Why SBG?

Last year, I changed my assessment system from traditional “points-based” grading to standards-based grading (SBG) I want to start writing a few posts about this change, and figured I would start with why I started looking for a change in the first place. Please note that most of my ideas here are borrowed and remixed from books I’ve read and great teachers I’ve followed online!

I started researching grading methods because I was frustrated with the conversations that I had with students and parents. I didn’t like that students seemed to be more focused on earning points than actually learning the material, even some of my good students. I was frustrated that some students would pass my class without ever passing a test or demonstrating any significant knowledge the material I was supposedly teaching them. I was frustrated that other students would learn a lot and demonstrate knowledge of all the important concepts, but would have poor or failing grades because they couldn’t seem to keep track of their homework. When I talked with students and their parents the focus of our conversations was consistently about students’ missing work, late work, extra credit, and generally how they could earn points to improve their grade. I was almost never asked about how we could help students learn a topic. We didn’t talk about how to change student study habits. We didn’t talk about resources students could use to get extra review on topics they were struggling with. Students didn’t come in outside of class for extra review. So I decided that I needed to change what I was doing in the classroom. I’ve learned through teaching and coaching that if you accept something, you should expect it. Of course Students and parents were focused on points; that is what my grading system rewarded.

I initially tried several different interventions, including changing the weighting of different assignments and tests, grading homework more strictly,  requiring students to re-submit work that was not done completely, retesting over topics until student scores reached a certain percentage, etc. But I wasn’t happy with any of them. Through reading research about grading methods and reading bog posts from teachers around the country I came across a different system called standards-based grading (SBG). Standards-based grading intrigued me so much that I decided it would be the focus of my capstone research project for my master’s degree. Here is what I found.

1.       SBG grades are more consistent from teacher to teacher.

  • According to educational researcher Robert Marzano, traditional points-based grades can be, “so imprecise as to be almost meaningless.”
  • Teachers differ in whether they include attitude, effort, punctuality, attendance, and improvement in their grades.
  • Teachers can greatly impact grades depending how they weight different assignments and assessments.
  • Teachers can greatly impact grades on a single assessment depending on the number of questions they give on each topic, or by the weight given to particular questions on the assessment.

2.       SBG grades more accurately reflect what students know.

  • Research has shown that SBG grades are more closely related to student performance on end of course assessments (Semester Exams)
  • Some research has shown that  SBG grades more accurately predict how students will perform on statewide standardized tests or tests such as the ACT.

3.       SBG grades give much more feedback to students, parents, and teachers about what students know and what they need to improve on.

  • Traditional quizzes, assignments, and tests are often not explicitly connected to specific learning objectives.
  • Traditional grades may tell students and parents that they earned a 70% on the genetics tests, but they don’t tell students specifically what they are struggling with or what they have mastered within this very large topic.

4.       Standards-based grading allows students to re-assess over learning objectives, meaning that students are graded based on what they know at the end of instruction, not what they know during instruction.

  • SBG grades don’t punish students for practice, or for a lack of knowledge at the beginning of instruction. In traditional grading schemes, students’ grades on homework, quizzes, and tests are averaged. So doing poorly on an early quiz can lower students’ grades even if they learn it by the end of instruction.
  • SBG systems allow and encourage re-assessments, and new scores replace old ones completely, reflecting the student’s current level of knowledge.
  • I believe SBG more accurately reflects how learning really works, it encourages students to go back and try again. (Students are used to traditional grades being permanent. Why go back and study over that genetics test you bombed? That grade is already in the gradebook.) SBG changes that. “Not yet mastered” has a different ring to it than 56%. Well, actually this is still a tough attitude to overcome, but is overcomes that for some students, and I’m still working on others.

5.       SBG grades don’t give zeros, which can unfairly distort grades.

6.       And most importantly, SBG grading helps to change the focus in the classroom from earning points to learning skills and content!

  • After implementing SBG, the conversations that I had with students and parents changed to focus more on helping students learn.
  • After implanting SBG, more students came in for help outside of class.
  • SBG fundementally changed the conversations that I had with my students and parents. When a student or parent comes in asking if they can improve a grade, if they can turn in missing work or do extra credit, I can immediately redirect and explain that they can still demonstrate mastery over ANY of the semesters learning objectives. Then I can show them were to go to learn them. After a while, some students stop asking for missing work, and go straight to asking questions about something they didn’t understand.

So in summary, I have decided to use SBG to assess students in my classroom because it helps put the focus in the classroom back on learning. It gives students more feedback, which improves learning. It increases the chances students have to learn the material and helps level the playing field for students coming in with differing backgrounds. I believe that SBG is fairer than traditional grading methods. Education research and my own experience have shown it to be a more effective and honest way to assess students.

The “Ultimate Statistic” for School Success

In the superintendent’s newsletter this year, he stated that, “Graduation rates are the ultimate statistic for the success of a school district.” Really? He went on to say that he supports “rigor” and that he is not suggesting that we lower our standards, but the statement still gives me pause. I know graduation is important, but is it the ultimate statistic for school success? Not educating, but graduating?

As we approached semester exams this week and I dealt with the rush of students who suddenly cared about their grade in the last three days of the semester, I started thinking more about what our school does to support struggling students. The more I think about it, the more I worry that our school, and our district, and many other schools have placed more emphasis on helping students pass than helping students learn.

Academic supports include such acronyms and buzzwords as IEPs, 504s, Assist, Assist Study Hall, CC-lab, Mentoring, A-Team, SLC, and others. At first glance it would seem that we are on the right track, but are they really working? Do they actually help students LEARN? Administrators can point to these supports and present data showing that they are working. After implementing these programs the number of F’s have gone down, graduation rates have gone up. End of story right? Maybe not.

Two years ago I switched to a standards-based grading system. In my standards-based system, students’ grades are based almost entirely off of what they KNOW. Homework and classwork make up a grand total of 10% of their grade. I don’t give any points for attendance, participation, or effort.  Students can reassess over learning objectives at any time throughout the semester, and new scores replace old scores, so there are many chances to improve grades. However, turning in a late or missing worksheet won’t cut it. Suddenly all of these supports don’t seem to help my students.

Let’s take a closer look at some of these programs. The “Assist” program runs after school or during  a study hall. A supervising teacher sits in the room with students while they complete homework. Teachers can email the Assist teacher missing work and the Assist teacher will print it out, give it to the student, collect it from the student, and return it to the classroom teacher. That way homework doesn’t get lost at home or in back packs. However this assist teacher is not a content area teacher and in my experience doesn’t spend much time actually working with or tutoring the student, they mostly just keep them on task. This can help a student if they haven’t turned in the Chapter 12 WS packet, but doesn’t do much to help them pass the genetics assessment. If these students are already struggling, it is likely they are not good at pulling meaning from a textbook, and aren’t motivated to engage with their homework in a way that results in real learning.
What about our Small Learning Communities (SLCs)? In SLC a small group of three teachers monitors a group of students grades. They identify struggling students and discuss ways to help them. Usually it leads to a meeting between the student, the students’ parents, SLC teachers, and an administrator. However in my experience the conversation again revolves around completing and turning in missing work. SLC teachers talk to their subject teachers and ask them if they will agree to except some late/missing work. Students go home with their parents and spend an hour or two frantically completing worksheets and papers, and then bring them in by a specified date. And that is when it works. If I try to bring up studying and reassessing over learning objectives, It almost never happens. I don’t think parents of these students understand how to study, so how do they help their students?

What about IEPs? In my experience these are usually not that individualized, and not  often written to directly help students LEARN more. Here are three examples of my current students’ IEPS.

IEP 1:

  • Tests read aloud
  • Modified tests with reduced writing requirements
  • Option to correct missed test questions up to 70%
  • Extra time to complete tests
  • Only 3 options on multiple-choice tests
  • Word bank for all fill-in-blank tests.
  • Tests taken in alternate location

IEP 2:

  • Copies of Notes
  • Preferential seating
  • Support with open ended questions
  • Tests and class materials read aloud
  • Allow for choices in order of assignment completion
  • Extra time for assignments and tests
  • Break larger assignments, or projects, into smaller pieces

IEP 3:

  • Extended time to complete work
  • Notes provided when absent
  • Preferential seating
  • Clear means for make up of missing work between parent and school
  • Student gets overwhelmed. Needs modified work load when he is absent to avoid anxiety.
  • Modified assignments are reduced to catch up for time missed.
  • Do not present with multiple assignments at one time.
  • Would benefit from a supportive student in class.

When I look at these IEPs, I ask myself, “How many of these modifications will result in this student actually learning more science at the end of the year? I do not have a degree in special education, but I think the answer is not many of them. If a student is behind, they need MORE practice than other students, not LESS. Having the option for late work means that they don’t do it in time for when we go over it as a class. As a result, class labs and discussions are frustrating and boring for these students because they are lost. Plus, any benefit of getting to turn work in one week late only lasts for exactly one week. Then the assignments are coming just as fast as they ever where, the student is just one week behind.

It’s not that I think all of these supports are useless or bad. It is just that I feel we use them as an easy way out. Rather than asking the very hard questions about how to actually get these students caught up to grade level and get them learning, we find simple fixes that bring up their grades and help them pass. It makes us as teachers and administrators look better. Little Johnny still doesn’t know anything about biology, but since we accepted his late work, gave him less work to complete, made his test easier, and let him correct his tests up to 70%, he now has a D- and everyone is happy.

If Johnny fails we typically send him to a “credit recovery” class where he fills out worksheet packets. If he completes the work (or 60% of it) he passes. Either way the end result is that we don’t have to deal with Johnny actually demonstrating that he learned biology, but the school graduation rate goes up.

What if we were having more conversations about helping students learn rather than pass? What if we were setting up afterschool or Saturday school sessions with content area teachers that would offer extra review and instruction. What if students could move through biology slower, say three semesters, but still be required to master the same amount of content/skills? What if we had an extended lunch period where all students and all teachers were available for help? What if we required struggling students to utilize this time? I don’t know what the answer is, I just think we aren’t talking about it. When a classroom teacher wants to help a student learn more, they are mostly on their own.

By the way….I’d love to hear from any administrators, special education teachers, or classroom teachers on this. Am I interpreting this wrong? Do you have other ideas? Don’t hold back!