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  • Writer's pictureMark Schober

An 8-Step Transition from Points-Based Grading to Standards-Based Grading

Updated: Apr 29, 2021

Even if you're sold on standards-based grading, the transition can be daunting. Here is a roadmap for sequentially implementing key aspects of SBG, improving a points-based grading system in the interim, and setting yourself up for a successful transition to SBG. Over the past four summers, Manjula Nair and I have led a three-day SBG workshop in which we will flesh out the elements below for making the shift to SBG. Look for upcoming workshops and register through STEMteachersNYC.

There are excellent articles about why SBG is a less-imperfect system of assessing student performance than points-based systems. (No system is perfect!) I'm assuming that you are interested in SBG and are ready to give it a try.

1. Build your allies and identify your resources. The best laid plans can be frustratingly thwarted without a support base beyond your classroom. Communicating to various constituencies is an ongoing project. SBG is different than what people are used to, and it will take time to win some people over. But as you grow in your understanding of SBG, you will also find more effective ways to communicate why you are doing what you are doing to parents, students, colleagues, and administrators.

2. Write learning objectives. No matter what kind of grading system you use, clearly define what you expect students to be able to do after instruction and practice. Express the objectives in terms that the students can understand and share them with the students so that they know what is expected of them. Writing good objectives that are clear, useful, non-trivial, and concise is a difficult task. 

  • Start with objectives others have created and adjust them to fit your needs.

  • Keep the number of objectives small, perhaps 10-40 for the year.

  • Many objectives will be assessed repeatedly throughout the year, providing the students opportunities to demonstrate growth.

  • Write objectives for the skills and traits you value. (I don't have a homework objective, but next year I will add an "organized notebook" objective for freshman physics.)

3. Design assessments and performance tasks that assess your objectives. Discard question content that isn’t relevant to your objectives or assessment tasks that don’t use the skills your objectives value. Also, use your assessments to rethink your objectives. If there is something in your assessment that you find is really key, modify your objectives to accommodate that concept or skill.

  • Assessments can take many forms: from tests and quizzes to performances, debates, lab reports, papers, projects, discussions, interviews, and team challenges.

  • Keep assessments short - assess just a few objectives at a time. (This gets around the conundrum of designing percentage-graded tests that need to be short enough that students can finish in the allotted time, yet have enough items that failure on one test item won't result in a failing grade on the assessment.)

  • Assessments should have high expectations but low stakes. Ask sophisticated questions and require demonstration of skills that push the students. Students not yet able to succeed are encouraged to practice and try again.

4. Provide feedback in terms of the learning objectives. Rather than rating student performance on a quiz or test in terms of points or a percentage, let students know how well their work met the objectives. Give students metacognitive opportunities to consider for themselves how well their work met the the objectives.

  • Keep the rating system simple, especially when starting out. (Three level scale: proficient, learning, unable to assess. Four level scale: exceeds target, meets target, partially meets target, unable to assess.)

  • If a student is absent for an assessment or unable to attempt an answer, the rating is “unable to assess”. This does not count against a student as a score of zero would in a points based system where scores are combined by averaging. Instead, no proficiency is earned, and the student prepares to assess again in order to demonstrate their understanding.

  • Students can mark up their own assessments, recording feedback that is useful to them and getting instant feedback on their work. When students finish their quizzes, I have them leave their pencil behind and I give them a blue pen to make corrections on their quiz. In this way, I spend a lot less time writing corrections (that the students don't really read) because they have already made meaningful notes to themselves. They should also self-rate how they think they did in terms of the learning objectives. The teacher then adds any comments that the students may have missed and provides their rating of the student work. 

  • Homework can become more self-directed: students practice the concepts and skills they need to demonstrate success in. They don’t need to practice what they’ve already mastered.

5. Record student progress according to the objectives. Instead of a gradebook consisting of a grid of students vs. assessments, each student gets a page with a grid of objectives vs. assessments. Paper versions can be given to students so that they can track their own progress. Electronic gradebooks, such as SBGbook by Josh Gates, JumpRope, or Haiku (now a part of Powerschool), are designed for standards-based grading and can be configured so that students can monitor their progress online.

  • Again -- keep things simple. Your number of students times the number of assessments and reassessments times the number of objectives per assessment means a lot of information to keep track of. Don’t bury yourself in bookkeeping -- spend your time teaching!

  • With the focus on objectives, the discussion around grades completely changes. Instead of a student coming back to you after a poor test and asking how they can raise their grade, they instead ask how they can show their understanding of a particular objective.

  • Allow online access to grades cautiously. You want students to focus on the content and skills they need to explore, practice, and master, not the grade.

6. Foster a growth mindset in your students. Learning complex tasks can’t be mastered in a short period of time. However, with focused, appropriate practice, a student can grow in their mastery of complex ideas and skills. 

  • Too often, students see assessment as a battle between teacher and student. They see themselves as perfect, starting at 100% until the teacher acts as gatekeeper and "takes off" points. In SBG, it is clear that the teacher has high expectations for the students and will give students the instruction, resources, practice, and opportunities to keep practicing until mastery is achieved.

  • In standards-based grading. The students start at zero and build up their proficiencies on the objectives cumulatively over the course of the year. The teacher helps the students to acquire the skills and knowledge to demonstrate mastery, how ever long it takes.

7. Provide opportunities to learn from mistakes, practice, and reassess. The important thing is that students learn the content and skills of the course, not if they learn the content and skills at the same pace as their classmates. 

  • Ask students to show the written practice they have done to prepare for an extra assessment before allowing them to reassess. I require proof of practice before students reassess, and that will look different for different students.

  • Build up a library of assessments so that you have many extra assessments.

  • Feel free to reuse the same assessment when looking for mastery of core skills.

8. Gather feedback from students. Students are pretty perceptive. They find that this system makes the learning objectives clear, they are less stressed by assessments, they feel empowered to determine their level of content mastery (and their resultant grade) as a result of their practice and effort, they realize the importance of not procrastinating -- and they also have great suggestions about how to make the system work better. There are, of course, a lot more details to be worked through to apply these ideas in the classroom. All the more reason to join me for a summer workshop where we can work together to help you develop a standards-based grading system that fits you and your teaching. I hope to see you there!

Originally posted on my previous website April 14, 2017.

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