When You Can’t Do Standards Based Grading

My wife first introduced me to Standards Based Grading (SBG) 5ish years ago, while writing her masters thesis on the topic. After 3 years of  pushing I finally bought in, particularly because of what I perceive as a special harmony between SBG and the the method of instruction I use in physics, Modeling Instruction. I helped implemented SBG in our regular physics course and was happy with the results. However, the only class I teach this year is a concurrent enrollment U of MN course, which I wrote more extensively about here. The students are mostly highly motived high school juniors and seniors. I love, LOVE teaching this class, but it has a glaring problem for SBG; it is articulated through the U of MN.

I thought there were some significant problems I was having could be addressed with SBG.

  1. There are only four exams and a final all year for the U of MN aspect of the course. This is far too little assessment; neither my students nor I really knew where they stood before taking these high stakes exams. It made my grading load nicer, but it wasn’t best for kids.
  2. I stopped grading homework last year (I still checked it, but for no credit), and I found that students simply didn’t do it. I still believe that it is practice and thus shouldn’t be part of a grade, but also that they really do need to practice to succeed.
  3. Four exams  per year means two per semester, which meant that a significant part of a student’s HS semester grade was based on just two exams.
  4. Students didn’t know what they had to be good at to succeed on the exams.

I set out to solve these problems using SBG.

Background: Before I continue there are some features of the course that are very relevant to making this work. First of all, it is important that I have a bit of flexibility with how grades are calculated. There is a 10% category as set by the U that was for homework, but I was told I could use it how I see fit. As I mentioned before, I decided last year that I was done assigning a grade to homework (but that’s a different post…), so I had 10% of the U grade that I could use for re-assessable quizzes. Furthermore, since the HS grade is split into two semester grades, whereas there is only one college grade for the whole year (it’s a one semester U course taught in a year at the HS), I have even more flexibility with the HS grade. Thus I am able to carve out 25% for a ‘SBG’ category for their HS grade. It’s not perfect, but it’s what I have.

The grading scale, as set by the U, is fairly forgiving with 15% increments instead of the standard 10%, such that the A cutoff is 85%, B is 70%, etc. This is key to a using a non-standard scoring methods (such as a 4 point scale)  because a 2/4 at 50%, is still a D+. That said, one could always use a 4 point scale and map those scores to percents. Really the four points are meant to represent levels of mastery (exemplary, proficient, developing, basic), not percentages. In my case I can use an alternate scale and it still fits within my percentages, but some tweaking could certainly fix that in other cases.

The Quizzes are based on standards I have written for the course, which in turn are based on the skills I deemed necessary for students to succeed on the four U of MN exams. The quizzes are scored on a 2-1-0 scale, where 2 means they nailed it, 1 means they understand something but not everything, and zero means they didn’t know where to begin. The first quiz generated an awesome amount of learning, as most students scored themselves a 1 and were very motivated to improve their learning and thus that score. After a couple of quizzes and students getting very frustrated at multiple reassessments at 1, I caved and started giving 1.5 (B/B+). I don’t mind that distinction as I give 1.5s when I can’t give a 2 (they didn’t nail it), but they have still shown proficiency (they demonstrated understanding but made some minor mistakes). I’m still seeing kids reassess to shoot for the 2.

Wait, did you say self-graded quizzes? OK, this is my favorite part of the course, I stole it from Frank. Students take a quiz. There’s a bunch of bright colored keys in the back of the room along with red pens (side note: don’t love red, but it’s what I have at the moment). When a student finishes the quiz, they walk to the back, check their work against the key, correct and annotate their quiz, score themselves a 0,1, 1.5, or 2, and hand it in. I hover in the back both to keep them honest and to answer questions when needed. This serves two purposes;

  1. Students get instant feedback on exactly what they did and did not do correctly, which is vastly more important than…
  2. Takes the correcting load off of me.

I almost hate mentioning #2, but the reality is that the normal student load in a public high school is something like 150 kids, so doing SBG with reassessments could get overwhelming. I want this to be something that is helpful for the students and for me. Quiz grading takes me very little time with this method, and we also don’t ‘waste’ class time going over the quiz as a group since they already corrected it themselves.

When I take a look at the quizzes, I am looking at a couple of things. First of all, I am looking to see if there are patterns in what was answered incorrectly so I can adjust instruction if necessary. Second, I am looking closely at the 2’s to make sure they really demonstrated a complete understanding of the material. This process is MUCH faster than scrutinizing each quiz to see if they get an 8.5 or a 9.

Hold on. If you don’t give partial credit on a quiz, then don’t they all get D+’s? Kind of. At first they did, with only 2,1,0. I didn’t want to be haggling over points. I want students to fully understand each and every standard so they can nail those U of MN exams. Case study; on quiz 1 (Constant Velocity problem solving), most of my students got a 1. This is because the U (like the college board for AP exams) strongly emphasizes algebraic problem solving, and students resist doing so. Last year I didn’t feel like my students had a good feel for algebraic problem solving  until second semester; this year, they all took the bet and lost, and as a result, they are reassessing. And they are reassessing well.

What I love

  • Forced reassessments force learning
  • Relative ease of grading load (self-grading helps a ton!)
  • The feeling that students are in control of their learning and their grade

What I don’t as much

  • Part of me is ok with certain timelines for demonstrating learning (the exams), but another part believes the final deadline should really be the end of the course. In a more pure SBG system students could potentially figure out physics in the last month of school and then earn a grade that reflects that understanding, an A. In my system, if they didn’t figure out kinematics by Exam 1, then they probably won’t get the A in the course even if they reassess on the quizzes, due to the high weights of the non-reassessable exams. But I can’t change this anyway.


The learning gains I have seen over last year so far are exceeding even my optimistic expectations; below is a box plot comparing the last two years of the U of MN Exam 1 (more dynamic link here);

Screen Shot 2013-11-04 at 8.57.29 PM

So far all indicators point to success of this new system over my old one. Do you see holes? Have suggestions to make it even better? Let me know in the comments.

Addendum: Recommended Reading

Frank wrote a great post about The Spirit of SBG that I think complements this post in that it emphasizes that SBG is about increasing learning, not about a system itself. I’m using a framework for SBG as best as I can to attempt to help increasing learning, so I hope that the sprit of SBG is being kept in that.

8 responses to “When You Can’t Do Standards Based Grading

  1. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist

    Thanks for this great insight with dealing with external constraints with SBG. My gut reaction to a system like this would be to think of the 4 exams over the year to be end points of 4 “courses.” In my own SBG implementations, by the end of the course, they has assessed (and hopefully re-assessed) a bunch so that they don’t really have to even study for the final. Now, admittedly, my finals are very conceptual in nature. Really they’re all about synthesis of the ideas, very unlike the UofM exams, I suppose. Would this mindset help you? Treat them as separate classes where, unfortuantely, “final” is a huge chunk of the grade, but the activities (quizzes, homework, reassessments) during each “class” can still keep their focus.

    • I thought a bit about this. It’s almost like if they really learned the material, they should nail the final. Problem is, I still think there are factors that could influence that one day and I would rather use their growth/understanding as demonstrated year long than just one snapshot. As an example, I had a student one year who fell off her horse the day before the AP Physics exam. She did take it later, but I’m confident that situation didn’t help her score.

      I do like the idea that the final is significant; in fact, it is 25% for me and I like that amount. Seems enough to affect the grade but not enough to kill or inflate it should circumstances arise. I could be convinced to go higher though, I think.

      Also, I would love for the exams to be more conceptual and emphasize synthesis, but I don’t think they are awful. I would love to see an example of one of yours and how you do this, for a lower level class since it’s been a while 😉

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  3. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist

    At the extreme end of conceptual and synthesis:
    First portion of exam: make a mind-map of all the standards (list provided), making a bubble for each standard and drawing in all the connections you can think of.
    2nd portion: (announced only after the first portion) find the bubble with the most connections and write an essay describing why that’s the most important standard.

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