"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Monday, November 26, 2012

A Primer on Standards Based Grading

Want to watch a teacher's blood pressure rise right before your eyes? Ask them what they think of Standards Based Grading.

This is one of the zombies of education reform. It never really seems to die and keeps coming back to eat your brain.  Some schools are trying to adopt it now as it is expected to be used in Common Core Assessments. For those who are unfamiliar with SBG, here are the basics.

Numerical ratings are used rather than letter grades/percents. There are four ratings:

2--Acquiring the skills/concepts
3--Meeting standard
4--Exceeding standard

Most of us would immediately make the leap to 4=A, 3=B, 2=C and 1=D (note that there is no F as there is no zero in SBG.) But this would be an incorrect assumption on our part. A teacher using standards based grading would not grade a test on which the student scored 34 correct out of 40 total questions as a 3, or 29/40 a 2. A rubric or chart of goals for the test is developed which gives the teacher far more leeway in assigning a grade. This rubric may contain, for example: did the child show improvement over previous tests; did the student use the full amount of time alloted?The teacher could say that 30/40 correct answers shows sufficient mastery of the standard. In college, we called this grading on a curve. In this way, Meeting The Standard becomes highly subjective.

Another aspect of SBG is the focus on getting the right answer. On this surface this appears to be a very logical, even admirable, goal for schooling. But it opens the door for all kinds of gaming of the system. If the focus is for the child to get the right answer with few or no constraints, then tests can be retaken over and over, help can be offered during testing, homework deadlines can be extended or even done away with. After all, the goal is for the child to demonstrate mastery of the material, not be subjected to some random condition like time limits.

Despite all those who say our students are getting dumber, their response to SBG shows exactly the opposite. Why study for a test when you can retake it numerous times until you get a score you like (or the teacher changes the rubric and pronounces you Meeting The Standard?) Why turn in homework when you cannot get a zero for failing to do so? With no means to assess your level of understanding, no low number can be averaged in with your grades. Students figure this out fairly quickly and adjust their behavior to maximize their benefit.

Take the Zero's Aren't Permitted (ZAP) program being used in the Rockwood School District in at least one middle school. The result has been a precipitous decline in students having homework ready to turn in. Those who don't have it by class time are allowed to complete the homework during lunch, under administrative supervision, which the kids gladly do because it means more time to play at home. It means additional staff responsibility to oversee these kids at lunch, but I guess that's all fine so long as we know they are learning, even if it is just learning to work the system.

Deadlines are just so old school. One high school teacher was called on the carpet for expecting students to turn in assignments by specified deadlines. The teacher was told that, with standards based grading, as with things in the real world, there are no deadlines. It didn't set well with the administrator when the teacher responded by saying that if there are no deadlines in the real world it will be okay if she didn't submit her grades by the established deadline.

This appears to be Outcome Based Education come back for another bite at our brains. The focus is on getting the right answer. How students get their answer is of no concern. Just this fall, a math teacher, was called on the carpet and told he couldn't require students to show their work. He had been very specific in example and direction on showing work when they were working with the order of operations. The administrator told him that with standards based grading we only care what students get as an answer, not how they get the answer. If a student gets something wrong, that teacher is left to guess at where the problem lies. The student concludes they "just don't get it" when perhaps a little tweaking or filling in of a small gap in understanding is all that is needed. The focus on getting the right answer is an all or nothing game.

As a teacher using SBG you have the benefit of being able to use a complex rubric which could allow you to score students higher than their actual percentage on a given test, which makes the student and parents happy. However, you also have students who are retaking any number of tests from any point in your curriculum throughout the semester. Keeping track of that is a nightmare. On the one hand it may seem logical to say that a teacher must continue to work on student mastery before moving on to higher level concepts, but this system does little to help the teacher or student accomplish this. While it is difficult to teach more advanced math concepts until the student has mastery of the basic math facts, applying zero pressure to learn those math facts within a specified time limit makes moving on to the more advanced concepts almost impossible.

Additionally, teachers could have two and three times the number of papers to grade as they have to allow students to redo writing assignments that do not show them meeting the standard. There is little a teacher can do when students, who aren't comprehending the concept she/he is teaching, are not learning to master it by doing work at home. The teacher's job is to make that magic happen in the classroom.

Add to this computerized grading systems that weren't set up to recognize a 2 or a 3 causing uninformed parents to flood the teacher with panicked phone calls and you have the makings of an early retirement incentive for some teachers. Eventually parents will be trained to accept 3's and 4's and will be lulled into thinking this means their child is performing well and learning a lot. They won't see that their child got 20/40 questions right. How many of us see our kids tests come home from school any more? That would just be confusing for us because their score for that 20 correct answers could be a 3.

I was going to write a nice conclusion here, but maybe I'll do that later. It's not like there's a deadline or anything.


  1. SBG can be used effectively if implemented correctly. I work at a school where we have implemented SGB that converts to a % grade for high school students. I have been teaching for 17 1/2 years. I am now a Education Recovery Specialist working for the state department. SBG is not about deadlines. It is about learning. You can have deadlines in SBG. SBG is about removing all the fluff and inaccurate information to reflect what the student actually knows. It is about demonstrating meeting benchmarks and mastery of learning and not about whether a teacher has to score or grade a paper several times. That is an ineffective teacher who doesn't know how to properly plan. It is about a student being graded on the process through learning and not just the end result. The problem teachers have with SBG is they don't want to change the way they teach. SBG requires the teacher to change their way of teaching. If today's student has changed from 10-15 years ago, why haven't the teachers changed? If we as teachers want to be viewed and respected as a professional, we must behave as professionals. Many years ago the medical field used to treat migraines, headaches, epileptic seizures with Trepanning--drilling into the skull of someone to release the evil spirit. No one would do that today. If someone drilled into your skull by old school practices, they would sue them for medical malpractice. What about Educational malpractice. The research is there for a change in teaching, but teachers are afraid to change. Today's students are seeking out new teaching practices. If you are required to teach the Common Core Standards, why wouldn't you have Standards Based Grading? Standards Based Instruction should have Standards Based Grading.SBG has multiple components that are involved. You must start with your PLC groups and identify the Key/Power/Focus Standard. Then you must incorporate these standards into Common Formative and Summative Assessment that includes a student's reflection grade. At our school, we have the % of grades broken into 3 areas. 40% Summative, 40% Formative and 20% Reflection. If you interested in seeing how we use SBG you can post your email address here and I will send you all of our information.

  2. Anonymous- Your opening comment sums up the problem with ANY education reform measures. Where things can and do go wrong is at the point of implementation. That is where the great idea someone further up the planning chain came up with is interpreted and put into action. Watch two different districts unpack the newest standards and you will find two different interpretations of what needs to be learned in the classroom. Your understanding of SBG is one way, but clearly from what we hear from teachers it is understood to be something different in other places. You say that the problem is that teachers don't want to change the way they teach. This assumes that the way they have been teaching is not effective which is patently not the case with some teachers, but they will ALL have to change to accommodate SBG. Also, SBG is not about the way they teach so much as it is about the way they assess student performance. The only difference in teaching is how they explain to the students in advance what they will be looking for to receive a top score.

    1. Yes, the problem is about the way teachers teach. Standards Based Grading is a system not just a scale. You have to design your instruction around the standards you are assessing (Backwards Design). You have to remove the fluff or the grade inflation activities. No longer are you grading students on compliance. The grade is based on what the student knows and doesn't know and at what level according to the Common Core Standard. SBG is an indicator of when the student is getting it. Why should a student sit through the same lesson over the same material for 10 days and quizzes, when this student could demonstrate to the teacher in 3 different opportunities? This is why students have become disconnect and bored in school. SBG is part of the PLC cycle of identifying learning targets for students, assessing the students, analyze the data, design interventions and instruction based on the results of the data. So, yes, SBG does have an impact on teaching. Teachers can no longer enter their classrooms and use the same old lesson plans as before. It is truly an education reform.

    2. Okay, so let's say that you have a particular student who doesn't do well on a test. According to SBG, said student is allowed to retake the test, yes? The motivation to do well on the test the first time is drastically lower once students know that they can retake it until they get a decent grade. Teaching is not just a teacher-putforth effort. The success of a student is based on teachers and said student, and the motivation for the student to actually want to learn is one of the most vital parts of a student's learning. I don't understand what is so wrong about the lesson plans that teachers have been using. SBG was "implemented" at my old high school just last year, and, low and behold, the EOC scores diminished dramatically, especially in the English department. Granted, the majority of the English teachers weren't doing their jobs too well-they just used the subjection of the system to enter in good scores because that's what they "thought [he or she] deserved," when in reality, they were just too lazy to actually put forth any effort. While this is just one example, how many teachers are going to do exactly as my teachers did because they are simply too lazy to do their jobs? My guess is the majority. Every system is perfect on paper; it's the implementation and execution of the system that causes it to fall apart, which doesn't say much for the system, either, because in order for the system to be good, the implementation must be better.

  3. Besides the fact that the scale completely subjective when you consider the choices, what school is going to encourage teachers to be honest in their "grading"? When money is the prize for improving, everyone is going to say they improved. Translation: the kids lose as usual.

  4. Our school is transitioning into this grading system and as a parent I am not happy. Work ethic is big in my book and this just enables slackers. It's very frustrating spending an hour doing busy work with my children knowing they will not get credit for this work. My freshman's grades are being determined by what a teacher thinks. I prefer to speak with a teacher and she pulls out tests and homework and shows me why my child got a grade in her class. It's a huge waste of money to set the bar on the floor for our kids just to get some funding.

    1. I am in total agreement with you! MY daughter is only in 2nd grade, but their homework is required, but not graded. She as the student, finds it frustrating to work hard and do well on a test just to receive a 3 instead of a 4. She feels if she does the work and gets 100% she should get a 4. Her teacher even told me that they are not striving to get the students to a level of 4 by then end of the year, they are only working to get them all to a 3. Very aggravating as a parent!

  5. On January 2nd All teachers of the Ozark School District will get to enjoy a day long Professional Development Class on Standards Base Grading. Brought to you by the same school board and sup that brought you IB and 1 to 1! Yeah!

  6. You do not understand SBG and misrepresented it.

  7. My impression of SBG is that, if a student does not do "well enough" on an assessment, they are welcome to take another assessment of the same standard... not necessarily the exact same test. When I was trying it out with high school students, I had the question on each re-assessment get a little more challenging for the first 4-5 re-assessment opportunities, and students had to score two top marks in order to persuade me they had mastered the skill/standard well enough. Some students needed 10 or more retries before they finally received two top marks, but most did demonstrate mastery of most standards in the end, many at the last minute, and were thrilled about it.

    The flip side was that mastery of a standard today does not equate to mastery of the same standard tomorrow. The challenge is to also ensure they retain the knowledge/skill over time, and know when to apply it. The students who took a long time to master many standards had a small advantage when the exam came around, as they had used those skills somewhat recently.

    So, understanding by design is good too, as we need to design our course plans to continually require students to use/demonstrate both previous and new knowledge, often in new or unfamiliar situations. This usually requires the assignments to gradually become more complex over the course of the year, or perhaps even become projects...

    One aspect of projects that I do not see used as much as I think would be useful is an additional question after the project is handed in: once students have completed and turned in their projects, they have often only just begun to get their arms around the material. It can be very worthwhile to ask an extension question with based on slightly different background information, which will require them to repeat much of the project process. Every time they do that, their efficiency and confidence tends to increase - but I also think their understanding increases considerably as well - particularly if it has been a week or so since they turned their project in.

    While we learn and retain best what we have had to use repeatedly in differing contexts, the challenge is fitting all this in while also covering the mandated syllabus... and I don't have an answer to that one, other than working at a school which is flexible in its syllabus requirements.

  8. This article has SBG 180 degrees backward. A few thoughts:
    (1) At some level all grades are subjective. Period. Get over it. SBG with a well-crafted rubric can be far less subjective than traditional grading, which is highly prone to grade inflation.
    (2) With SBG grades are not a prize to be won by pleasing the teacher or doing a lot of meaningless busy work. Instead, all assessment and grading becomes communication between the teacher, student and parent about which concepts or skills the student has mastered and not yet mastered. So the following stupid wastes of everyone's time come to a halt: (a) kids copying homework from the smart kid (learning nothing) and turning it in on time for points (b) kids getting points for ridiculous stuff that has nothing to do with anything (like bringing pencils to class and having parents sign forms) (c) meaningless grade book entries like "Unit 5 Test...B" (what does that mean to anyone, including the teacher or student--not much) (d) extra credit (no learning, no grade).
    (3) Yes, SBG makes a teacher's life a bit harder, but not because it's a record-keeping nightmare--it isn't. It does, however, force teachers to confront exactly which skills and concepts are not being mastered by exactly which students. Which is exactly what we are paid to do.
    (4) I hear lots of people complain that SBG is "dumbing down" something. This is 100% wrong. With SBG, credit is only granted when the student demonstrates that they have mastered the concept. As every student knows very well (and every teacher whose paying attention does, too) it is entirely possible to get a passing grade in most high school classes while learning almost nothing because of fluff "points" given for homework, etc. In SBG, your grade (if schools still insist on letter grades) depends only on what you've learned. This is telling: I am the only teacher in my school who is using SBG right now. I overheard two students talking about what classes to take next year. One (who is in my class right now) told the other one to make sure to get the other chemistry teacher because in my class "with his grading system, you actually have to learn the s**t." That's the most powerful verification I could imagine that I am doing the right thing.
    (5) I find it ironic that many of the people who complain about SBG also complain about lazy teachers who aren't connecting with kids. SBG makes the connection because it is all about using every assessment as a tool for measuring specific understanding and providing feedback on that measurement.

  9. I have to agree with Dave about the value of SBG. I also am the only teacher at my school using this system, and I have seen it profoundly affect concept mastery in my classes this year. This has happened because I have removed the possibility of getting credit for anything other than what students know and are able to do. It has also forced me to clarify my content to an extent that I had previously only envied.

    Mathmaine also appropriately clarifies the point that students do not get to take the same tests over and over. That would be counterproductive. Students request a reassessment, I prepare another from my knowledge of that student and those skills, and we reassess.

    My process is thus: a student wishing to reassess must submit a form explaining which standard they wish to reassess, why they think they did not do well and what they have done to prepare for reassessment. (Reflection/self analysis) At this stage, all kinds of interesting things happen. For example, if the skill assessed was "narrating events in the past", different errors can be made. The specificity of the rubrics can address such things as common misconceptions, errors, etc. I know that if I allow my students to think that verb conjugations are merely using a different spelling pattern at the end of the word, they will do just that. I see the skill as involving connective language, proper orthography, and some time-specific tag words. Including these elements in my rubrics makes it clear in advance what is to be graded. This is not laziness, and it is not a dumbing down of anything. It is a way of making it clear to students (who might not intuitively grasp this otherwise) what excellence looks like, and it is especially important when working with students of varying literacy levels.

    I have received from parents, other teachers and administrators both criticisms and commendations for adopting this system. It is certainly not the only way to teach students, but things always become very literal in our education system. I do think it is the next intellectual step for our educational system. However, I question whether someone who doesn't understand it would wield it effectively.

  10. I agree with Dave. Many students at our school are only in the top 10 of their class b/c they are hard workers (can do their homework which simply requires looking up answers in a book), not because they have mastered specific learning objectives. There is no meaning to the current grading system. What exactly does a "B" or "C" mean? Nothing.


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