Wednesday, June 3, 2015
Year One of Standards-Based Grading: Lessons Learned
1. Some students will fight against the SBL system.
After a summer of preparing for this big change, I was excited and full of optimism to dive into SBL. I carefully planned out the first week of school, intentionally creating experiences for students that would help them buy into the classroom culture and philosophy that accompany SBL. All seemed to be going well, until students received feedback on their first assignment. "Why do I need to redo this? I'm fine with my score." "Why can't you just give me a grade for this?" "Why can't I just be done with this assignment?" For whatever reason, many of my students this year had no desire to improve their work and reach a "proficient" level in class. They started the year by completing every assignment as quickly as possible so that they could simply be "done" with it, and ended the year by not completing assignments at all because, "I'm just going to have to redo it anyway." This attitude may have been particular to this group of students, but I firmly believe that it's indicative of a larger problem. See #5 for further elaboration.
2. Students, parents, and fellow staff members will need constant reminders about why SBL is important and "how it works."
Not only did many students push against the "attitude of improvement" that is inherent to SBL, but the unfamiliar SBL tenets of multiple attempts, no late work, and no extra credit, along with crazy-looking grade reports, required multiple explanations and re-explanations of SBL practices and philosophy throughout the entire school year - until the final grades were in the book. These reminders were necessary for all parties involved: students, parents, and even teaching colleagues. My administrators were very supportive, fielding many phone calls from parents and even visiting my classroom to hold discussions with the students. My colleagues were full of questions about the process, which was encouraging, and I tried to answer them to the best of my ability. I can't over-emphasize how surprised I was that these questions didn't go away as we advanced through the school year. In my experience, people don't understand SBL all at once; their understanding (and also confusion) about the process continues to evolve as their experience with the process broadens.
4. The classroom teacher must have solid assessments in order to collect evidence of student learning.
I was very confident in my formative assessments starting the 2014-2015 school year, and my intuition was supported. I have worked hard to develop a variety of experiences, such as activities, experiments, and discussions, that encourage students to learn and practice content via active participation. I'm constantly on the look-out for better lessons, but the formative portion of my class is pretty solid. The summative assessments have been much more tenuous, however. I've been experimenting with different forms of summative assessment for the last few years, never happy with the outcome. This year, I decided to give student portfolios a try, as they seemed to be a logical fit with SBL. They lasted for one semester before I decided a change was called for. There were multiple factors that went into that decision, but one of the major reasons is that I was not convinced the portfolio work was an accurate reflection of what the students actually understood about the learning targets. Kind of a big flaw for a summative assessment. So, in January, I switched to free response, application questions as summative assessments for each target. Because the questions weren't dependent upon memorization of facts, I allowed students to use their science notebooks on these assessments. This shift required that I ask deeper-level questions of students, and I thereby better understood each student's thinking on the learning targets.
4. Yes, it's true! Grades in a SBL system are more reflective of what students actually know.
I don't know how many times I'd read or heard this statement before actually using SBL with my students, but it didn't really sink in until the end of the year. I had a handful of students who would have just barely passed Semester 2 if I had been using a traditional, percentage-based system. However, because I organized my gradebook according to standards, I could see that they didn't have any evidence supporting their what they knew for one or more learning target. So instead of simply using a "D-" as qualification to pass the course, I informed the students that in order to receive a grade on their final report card, they needed to complete their work for the the missing learning targets, explaining that without evidence of their learning on that target, there was no way to provide a grade showing what they knew. Most (but not all) of these students rose to the challenge and completed their work.
5. The biggest challenge in moving to a SBL classroom is not figuring out how to make it work in with your traditional gradebook. The biggest challenge is shifting the learning mindset. By the time students have me as a teacher for the first time, they have been in a traditional classroom for ten years. Instead of delivering content by the "open ears, pour it in" method, I start exploration of topics by intentionally creating discrepant events for students, causing them to be confused about what just happened. I expect them to learn via experiences in which participation and reflection is required. When straight-forward content delivery is appropriate, there is rarely an in-class, teacher-led lecture. Instead, students are provided with various resources (videos, textbook, iBook, websites) to support interaction with that content. And on top of all that craziness, instead of giving a "score," I give feedback. Instead of informing a student of the percentage they scored on an assignment, I refocus them on proficiency. No wonder students are frustrated. This system is 100% different from the "schooling" they've grown accustomed to over the course of a decade. It is a huge challenge to convince students to embrace classroom habits that are best for learning instead of clinging to habits that are comfortable, and sometimes easier.
Many of my "lessons learned" might convince any dedicated educator to return to traditional grading, but lesson #4 is my iron-clad argument for persisting with SBL. For the first time, I feel like the feedback and grades I'm providing to students not only truly reflect their learning, but also help to propel student learning. It's no longer the arbitrary grading "categories," the category weights, or points per assignment that influence a student's grade. It's the evidence they provide through the work they complete. Despite the mental challenge of facing students who are more comfortable with seeing Biology class as a series of assignments they have to "get through," my heart is happy to be able to have conversations with students about what they have learned instead of how many points they've accumulated. I'm excited for the many years of "SBL lessons learned" yet to come.
Image from BK on flickr, labeled as Public Domain under Creative Commons.