Saturday, December 28, 2013

Why Standards-Based Grading

A Twitter conversation prompted this post.  While doing a quick Twitter check before bed last night, I ran across @stopsbg and the associated website  Whoa.  After a few exchanges, it was evident I could not argue my point using the limited characters of Twitter.  I don’t think I will ever convince this party of anything, but I like to re-hash things for myself sometimes.

I have to preface this by saying that my perspective comes mostly as a 7th grade Life Science teacher.  I do a lot of work with other content areas in the middle level and some work with science at the high school level, but ultimately I know the level I teach the best.  From the website, it seems like the biggest concern is the result of Standards-Based Grading (SBG) after high school.  Perhaps my perspective is moot.

First, SBG isn’t something all in itself.  It is one tool/strategy from a multitude of strategies that are aimed at improving what we do as educators.  Whenever I try to think about these ideas about education, I always to try think about John Hattie’s work from his book Visible Learning.  The central premise of this book is that almost everything in education “works.”  Our goal isn’t to find something that works, it is to find something that works really well.  He tracks what works best using something called an effect size and charges teachers to “know thy impact,” which is to say that to not be satisfied with simply knowing that you made AN impact, but to know how large of an impact  you make.

I may be oversimplifying things, but my takeaway from Hattie was that we need to have clear goals of our teaching.  These goals need to be clear to both the student and the teacher.  In addition to these clear goals, interested parties need to know where students are in relation to these goals so appropriate adjustments can be made.   Those adjustments are how we can help the student move forward.  Perhaps they need some remediation to get caught up, perhaps they are right on target, or perhaps they are ready to storm ahead.  We need a classroom that purposely and properly identifies these students and provides the appropriate avenues.

So the above paragraph sounds like a bunch of edu-speak.  What does it mean, what does it look like?  We need clear goals, or standards, or targets, or objectives, or whatever you want to call them.  Our standards documents provide insight on what those are.  We need to work as teacher teams to make sure we all agree on what they are.  For example, I have a standard that is called “Explanation and Argument.”  It comes from information gathered from A Framework for k-12 Science Education to help student achieve the performance expectations outlined in The Next Generation Science Standards.   In order to do well on the standard, student are to be able to make a claim about something, supply or identify evidence that supports that claim, and explain how that evidence supports the claim using scientific reasoning.  Another standard I have is called “Survival and Reproduction.”  Part of this standard is the understanding of simple genetics.  Students need to understand how genetic traits are passed on from generation to generation and how scientists can deduce the genetic makeup of an organism by observing the offspring.

I know these goals, as do the people in my department.  We studied the standards and come to the conclusion.  Students know these goals, but in a slightly different way.  I don't tell them, “Hey, you need to know how scientists can deduce genetic makeup of an organism by observing the offspring.”  Instead, I use intriguing examples from nature to spark their curiosity and we practice the deduction and argument process.  Oh, by the way, I (like most teachers) have about 150 students spread across 5 classes with all sorts of different needs and current background knowledge.  I’m not special, every teacher has a similar situation.  I need a way to figure out what students know and what they don’t know, and then let them know their precise situation so we can move as far forward as possible.  This is where assessment comes in.  Part of that is conversations with students while they are working on examples that we come up with.  Part of it observation.  At some point though, I need them to sit down and prove to me they get it.  And we do that periodically too.  So then, we take a quiz to see what is up.

At this point, nothing is different from any other good teaching.  Formal assessments where a grade is given is where things change.  Now, a grade is given in two different categories: Explanation/Argument and Survival/Reproduction.   I have students who can make an “OK” argument but don’t have a great understanding of genetics.  Conversely, and more commonly, I have students who get the whole genetics thing, but can’t set up an argument well.  In both of the above situations, in my “traditional” grading practices when I started teaching and how I think a lot of teacher grade now, both of these students would receive a mediocre grade.  I am not inclined to say what because that is dumb, but it would probably be “passing” and not “excelling.”  When parents and or students ask what they could do to do better, the response is, “study harder/better.”

Enter Standards-Based Grading.  These kids get grades in two different categories.   I literally have students that approach me that say: “I see that I get the Survival and Reproduction part which I know goes with genetics, but what how do I do better in this Explanation and Argument category?” We have a conversation about what the difference is between evidence and reasoning in this situation while we bring up how we did this in the past.  We do a little more practice that is TARGETED on what needs to improve.  And then sometimes a student asks if they can “redo.”  No, not directly.  But, as a prepared teacher I have other assessments in store.  I’ll let them show me how well they can produce an argument using evidence using a different assessment in the short term or we will discuss when this will naturally come up again because of the design of the class.

Not only can I help students who have the confidence and drive to approach me with questions, I can also target groups of kids who are trying to sneak under the radar.  Again, with traditional grading, both students would have received a mediocre grade.  Some kids are OK with mediocrity.  With SBG, I can figure out what is causing that, and invite (make/compel) them come in and learn it better.  I don’t want a kid to leave my class that doesn’t understand genetics at least at a basic level.  Using SBG, I can identify whole groups of students and work with them.  Based on their grade, I have a reasonable idea as to where they are and can provide small group remediation, followed by directed practice, followed by another quiz where they can prove to me if they now understand.

No, this does not happen with traditional grading.

Sure, traditional grading can have clear goals.  Traditional grading should still go through the same formative feedback loops.  But at the end of the day (or unit), the data is useless to remediate students who didn't get it.  It is a ton of work to go back through to figure out the issues…so most teachers don’tThey move the whole class on and tell them to study harder next time.

SBG encourages students to ask more specific questions about their learning.  Also, it allows confidence to build in students.  Very few quizzes are total flops.  There is almost always at least something they did OK at.  Not only that, if they did poorly across the board we can make small steps.  Since I know what they know and don’t know, I can be more helpful.  And then, once those kids start doing a little better, they know they can do it, and they now will hold themselves to a higher standard.  Students where were OK with a “2” a few months ago know that they should be at a 3 or 4.  I have a couple dozen of those examples from this school year along.

Remember, it comes back to clear goals and feedback to and from the students about those goals so a teacher can “know thy impact.”  SBG, when done well, is an efficient way to know your impact.

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