Monday, March 28, 2011

Organizing the Gradebook: Categories and Learning Targets

Most gradebooks traditionally were set up in one of two ways.  One way is a "total points" option. In this scenario, each assessment/assignment/task is given a certain number of points.  Another commonly used method is to break the gradebook up into categories that represent different types of assessments.  This may create categories such as tests, quizzes, projects, homework, labs, etc.   With either of these options, the assessments are all mathematically averaged in some way to create a final grade.  There is a better way to organize a gradebook and today's post will focus on how to organize the gradebook in a standards-based grading classroom.

First, we have to remember that the purpose of grades is to communicate achievement.  How can we use the organization of the gradebook to help reach that end?  The simple answer is to organize the gradebook categories by learning targets rather than assessments types.  This is part of the definition of standards-based grades.

How do you do that?  I don't think standards-based grading is simply importing your standards into your gradebook.  Most of us simply have too many standards and benchmarks to do that in any way to be useful.  In addition, many standards are not written in the clearest language.  I think before you can create your learning targets, some work on curriculum may need to be done.  We need to identify what we want our students to know and be able to do by the end of our class.  We must be careful on this step.  Almost every curriculum I have seen written using learning targets sets the learning targets as low level recall type knowledge.  Try to write the learning targets, or at least some of them, in a way that will encourage higher level thinking skills.

If you don't have time to revamp your curriculum, there is another strategy.  This goes back to the communication aspect of grading.  Our grades need to communicate achievement.  By breaking the grade up into learning goals, we allow for more information to be presented.  Instead of a student getting a grade of B in science, we can look at what makes up that grade.  When you think about your gradebook, think about the information you would like to know about incoming students' achievement.  Seeing that they earned a B doesn't mean much.   Seeing that a student earned an A in learning categories that only require remembering facts but earned a C in categories of setting up, designing, and carrying out a scientific investigation will tell you more.  This also tells the student more.  They can see their own areas of strength and weakness so they can focus further their own practice.  To set up your categories, think about what information would be helpful to you, the students, and perhaps future teachers.

This also allows you to have categories for non-achievement factors.  We can also record information about effort, attitude, tardiness, attendance, etc.  Of course, these things are not included in anyway on the achievement portion of the grade.

Organizing the gradebook by learning targets also opens up the door to differentiated assessment.  Now we are as not concerned about how well a student did on Test #3, instead we can place our concern where it matters, on the learning and find ways for students to obtain that learning.  We are not nearly as concerned that every student shows understanding with the same type of assessment.  We can easily accept, and even encourage, multiple types of assessments, so long as they show understanding.  Also, it is important to note that an assessment may cover one learning target or more than one learning target.  This means that an assessment may not just have one grade written on the top.  There may be multiple grades, indicating which learning targets the assessment was aiming to assess.

For my 7th grade Life Science class, we have a variety of learning targets.  You can see these below:

  1. How do scientists get data?
  2. What is the importance of isolating variables in an experiment?
  3. How does a scientist decide when to do an experiment vs. another type of study?
  4. How are graphs used to analyze data?
  5. What measure of central tendency should be used?
  6. What is the importance of clarity in science writing?
  7. How can you make writing more accurate?
  8. What graph or diagram shows this information the best?
  9. What evidence needs to be included to back up writing?
  10. How do Greek and Latin roots make scientific words more clear?
  11. How does the Earth's position in the solar system determine the different environments we have on Earth?
  12. How can the genetic and evolutionary relationship between organisms be determined?
  13. How do humans compare to the way other organisms function?
  14. How do organisms function at the tissue, organ, and organism level?
  15. How do organisms function at the cellular and sub-cellular level?
At the beginning of each unit, I look at the list of learning targets.  I look at the content that I think is supposed to fit into the unit.  Then, I cross analyze to make sure that there is a reasonable coverage of the learning targets within the unit.  If I find that only one target is being, well, targeted, then I know there is something that needs to be changed.  Like assumedly most teachers, each year I go back to what I taught the previous year.  In recent units, I have found that I had activities that didn’t really hit on any of the learning targets!  Sure, they were really neat and they may have had some knowledge that is worthwhile, but when I look at the assessment end, they really were not necessary.  This is great because my curriculum is overloaded and this process is one way to begin pruning things away that are not absolutely necessary.

It is really easy to spend too much time talking about how organisms function in terms of factual recall knowledge.  Having learning targets that encourage inquiry makes me spend time on that as well.  The best activities are those where several of these learning targets can be brought together.
It is important to note that these learning targets are not perfect.  As a department, we have spent quite a bit of time reviewing them, and will continue to review them into the future.  They do help drive a curriculum in a more meaningful way though.  I am not a slave to my textbook.  I am required to pull in evolutionary relationships throughout the year, and assess them.  

You do need a gradebook program to help you with this.  I am currently playing around with ActiveGrade (  This is the BEST gradebook program I have run across.  There are also people finding other ways to organize this information.  I will try to collect some of that information soon.

How are other gradebooks organized?  Please comment and share yours!

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