Standards-Based Grading (SBG) is Worth Considering

I tried standards-based grading for a year and a half with three different math classes. My conclusion: it’s a better way to give feedback and assess math students with plenty of pros and a few cons. Ideally, math in school would look fundamentally different. But, if you’re teaching traditional math in a textbook-based, here’s some stuff now do these problems type of course, I think making the switch is worth the effort.


Why I Switched to SBG

Fundamentally, assessment is feedback. The whole point of a report card is to give students and their parents feedback on how they’re doing. We give quizzes and tests to break that down even further – how are you doing on the stuff we just did? This was started a long time ago mostly because it’s the most efficient, standardized way to give a kid a grade. And after we ended up with an A-F grade scale based on percentages, assessments wound up being out of 10 or 100 to make them easier to convert. Even if they’re out of some arbitrary amount of points, the scores are almost always converted to a percentage to understand how you did.

The problem is that a score like 34/43 doesn’t tell you very much. What is 79%, anyway? Does a 3 on a 4 point question mean you understood 75% of it? I stumbled on Dan Meyer’s Comprehensive Math Assessment Resource and it all seemed to make a lot of sense. I read the comments and followed others’ links to their own posts about SBG. The basic gist – disaggregate the scores that we add up on our tests and instead assign them to a standard that gets its own spot in the gradebook. That way, when you see a B in “Writing the Equation of a Circle,” you know that you’re alright at it, but could use some improvement. Or when you see a D in “Angle Properties with Circles,” you know you need major work. And when you go back to look at the quiz, the questions in that category are clearly marked so you can seek help and improve. Allowing re-assessments makes this possible. So I went for it.

old gradebook :(

My old gradebook with scores out of random totals. WHAT DOES THIS EVEN MEAN?

sbg scores out of 5

SBG topics and scores (out of 5).

sbg with letters

SBG topics and scores as letters. I like this the best. Note: Make sure you have an A+ option; the gradebook scores an A as a 95%.

How I Used SBG (One Quarter Pilot)

I piloted SBG in Spring 2014 in an Honors-level Geometry class. I used Dan’s SBG guidelines as a starting point. I made changes after (see below), but this was my first iteration:

  1. Create a list of standards – this was what I came up with. (It’s awful compared to even my second effort. Since I had been referring to topics by the sections in the book all year, I labeled them that way instead of from #1-?.)
  2. When you’re teaching, refer to your standards list and not a book section. “We’re moving on to Equations of Circles today…” instead of “We’re moving on to 10.4 today…”

    topics in gradebook

    My first ever SBG gradebook list. Aw, how cute.

  3. When you write quizzes, organize them by standard. Here was my first one. Some questions address more than one standard – give a score for each. I started by giving scores out of 4 (more on why I changed this later).
  4. When you put scores in the gradebook, create an assignment for each standard and label it as specifically as possible.
  5. Each standard appears on two quizzes. The second score sticks. Throw the first one away. They might go up or down, but you want the most recent picture of what they know. It’s up to you as to whether you want to tell them exactly what’s on each quiz. After a standard appears twice, it’s “closed.” This means it won’t be on any future quizzes and is available for…
  6. Reassessment: This is key – let kids improve their scores one standard at a time. If you implement a better feedback system and then don’t let students re-assess, it’s all for naught. How you do it is up for debate – I limited it to once per week for my own sanity and logistics. Students came in before/after school or when they had time in their schedule. It’s a little more work – when I make quizzes I just make two of everything. But I also make shorter quizzes. If they come in before or after school, I’ll often make up a problem on the spot and have them walk me through it on the board. Sometimes they create the problem. It gives me a chance to grill them and ask different questions to make sure they get it. Some kids need to be able to talk it out. This lets them have that chance. Note: my policy was to never give help and let a student re-assess that topic in the same day. (Sample re-assessments here and here.)
  7. At the end of the semester, your gradebook does the rest. Points earned out of total points. Sometimes I don’t get to “close” every single topic. I make sure the kids know this so they can re-assess in the last week or two if they need to. Many asked for multiple re-assessments during the last week. I said no. Use your judgement.

My reflections? Pretty positive. Along the lines of what Dan Meyer and many others write, students begin to articulate more clearly what they do and don’t understand. Too often, students say “I don’t know what I did wrong” when they get something handed back. Now, when they look at a quiz, they can identify which topics they need help with. They say “I’m good with doing surface area of cones and cylinders, but I didn’t do well at all on pyramids and need help.” They would come in for help more, knowing that they could re-assess and that using feedback to get better was rewarded. I watched one girl try surface area of prisms about three weeks in a row and, at 3:30 in the afternoon, when she finally got it right, she was ecstatic. As far as other student reactions, I’ll let the survey results speak for themselves (don’t mind the jokes).

Some cons – there are students who will abuse a topic being on a quiz for the first time and only focus on the ones that are appearing for the second time. In my PreCalc class, I made passing the topic with a D or higher for a first time a homework grade (if they did their HW, this was proof of that). I don’t have a perfect solution. Some students never re-assess, even when you ask them to. Some do it every week. It’s nice to have in your back pocket when a parent asks what a student can do to improve.

sbg gradebook

Changes I Made (I used SBG for a whole year!)

No system I’ve found online is perfect. Here are the big changes I made before and during the full year:

  • I printed out the list of topics for all students and left a spot for them to fill in their scores. I couldn’t believe how important this was – they really needed to see it all in a list to get the big picture. Do this.
  • I combined the suggested practice (HW) and standards documents (Honors Geo, PreCalc) so students knew exactly where to find similar questions
  • For second semester, I color-coded the standards by topic (HGeo Sem 2; I used a blended learning model for second semester, so that’s why it seems a bit different… I’ll explain in another post)
  • Based on student input, I switched from 4 point scoring to 5 point scoring so they more closely aligned with letter grades
  • Based on student input, I switched from 5 point scoring to letter scoring so they exactly aligned with letter grades (Instead of a _____ next to a topic on a quiz, I would circle   A+  A  B  C  D  🙁   and enter that into my gradebook, which accepts letters for an assignment out of 5 points and converts it; sample quiz here)
  • Based on student input, I tried out keeping every score instead of keeping the most recent one in order to reward getting it right the first time – this was more annoying than it was worth and they agreed
  • I had some *starred* topics that were worth double – things like writing a triangle proof or analyzing polynomials in PreCalc
  • I created a Google form to manage re-assessments and had 200+ over the year for the two courses
  • Since we set retake policies by course, I explicitly told my colleagues who taught the same course what I was doing at the beginning of the year. My argument that it was fair was that since my students’ scores could decrease on a later quiz, the re-assessment opportunity balances that out.

A friend and guidance counselor at another school told me that some of their teachers use SBG and, instead of total points, require all student scores to be at a certain level to achieve a certain grade. For example, to receive a B, each topic’s score must be at a B or higher. This discourages them from ignoring a topic because they don’t feel like working at it and requires an A student to truly have mastered everything. I really like this idea.


My Overall Thoughts

My students’ interactions with their grades, the feedback I gave them, and the topics were pretty rewarding. I’ve voiced my concerns with math education on this blog already and while SBG is a major improvement on the assessment system we have, it doesn’t address math’s relevance to many students or that standardized assessments (SAT, AP, SBA) are still rooted in very traditional math. SBG is an opportunity to get your feet wet with a new way of assessment and will begin to break down the wall between you and the world of evolving education. So go for it. You’ll stop wasting time making your quizzes add up to round numbers and start giving your kids more meaningful feedback.

Questions? Email me or comment below!

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