Foundations: Standards-Based Grading, An Intro

sample of AP Physics student work

Yay! Grading!  The best part about teaching, right? No. No one thinks that.  It is awful.  But SBG makes it soooo much better.  Let's dive into what SBG is!

I have mentioned that I would eventually write about standards-based grading (SBG) as it's a critical part of how my classes are experienced.  Before I dive-in, thank you to Kelly O'Shea for introducing me to this system.  I honestly love SBG, and I love how differently I think about my courses now!  I call this "An Intro" since I anticipate that, while this will give you a solid first taste of what SBG is and how I use it, follow-up posts will absolutely be needed.

What is SBG and why is it pretty cool?

SBG is a method of grading in which the teacher assesses each student on a skill-by-skill basis, not on an assessment-by-assessment basis.  In other words, if an assessment requires students to demonstrate 3 skills, each student will receive 3 scores on that quiz, instead of getting something like an 85%.  What does an 85% mean? What do they need to work on?  The student often has no idea really.  By receiving a score for each skill, students have a very clear idea of where they need to focus their practice and attention before the next assessment.  This not only increases student awareness of their own proficiencies but also encourages the scores (or grades) to be used as a tool for future success!

Ideally, every course skill is assessed multiple times during in-class assessments (I aim for at least three times) giving every student the opportunity to demonstrate growth.  In addition, many SBG policies (including mine!) incorporate the opportunity for students to request individual reassessments outside of regularly scheduled in-class assessments to improve particular skill averages.  These many opportunities to revisit skills strives to accommodate different learning speeds.  It gives those who take longer to master a concept the chance to really show what they know when they're ready!

Pretty cool, right?

What does it look like?

I am feeling like it's example time. Below are the skills I use in my first unit of AP® Physics C: Mechanics.

sample of standards-based grading skills

The first quiz of the year is only on APM.1, the second is on APM.1 and APM.2, and the third is on APM.1, APM.2, and APM.3.  By the third quiz (I just have quizzes in my classes, no tests, as using an SBG system makes it unnecessary to make a distinction), I have only assessed APM.1 pretty thoroughly.  As I move into unit 2, I include all three of these skills along with any new ones on subsequent quizzes.  Again, my goal is to assess each skill AT LEAST three times, ideally more.

Before I get into how each skill is scored, I want to talk about the number of questions on an assessment vs. the number of skills being assessed.  There are times when I create one problem per skill.  However, given the cumulative nature of physics, many problems touch on more than one skill at a time.  This means a skill can show up a few different times within an assessment, which I like much better.  Maybe a student doesn't see how the skill fits into one problem, but they can on another, giving me a much better sense of their proficiency.

This transitions nicely to the scale.  You need to be able to give the students an idea of how they are doing on each skill.  There are many, many, MANY different scales you can use (1, 2, 3, 4 and 0, 1, 2 being the most popular in my opinion).  After a lot of spreadsheet analysis, I've landed on the one below which I have used for the last two years, and I am pretty happy with it!

how to assess individual physics course skills

So the cover page of each assessment looks something like this:

Standards-based grading cover page sample
Those blank boxes next to the skills are what I fill in with a 3, 4, 5, or 6 after I "grade" their assessment.  I put the word grade in quotation marks as I am not writing minus 1pt or minus 2pts next to mistakes.  Instead, I am asking questions, circling issues, or making small corrections.  Since there are no conventional points in SBG, there is no need for any subtractions.  Once I am done going through a student's work, I look at the skills on the cover and reflect on their performance on each one.  It's kind of like sitting back and looking at the quiz through the lens of each skill.  While, at first, it took me a little bit longer to grade this way, particularly when deciding between a 4 and 5, now I can't imagine going back!

In an effort to ensure this post isn't so long that I lose you, I'll end with a brief mention of how these skill scores become grades.  To be consistent with my school's policies, I absolutely need to be able to present letter grades to my students.  Here's an over-simplified example of how this works:

how to convert standards-based grading to letter grade

This pretend student has only been assessed on each skill twice in class and once on a reassessment.  The skill scores are averaged for each skill and then combined again to create a composite score.  There are also many different ways to score students and Powerschool has a great online version (free!).  For example, some SBG-ers use a weighted average where the most recent scores count more heavily, some take only the most recent score, replacing any previous score, and some average only the most recent three scores.

I hope this gives you a good idea of how I use SBG.  Please know that this is how I do it.  If you are interested in working this into your classroom, always make sure you find a combination of features that feels right to you.  I hope I have conveyed how many different ways there are to go about this.  In no particular order, the areas I feel need more explanation in future posts are:
  1. how to get started implementing SBG for the first time
  2. what do SBG assessments look like and how do you grade them
  3. how can this look for a less quantitative course (English/French/History/etc.)
  4. how my reassessment policy works
  5. how I encourage my students to track their scores (I don't use Powerschool)
  6. how homework ties into SBG
  7. how I incorporate a cumulative assessment like a midterm into SBG
  8. how I incorporate the skill names into my classroom environment
Please look for lots of SBG ahead!


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