Grading: A Work in Progress

I just want to take a moment and reiterate my grading policy and why it has changed so much this year.  I have decided to take a step towards Standards Based Grading this year.  Before I explain SBG, I’ll tell you why.  Early in the year I had a discussion with all of my classes about what an A means.  I received responses such as: “It means you’ve learned everything you should have learned” or “It means you don’t need any help” or “An A means you’re awesome at what we’ve been doing.”  These are real responses from students.  I typically followed that response with “Then what does a B mean?”  Or “Do any students really learn everything, 100% on every single assignment?”  I think you get the picture.  It is extremely hard to define what an A represents, or a B, or a C, etc.  If you asked 10 teachers, you’re liable to get 8-10 different responses.  So I decided I wanted a better way to grade, and I wanted my students to know where they were at, what the needed to learn, and how to close that gap.  More importantly, I wanted them to know what they didn’t learn.  That’s really what SBG is all about.  It represents a style of grading based on mastery.

For several reasons, I’ve had far fewer grades this year than I’ve ever had.  When I reflected on how much of my class time was spent on trading papers to grade, passing out red pens, trying to provide feedback after the grading, and collecting all the papers (the typical process I went through to grade a HW assignment); I realized just how much precious class time was wasted on grading.  Not to mention how much time I was spending outside of class organizing late work, keeping folders for absent students, recording grades, updating LiveGrades, etc.  On top of that, I noticed that my students really don’t know what an A, B, C, D, or F really means anyways.  So instead, I decided to assign less HW and provide more feedback rather than grades.  If an assignment isn’t worth my feedback, it’s probably not a good assignment, right?  Why should the students even do assignments that receive no feedback from the teacher?

I have one class with only 5 grades so far this 9 weeks.  It’s not because they haven’t been doing anything.  In previous years, I’d give out an assignment and while handing out to the students, I could almost predict which students weren’t ready for the assignment, based on what I had seen from them in class or on the situation that existed at home.  As I walked around the room, that’s what I was thinking.  I probably cringed, literally, as I handed them their assignment.  Those students would usually cringe as well.  I would hand them the assignment, take the assignment on it’s due date, and record a terrible grade.  How ludicrous is that?  I could predict a student’s bad grade on an assignment, before that student even looked at the assignment.  Yet, I still gave them the assignment.  I even acted disappointed when it was returned half-finished or wasn’t returned at all!  Early in my career, I would commence with 10-20 minute dissertations about how students needed to consult their notes, read the textbook, practice at home, and spend more time preparing for these assignments.  I can now understand that what the students heard was “This is all your fault, next time you should at least cheat so you can get a better grade on this assignment, and how about paying attention in class next week.”  This caused me to seriously question the purpose of assignments.  Not just homework, but assignments, especially graded assignments.  Underneath the umbrella of SBG is this thought that graded assignments should be the students’ opportunity to demonstrate his/her learning (mastery).  Unless all students learn everything at the exact same pace, ideally assignments shouldn’t be given/collected at the exact same time.  This is where my feedback enters the discussion.  I do give assignments, but I rarely grade them.  I try to work hand-in-hand with each student to support them in such a way that allows them to learn how to do the assignment correctly, with 100% accuracy.  They turn in that assignment when they’re ready.  I firmly believe this philosophy has drastically decreased the amount of cheating in my classroom.  Students know they don’t have to cheat because if they return an assignment incomplete or unfinished, Mr. Oldfield will understand why it’s incomplete.  The why is very important and requires pinpoint monitoring of student progress on each specific learning objective (standard).  Thankfully, for me, technology does most of that monitoring (see for more information about my classroom).  But believe it or not, most of my classroom instruction is without the use of technology.  My students use dry-erase boards and markers almost every day.  This is how I provide feedback and monitor which students are ready to demonstrate their learning and which students are not.  I can easily check a dry-erase board for the right answer and provide appropriate feedback when a wrong answer is given.  Students also serve as a “checkers” in my class, so at some points, there are 4-5 people providing feedback during problem-solving time.  All of this is an effort to move students towards mastery and provide them with the support they need to get there.

My assessments used to be 25-30 question exams that would generally take the whole period to complete.  They were designed to measure proficiency on a whole host of skills, sometimes 6-7 standards.  Now, my assessments are short and targeted.  They are typically 10 questions and I’ll make at least 3 versions.  These are assessments that can be completed in 10 minutes or less if the students know what they’re doing.  They are designed to assess proficiency on 2-3 standards.  Every assessment is a short-answer, explanation type of response.  All assessments are done in class, and they’re never sent home.  I allow my students to retake any assessment and record the grade that they earn.  Two weeks ago I had a student take an assessment and score 20%.  Would you say that student was ready for the assessment at that point?  I still scored it, and recorded the 20%.  But together, she and I looked at the 8 questions she missed and tried to apply the corrections.  She knew exactly which standards to go back and review/practice on Khan Academy.  She spent the following week practicing and strengthening her proficiency in those specific skills.  She completed the 2nd version of that assessment and scored a 90%.  I replaced the 20% with a 90% because that was a more accurate reflection of her learning.  I strongly feel that grades should reflect learning.  The most common misconception in many classrooms is that grades should also reflect responsibility, at least some measure of responsibility.  I whole-heartedly agree that students should be taught responsibility.  I also think they should be taught tolerance, empathy, perseverance, self-awareness, etc.  If we don’t give grades for those other worthy investments, why do we insist on giving a grade for responsibility?

In conclusion, I have learned that implementing SBG is not easy.  I’ll highlight these 8 principles I have relied on:

  • Failure to learn is not always the student’s fault.  Take account of your own classroom, how engaged are your students?  What       modifications could you make to account for poor behavior?(seating arrangements, visuals, etc) What props could you include that would make your lesson more engaging?  What passions could ignite in your students by connecting your lesson to the real-world?  Could you dress up as a character to help your students connect your lesson to the appropriate time in history?  What could put inside a box that would excite curiosity among your students and increase engagement?  There are numerous questions to ask before each lesson.  Creativity comes from asking questions.

  • Provide multiple opportunities to demonstrate learning and record the most accurate representation of that learning.
  • Provide more feedback, less grades.  Feedback is the vehicle that drives students towards mastery.  With appropriate feedback, the student will want to improve, and know how to improve.  With no feedback, the student will know how meaningless the assignment was.
  • Be transparent!  Let your students know where you’re going, what holes to fill, and how to get there.
  • Be sure that your assessments are short and targeted.
  • You want your students to be responsible?  Tolerant?  Empathetic?  That’s great!  Please don’t include grades intended to measure those character traits alongside the same grades intended to reflect learning.  Measure them separately and communicate that to the home.  I’m sure mom and dad would love to know how responsible, empathetic, and tolerant their child is in school anyways.
  • Let them fail.  Failure leads to perseverance, a skill rarely measured, but ultimately valuable.  You can build this atmosphere of perseverance in problem solving in your classroom by allowing your students to fail.
  • Praise!  Praise students for the effort and perseverance.  Most of communication with home should be in the form of praise.  Don’t get stuck communicating only negatives.

7 thoughts on “Grading: A Work in Progress

  1. Derek,
    Like what I have read to this point on your assessments, but being an older teacher I wonder if we are preparing them for the “real” world with this approach. Does the Salesman get a 2nd chance on his sale or the secretary on her memo? You mentioned “Accountability” and I wonder how accountable we are holding them if they can continue to retake until they master the subject? Even though I’m old I am willing to learn a new and better way!

    • Joe, that’s a common thought and one that definitely needs to be addressed. I wonder if the age of the student may dictate just how often retakes are considered. Older students may need be held to a higher standard. Also, the driver’s test, ACT, Bar exam, Praxis teacher certification, etc all allow retakes because providing evidence of what has been learned (regardless of the timing) apparently is important. There’s definitely a fine line between allowing a lazy student to just procrastinate & retake assessments because they put forth no effort, while also recognizing that one student may benefit from more time to learn & an extra opportunity to show us what he/she has learned. It’s tough to consider what is worse: ending the learning process by forcing all students to assess one time then move on, or allow students multiple opportunities to demonstrate learning?
      No doubt there’s likely not one way that fits all students 🙂

  2. I enjoyed reading your post! I think you are on the right track. So many times, students receive grades that do not truly reflect whether or not they have mastered the content. I have really been struggling this year with using the antiquated grading system. It is so not an accurate picture of what a student knows and can apply. Thanks for sharing….gives me a lot to think about!

  3. Very thoughtful, Derek. I appreciate that you’re taking these steps, especially if you don’t have the rest of the school (or even a few other colleagues?) going down this road with you.

    Now that you’ve started, I’m sure it’s hard to believe that you haven’t always done this. That’s been our experience at our school. We all made this switch at the start of last year, and we’re not going back. Congratulations on joining us and all of the others practicing SBG, because it’s learning, not grading that matters.

    • Neil, thank you so much for commenting! Believe it or not, I’m staring at your email address, as it’s taped to the top of my monitor here at school! I can’t thank you enough for being supportive and available! I still intend to touch base with you and other teachers, as this process is far from perfection. I’m still in year 1 of my PLN, developing connections, etc. so I feel like I’m tackling 4-5 things at once. But this project has become very successful and I’m glad I decided to start making changes.

  4. Absolutely amazing. Your classroom and your teaching design and style should be set as mandatory observation time for future teachers in addition to existing teachers. You have set your teaching style far above and more in line with today’s changes in assessments and classroom practices. You are a leader the field of teaching and student success!

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