Thursday, July 15, 2010

SBG: Working out the Details

I love standards-based grade.

Love it, love it, love it!

Let me start with that.

In theory, I absolutely love it!

But trying to tweak what the system will look like in my classroom is making me crazy. Insane. Absolutely bonkers.

I am drawn to SBG because I have such philosophical issues with our traditional grading practices. I hate the idea that it is all about the grades and not about the learning.
But then when I try to flesh out the details of how I’m going to make it work in my class, I end up with a grading leviathan where there used to be a somewhat yucky little asp. [You should be picturing the snake at the climax of the second Harry Potter film here…]

So, essentially I have two different problems I’m trying to negotiate here:

  • How do I fit the philosophy and objectives of a standards-based grading classroom into the structure and context mandated by my school and district?

  • How do I effectively communicate with students and parents in a way that doesn’t become horrendously tedious and ├╝berfocused on the grading system itself?

My fear is that the more time I spend focused on the details of the execution of the plan, the more I get sidetracked from the environmental change I am hoping to effect with all of this in the first place. So, now envision me walking a tightrope above a chasm with the snake from Harry Potter lurking beneath.

So, my current system is this:

  • We have a computerized gradebook that requires letter grades and automatically calculates the means of those grades on a 4.0 scale (A = 4.0, B = 3.0, C = 2.0, etc.)

  • Our district has a mandated percentage scale that is in our student handbook (A=93-100%, B=85-92%, etc.).

  • Our state uses language in both our state standards (which most parents aren’t exposed to) and our state mandated annual testing that distinguishes between various levels of understanding (Advanced, Above Mastery, Mastery, Partial Mastery, Novice) where the goal is for all students to achieve Mastery or above.

When I read what others who’ve already implemented SBG are doing, the big debate seems to be between a 4-point system and a 5-point system. I am less concerned with 4 vs. 5 than I am with how I align it seamlessly with the systems we currently have in place.
The obvious answer would be:

So, some thoughts/questions (brainstorming here) about the problems inherent in this simple alignment:

  • Should I just relinquish the SBG 4-point scale entirely and use the language of our state as indicators to students instead since they’ve been exposed to it through state testing anyway?

  • Do I want to tell students they’ve achieved “Mastery” and then report that as a C when report cards are issued?

  • How do I give students the feedback of “Mastery” and then still elicit further effort and initiative on their part to reassess and grow in their understanding?

  • What unforeseen problems does this alignment have lurking for me that I am simply not anticipating? [OK, now you should see me – tightrope – chasm – snake from Harry Potter – and blindfolded.]

Part of the reason for implementing SBG is shifting ownership of learning back to the students. I want them to be aware of the goals we are working toward and how they are progressing toward achieving them. I considered setting up some sort of list for each unit where the kids could know the target skills at the outset. I tried putting together a sample one for our first unit and it came out looking a bit like this (three separate tables on the sheet because of the nature of the artifacts):

But then what? Who fills it out? Me, when I assess? Them as we progress? How much time do I want to spend in class focused on this record keeping sort of system? Aren’t I starting to create a worse, more convoluted system than the one I am attempting replace? My goal was to get away from an emphasis on “grades” or “scores” and a checklist like this seems to put a spotlight of focus on them instead. Yet, I do want the ownership to be more theirs than mine, so how do I accomplish that?

Well, my goal was to try to figure out some direction, but I think I’ve at least succeeded in clarifying what my questions are. Step one, I guess.


  1. As I look to implement SBG this fall, I have ALL of the same questions you do. It seems as though we are about at the same point in planning as well. I will be using the 5 point scale with the level descriptors provided by the state (Ohio). FYI, the "mastery" level in your state is "proficient" in Ohio. I am happy with that for the same reason you are concerned with "mastery". My dilemma is that my school posts grades online for students and parents, and I am not sure how I will fit my "scores" into that. I would love to hear how end up by fall!

  2. I LOVE your tables--nice to include writing & working well in a group. Will next year be your first with SBG?

    I had similar struggles last year with the 4 or 5 point scale and I ended up settling on a 5 point scale:
    5 - exceeded standard
    4 - met standard
    3 - approached standard
    2 - did not meet standard
    1 - had a clue, but nothing else
    0 - did not attempt

    So this way if a student had "mastery" then they essentially got 80% on that standard (that is a "B" in my county), but it took a bit more than basic mastery to earn an "A".

    My online gradebook (at least the "quiz" section) looked a lot like Dan Meyers' concept checklist (see #7 at filled out their own skills sheet & I signed as they were ready for it (usually when a quiz was handed back).

    Tell your students they must show mastery AT LEAST twice, and make the second assessment a bit more in-depth. Remind them that the concept can pop up again on any given assessment (quiz/test/project/exam/etc). Give them rich problems that require them to delve deeper. Don't stress out about "reassessing". Some students will get 3's (C's?) and be perfectly happy with that. It doesn't mean that they get off the hook or are allowed to stop learning, it just means that a grade is not the most important thing to them.

    I hope my ramblings have been at all helpful tonight :)

  3. Yes, first year with SBG.
    And parents have access to my online grades as well...a big part of why I'd like to have a good plan in place before I go back.

  4. It sounds like we are in the same boat. My school has the same grading scale as yours and my gradebook is online for parents to see. I am also required to post a minimum of 2 grades per week. Here is how I handled SBG last year and it seemed to work. I assessed the kids and each objective was graded out of a 5. A few days later I assessed them again over the same material and it was also out of a 5. (The second time I assessed the questions were more difficult.) I added the two scores together for a score out of 10. This translated easy to percentage. Only after it is assessed by me twice can a student retake the objective. I only put standards in the gradebook that were out of 10 (tested twice). This way parents were not confused. These grades were 70% of the students overall grade. I used the other 30% for End of Course review, projects, and other items. The kids and parents seemed to grasp and understand this. To pull this off, you really need a 3 lined hardcopy gradebook, two lines for the two times you assess and one for retesting.

  5. I hope that the SBGradeBook helps you keep track of grades easier. I promise it will be rolled out in some useful form by the beginning of the school year.

    Second, I just want to clarify some points I've made in the past that I think may be getting confused. Amber's comment brought this up, and I wanted to see what you all thought: The point of SBG is to take away the magic of grading. Don't worry about percentages and making sure kids see 67.4% quizzes as more important than 5.34% projects. They don't care. Everything you grade is an assessment, and therefore maps to a standard or two or three. A project is exactly the same as a quiz and is exactly the same as an interview. They all tell you something specific about some standard you actually care about. The assessments are just different lenses on the same camera.

    What really helped me was talking to my students about how this should be run. They want something better than the garbage system they've had before. They love the idea of reassessing and for the right reasons (eventually) Just remember, if you're putting the name of an assessment in a grade book, you're obscuring the knowledge that the assessment actually told you about.

  6. Thanks for the feedback, guys. You can't imagine how appreciated it is.

    I was planning to look at all artifacts before putting anything in the gradebook and evaluate those artifacts (work samples, projects, assessments) holistically. I'm a little afraid that this might not be enough CYA but I plan to keep those artifacts in their portfolios so my fingers are crossed.

    So, for example, in our first unit of study (which is basic stats), they will be doing a lot of little in class practice (which I will provide feedback on, but won't factor into assessment) but we will be primarily focused on a group project (with an individual written report) and a more traditional assessment (test). There are 7-8 target skills which are embedded in both. So, I wasn't thinking of the report as being worth x% and the test as y%, I was just going to look at their report, and their assessment and determine off of both artifacts where the level of understanding seems to be. I am afraid this might be a bit too subjective, but it is precisely what I want from them so I don't want to obscure it with a lot of numbers. I am not sure if I am making sense.

    Then that "single assessment" (scored from a variety of artifacts) would still be formative in the sense that they could choose to improve upon that through reassessment in some form.
    I'm not sure if it is going to work the way I'm conceiving it, and I'm really going to take it unit by unit but that's the goal.

  7. You asked some great questions, Jami. Here are my responses to a few of the questions you posed:

    "Should I just relinquish the SBG 4-point scale entirely and use the language of our state as indicators to students instead since they’ve been exposed to it through state testing anyway?"
    Is this permissible in your school? If so, you're light years ahead of many of us. I say, go for it! An interim problem you may (or may not) encounter is communicating this language consistently as you give feedback. In other words, will you be able/willing to talk the state lingo on your ungraded feedback-heavy assessments?

    "How do I give students the feedback of “Mastery” and then still elicit further effort and initiative on their part to reassess and grow in their understanding?"
    That's a pretty hefty question. Do you want students who have "mastered" everything to earn a C? It seems like if a student has "mastered" everything in a math class, that should be 100% or an A. In your previous system, was going above and beyond mastery the only way to achieve an A? If so, then you may be on to something.

    Re: tracking progress. In my experience, I hand back assessment w/learning target scores on it. Model copying scores on to progress sheet. Repeat two or three times or until it becomes a classroom habit for majority. Shawn brings up one of the most important points - talk about your grading practices w/your students. This helps them "own" it.

    Hope this helps!

  8. I'm SO glad you're doing this! I fully expect to follow and poach. Here's one big problem I have; I think you allude to it: you got skills at one level, such as construct a box plot. Then you have larger, fuzzier skills, such as work well in groups. The artifacts that constitute convincing evidence of mastery are different, to be sure. But also, how do you balance the two?

    ALSO: I'm having trouble figuring out the grain size of stats standards. There are lots of aspects to, for example, "distinguish between a normal and skewed distribution." Do you expect the kids to (for example) spontaneously note how the median is different from the mean? Judge direction of skew from a normal probability plot? Distinguish normal from symmetrical but non-normal distributions? Clearly we don't want a separate standard for each of these. How have you resolved this?

    And finally, maybe the one that I'm most nervous about: Okay, so you do the opening-unit project and grade every cherub on every standard. Penelope shows mastery of everything including histograms. Two months later, when Penelope chokes on something having to do with constructing histograms, you realize that she has not forgotten anything, but that you never taught or assessed some aspect of histograms (density scales, say). That can happen, but how do you handle it? Add a new, slivery standard to fill in the crack? Re-evaluate the old one? Or am I inventing problems that won't happen?


  9. I'm currently working on implementing a SBG system in my remediation class this fall. Instead of thinking of "relinquish the SBG 4-point scale entirely and use the language of our state" I've actually spent the time to use my state standards and wording in with the 4 point scale. By differing the verbs and level I expect the students to reach (still using the mastery-what the state wants, below mastery and above mastery) I've had some success and received positive feedback from not only my administrators but also from a representative from Marzano labs.

    I know at first having the students track the data and progress seems like it will take a lot of time but from my experience as the year progresses they speed up and it actually adds time back to your classroom.

    I am working on a spreadsheet that I'm also going to be tracking the data on just so I have documentation. I can let you know how that goes if you are interested at all. I'm going to have my adventures with this at I hope your school year starts out smoothly!

  10. Thanks for the feedback. I just added both your blogs to my Reader so I can see how you all manage to tweak out these details.

    I think that I have a little flexibility by teaching Algebra 1 rather than an upper level course. It allows for a bit more understanding that is a bit more shallow and surface on some of the standards. For example, our stats standards only states that they will Create Histograms, Box Plots, and Scatter Plots, etc. So, I feel like as long as they have a good cursory understanding of how to do that, they are on the right track. I've checked with the teachers whose courses follow mine to make sure I'm not leaving out any vital understandings and I'm going with what I have. Next year, I'll revisit the list based on where I saw weaknesses this year, but I don't anticipate adding Target Skills mid-year. The list (as is) is published for parents to review and, although I don't anticipate they are actually looking at it, I am using that to force myself to "hold." Otherwise, I'd be constantly revising and I don't want to fall in that trap.

    The vagueness of my two overarching goals (Working Cooperatively in a Group; Communicating about Mathematics) are already proving a challenge. I am using the rubrics that our state created for both and zeroing in on certain aspects each quarter. It's not a perfect system, but it's working for now. I am a bit concerned about some grading issues that are arising but I'll blog about them in a day or so.