort. However, I’ve found that the students who continue to not put in the effort still fail whether they get 50s or 0s. The difference is that I’ve seen so many students in this position who would usually tune me out eventually warm up to me through relationship building, and then we’re able to get to work and get them going in the direction we both want them to go. It doesn’t work for everyone, but there’s at least an opportunity. This wasn’t the case before I used this approach.
I think pressure is very harmful for learning. At least it was for me when I was in school. I remember wishing I could just have the freedom to learn without the pressure of grades. Instead, I was always worried if my grade was high enough, or if I was going to get into the college I liked, and this led to me doing whatever was needed to get a good grade instead of truly focusing on learning.
Since most of us can’t go gradeless, we have to find other ways to take down the pressure in our classroom. I really like SBG again because of the quiz approach. There aren’t lengthy tests but instead quizzes that can quickly be retaken. This helps alleviate some of the pressure of grades, and I’ve had students express this.
This goes hand in hand with the less pressure section. I’m definitely in favor of less formal testing. The less we get kids to think they’re in a formal, pressure packed, testing situation, the better. Quizzes help with this, and overall I devote less time to actual test days and days devoted to preparing for tests (we don’t have review days for quizzes) with SBG. In general, students seem to be less intimidated by a quiz than a long test.
Also, I’m trying to get better at finding and using formative assessment techniques in order to know where kids are without actually putting them in a quiz situation. The more we can discover about student thought process and progress without them knowing that we’re assessing them, the less pressure they will feel. Also, ultimately, I want to spend more and more time learning than testing. The more teaching days the better.
“Sweet Spot” Pacing
I want a class that moves slow enough for deep thinking and learning to occur but fast enough to keep it moving at a healthy rate. This is such a fine line thing that may never be mastered, but it’s really important for perseverance. Dylan Wiliam has a great quote in his book, “Embedded Formative Assessment” that’s really helped.
“Never grade students while they are still learning. As soon as students get a grade, the learning stops…if grades stop learning, students should be given them as infrequently as possible.” (Wiliam, p. 123)
This has really helped in deciding when to quiz or when to move on to new concepts. If students aren’t at a place where learning has really occurred, I can’t quiz them or else my actions begin to contradict my words. Many times when I really struggle are when I’m quizzing or moving on before kids have learned. Everything just seems to be out of sync.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine getting to a point where every student is learning exactly at the pace they need. As much as we want this to happen and work so hard for it to happen, I just can’t imagine that we’ll have that perfect classroom. However, creating a pace where students feel like we’re moving slow but at the end of the year are like, “Wow, we really learned a lot in not a lot of time” is something to strive for.
Avoiding Temptation to “Get Enough Grades”
This has been a big conviction point for me and goes along with sweet spot pacing. I often find myself in the mindset of, “Man, I really need to get some grades in the gradebook. Let’s go ahead and quiz.” I’ve learned that this mindset really needs to be fought and avoided as much as we can because it’s the mindset that really shines through to the kids and leads to less buy-in. Let’s go back to the quiz message picture from earlier.
“Not to just put a grade on you.”
The kids don’t believe this message when my mindset is to get enough grades in the gradebook. Therefore, whenever possible, I wait as long as I can to give a quiz/grade, definitely waiting until learning has occurred. However, I do make mistakes and quiz too early. Sometimes I give a quiz and the results come back poorly for the majority of the kids. In these times, I think it’s good to throw the grade away, apologize to the class for giving it before they were ready, and get back to that topic and work on it more.
One thing that really helped this year and was welcomed with open arms by the kids was to give ungraded quizzes every once in awhile. The first time I did this, the kids were blown away. “Really? It’s not for a grade? We can just try our best, and then we’ll talk about it?” It really drove home the quiz message. One kid actually spoke up, “because quizzes aren’t just there to put grades on us.” It really is so helpful to fight the mindset of needing to get more grades in the gradebook.
See Where Kids Are and How I Can Improve
Last, and for sure not least (just a stream of thoughts here), I want a system that allows me to quickly know where students are, where they need most improvement, and how I can improve/change instruction to help them. In addition, I want a system that emphasizes that students are sense makers instead of mistake makers (thanks David Wees).
It’s really important to get insight into student thinking in order to do this. This is a major work in progress for me, but I really like not giving multiple choice questions on the quizzes in order to help with this. Instead, the kids are given problems to solve, and they are required to write their thought process out. This is really helpful, and here’s an example why.
From this graph (or if it was a chosen answer choice on a multiple-choice test), I’m initially thinking that this student is right on the money. It looks like they’re good to go with graphing slope-intercept form. However, things can change when we see thought process.
Now my assessment of student understanding changes. I have much greater insight into this person’s sense making, and I’m more likely to make a better instructional decision.
Therefore, I need to provide frequent opportunities to see thought process and common misconceptions in order to get a feel for understanding and if learning is occurring. SBG has helped because I get quick snapshots of student work and can quickly change direction to help kids. However, I’m also trying to get better at finding ways to get this insight through avenues other than formal quizzes.
I like Standards-Based Grading. Maybe you’re interested, maybe you’re not. That’s completely okay. SBG isn’t a silver bullet, and it’s not something that everyone has to use. I’m a big believer in finding a system that matches your philosophies and personality, and there are so many great options out there to do just that. I’m still learning and could easily switch to something else down the road. At the end of the day, whatever system you use isn’t as important as how you use it and the vision behind it. My hope is that you can take away a few ideas from here and also share your ideas to help all of us strive to make our classrooms better.