Foundations: Standards-Based Grading, Getting Started!

The hardest part of standards-based grading (SBG) is getting started.  I'm going to break down the process of creating an SBG system and write this post to you, the person who may be interested in incorporating this into your classroom!  I will do my best to be as thorough as possible.  I am sure some follow-up posts will be needed!

Before diving into the steps, please make sure to check out my post introducing SBG!  It will give you a good idea of the overall system before you start implementing some of the items recommended here :)

1.  Create your Course Skills

First and foremost, you need to have a very clear idea of what skills you want your students to master by the end of the year.  Then, write itemized skills clearly and concisely so you and the students know what they are.  You absolutely do not have to (and probably shouldn't) start from a blank page.  Use your texts, other teachers, online resources, conferences, administrators, or any other resource to help you get started.  You are not reinventing the wheel.  There are so many teachers using SBG already.  Start out where someone else has left off!  I also recommend patience with yourself.  While I have grown to find this skill-creation process challenging in a fun way, it takes practice to figure out the right "size" of each skill and the language and tone that fit your style.

"Size" refers to how much work or demonstration each skill requires of the students as well as how many skills you want to have per unit of study.  This is a personal preference thing.  For me, I like to have at least two and at most five skills per unit with a unit lasting anywhere from around a month to two months.  Each year, I revise my skills to make sure I don't have any overlap between skills as this can make assessing them separately quite hard.  Further, if I find that I am not assessing a certain skill very often, I question whether it should be present at all or if I should absorb it into another one.  You may have noticed that my skills vary by unit, meaning we add skills to our "toolbox" as we progress through the year.  This works really well for a quantitative course such as mine.  My husband teaches French (a little different than physics, non?).  He designed a set of skills he uses all year long.  I am actually a bit jealous of this set-up as the students don't have to adjust to new skill terminology as the year progresses; the assessment criteria remain constant and clear. Sigh.

The language and tone of the skills are absolutely up to you.  I like to write the skills as if the students are saying them in an effort to jump-start some of that student ownership.  In addition, I try to make them as concise as possible while also incorporating the physics vocabulary.  I love the style of Kelly O'Shea who really got me started on this whole process.  I have used many of her skills in my physics course, and I don't want to repeat her awesome work here.  So I will share my first semester AP® Physics C skills which I have been trimming and modifying for a few years.  I will get into the scale at the top of the image later in this post.
AP Physics C Standards-Based Grading Semester 1 Skills DiSanto Classroom
The naming convention (APM, FPM, etc) was borrowed from Kelly (thank you!).  In a future post, I will delve into how to incorporate these skills into the students' vocabulary and work.  It is so helpful for promoting skill acquisition to have the names as part of their regular language.

2. Pick an Assessment Scale

In my intro post, I mentioned my 3 (None), 4 (Beginning), 5 (Developing), 6 (Mastery) scale.  I took my semester scores for one year and, using Excel, ran through every option from 1, 2, 3, 4 through 7, 8, 9, 10.  This one just felt right when I saw how the grades fell out of for the students.  There are so many options here.  I like the four levels, but many teachers use only three (0, 1, 2 is a popular one).  I highly recommend doing some more googling, picking one that feels good, and just starting there.  You can always change it in subsequent years!  I also recommend coming up with a description of each score in your own language and style that will make sense to your kids.

3. Decide How to Calculate and Communicate Grades

For the calculation part, just like with the scale decision, you have tons of choice here!  I use the average of each student's scores in each skill to create a composite grade.  For details on this, check out my post about reassessments.  You can also take a look at my grading policy linked under step 5 later in this post.

What are some other options?  Here is a list:
  • You can consider only the most recent score for each skill.
  • You can take the average of only the most recent three scores (assuming you assess each skill more than three times) for each skill.
  • You can take a weighted average of scores favoring more recent scores.  There are many ways to do this.
  • You can create a composite grade based on the number of skills mastered.
  • You can come up with your own unique way!
Powerschool has many built-in grade calculating options.  This link is to the free version.  Check it out!  I have created a custom gradebook in Google sheets and have played around with Powerschool.  I really like having a lot of control over the calculations (maybe it's the engineer in me?).  I like making my own equations and having the ability to modify anything I want!  So I haven't switched to Powerschool yet.  Maybe someday...

Communication of grades is soooo important for SBG.  The kids need to have a sense of how they are doing in each skill to understand where they need to focus their attention in the pursuit of further growth.  In addition, if reassessments are part of your policy, the students absolutely need to be able to determine the skills they would like to reassess.  Powerschool has the option to let students see their skill scores as well as the composite grade.  I have my students track their scores in a digital tracker sheet in Google Sheets.
Image of standards-based grading tracker sheet for AP Physics in DiSanto classroom
Each student types their scores into the pink boxes when I return assessments and the tracker automatically calculates the average for each skill as well as their composite grade.  I got really fancy this year and linked each student's tracker to my gradebook so they can compare what they calculate and what I calculate.  This way we can catch mistakes on both ends!  Also, I like getting the students in the habit of taking a role in understanding their scores and where they come from.  Other teachers have done paper tracker sheets as well!  Again, the method of communicating is up to you.

4. Decide whether Reassessments are for you

For a detailed description of what reassessments are and how I incorporate them into my classes, check out this post.  All I will say here is that you need to decide if you are going to use them or not and, if you are using them, how much.  And, of course, you can change your mind!  A big factor in this decision will be how much you assess each skill.  If you have tons of skills in your course and you are only assessing them once or twice, then I would say reassessments are a good idea as it gives your students a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate proactive growth.  However, if you have fewer skills (like my husband who has the same skills all year), this means you are assessing each one many times over, making reassessments less necessary.  During my first year of SBG, I didn't do any reassessments at all.  I was really intimidated by all of the changes I had already made (new skills, new grade system, new course language, etc.) and quite nervous to add another.  Then, at the start of my second year into this process, I had the confidence to give reassessments a shot!

5. Create a Clear Grading Policy

Title of standards-based grading policy in DiSanto AP Physics
This one may seem super obvious, but it is so critical that I couldn't leave it out (even though this applies to any and all grading systems).  After all the work of the last four steps, none of it will be worth it if you don't document everything in a way your students can understand it.  When I first began implementing SBG, I was one of only two teachers doing it (and we were doing it quite differently).  My seniors had absolutely no idea what was happening!  They had only seen points and percentages and now, at the end of high school, I was throwing a wrench into their view of grades on top of the stress of college!  My grading policy document was (and still is!) my foundation for everything and got my students and me through the newness of it all.  I created this from a template from Mr. Chris Vicevich.  I referred to it constantly both in class and during one-on-one sessions, and by the end of the year, almost everyone understood the policy and the purpose behind it.  And I say almost quite honestly.  I know there were a few students who didn't buy in or just didn't get it.  Years later, there are about four teachers using SBG now (which I think is pretty cool!) and we are much more consistent with each other.  This greater presence on campus has led to more immediate comfort from my new students.  Further, the students have talked to each other over the years so many now know coming into my room for the first time that DiSanto has a different (but not bad or scary!) system.  Time and communication have truly quelled anxiety and many students appreciate the transparency of this system.

Before I wrap up, I want to share a warm fuzzy from one of my students a couple of weeks ago.  I take pictures of things like this to make the less awesome teaching days a bit better. :)  On a reflection, he wrote the following:
positive student feedback about DiSanto physics class
I feel like a lot of the credit for this feedback goes to SBG.

These five steps are by no means official in any way as I came up with them based on my own experience.  I have said this before.  This all sounds like a lot of work, and it absolutely is quite substantial at the beginning.  But I hope you see the value of this system and think it's worth the investment!  I will continue to add more SBG posts in the future.  Writing this one has made me think of other areas to explore, like what an assessment looks like in SBG.  Stay tuned!


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