Mon 6/6: Reflections on SBG
Now that grades have been turned in and I can start to catch my breath after the year is over, my first major thought turns to my experiment this year with standards-based grading (SBG). Overall, I would have to say that I have been converted and plan to use it again next year. But it was certainly a learning process.
My road to SBG began innocently enough. I was at a local technology conference in a session run by Ben Wildeboer and heard him mention the concept. He had a link in his blogroll to Shawn Cornally’s blog, “Think Thank Thunk”. As I started to read his manifesto about SBG, a lightbulb began to go off in my head.
Let me back up a bit. I began this past year dissatisfied with my grading system. After more than 10 years as a teacher, I felt that I had become much too soft in my grading. If a kid did what I expected them to, wasn’t that a 100%? Kids were getting steered into my classes because they were easy A’s, and I knew that. And increasingly I felt like there was a disconnect between a bunch of abstract numbers in a gradebook and an actual appraisal of a student’s competency.
OK, back to the story. As I read and re-read Shawn’s blog in later sessions that were much less interesting than Ben’s (which, BTW, probably motivated me to create this blog, and also to start getting on Twitter), I had an epiphany. Here was a system that focused exclusively on student competence. More importantly, here was a system that made it OK — nay, made it important — to give underperforming students low scores, with the understanding that they could get reassessed at a later date.
So I did the unthinkable. I came back and totally changed my grading approach, right in the middle of the semester, in my three computer courses. I explained what I was doing to my students and why I was doing it. I showed them the SBGradebook program that Shawn had created to log and display grades. And then I sat back and waited to see what would happen.
That first semester, my approach to SBG was way too disorganized. I set up the standards, true, but then I allowed my students to decide what work to submit under each standard. Basically, I let them present me with a portfolio of best work for each standard. Needless to say, grades did not go down; if anything, they probably went up. Also I got swamped with grading; the students knew they could throw gobs of work in my inbox, because lower scores would not penalize them.
In the second semester, with a whole new set of classes, I knew that things would need to change. I decided to implement a structured system of mandatory assessments — usually a lab project and a quiz each week. This time, I decided which standards would be covered by each assessment. I tried to ensure that every standard got covered at least twice, and also that for each assignment I would go back and revisit at least one earlier standard. There was still the opportunity for reassessment, but this time, every score counted, and I used the “decaying average” model that is standard in Riley Lark’s ActiveGrade program (which even Shawn has switched to).
This time around, I got more pushback from students. Mostly, their questions were variations of, “Why isn’t my grade higher?” In particular, a lot of them had a hard time with the non-cumulative nature of SBG. I tried to explain to them the idea is to have the most accurate picture of a student’s understanding at the end of a semester, not what it was at the beginning. (Teenagers have a funny way of equating “fair” with “good for me” and “unfair” with “bad for me”, but that’s a subject for another post.)
Looking back on it now with a critical eye, I can hash out some of the pros and cons of my SBG experience:
- As one of my students (ironically, one of the least engaged ones) said, “This actually makes me think about what I’m learning.” At least if students complain about their grades, they’re complaining about their score for a standard, not a number on the top of a quiz.
- I don’t feel bad about giving low grades. If a kid bombs a standard in an assignment, I don’t feel bad about giving them a 4/10, like I would in a cumulative system where scores like that could be devastating. I look at the first grades in a given standard almost like opening bids that the students can then negotiate up through reassessment.
- Forced curriculum mapping. SBG forces you to identify the important standards in your course and correlate them with your assessments. It may not be a very good correlation (see below), but at least you have to pick something. For Wiggins disciples like me, this goes hand-in-hand with my course planning.
- It almost creates an individualized learning experience for each student within the context of a communal class. Even though all the students are doing the same assessments, you can break them out into specific standards and get a laser-focus on what each student needs to do to improve.
- Grade-grubbers still grub. I had kids coming up to me a week before the end of the term and saying, “Can I get reassessed on every standard where I have less than a 9?” (To which my answer was usually, “No, unless we sit down and talk about them.”) For some kids, this didn’t engage them in any sort of metacognitive way — it was just another set of numbers.
- Flimsy standard mapping. One of the problems I encountered was that when I would plan out each unit, I would list the 3-4 standards that each assessment would cover. Often when it came time to actually create the assessment, I would have trouble figuring out how to actually include all those standards. I think next year I need to list the new standards in advance and then add the older ones I revisit at the time then I create the assessment.
- High grades. Grades were still high, and I’m not quite sure how to tame that beast. It may be an inevitable part of my personality. I used a 1-10 scale because I thought students would be able to easily map it to the 1-100 scale that is familiar to them. That may have been a tactical error. Maybe next year I should switch to something like Marzano’s 1-4 scale that is less easy for them to misinterpret.
I’m definitely going to use SBG next year — it’s become what I believe, philosophically, grading should be. But I need to tweak the way that I design the grading scheme so that it is accurate but not discouraging, and connects more coherently with the material. Stay tuned!