More on Standards-Based Grading

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Last Friday was a teacher institute day.   I spent my time planning, working on report cards, and listening to a speaker in the afternoon.  The speaker spoke to all of the elementary teachers in the district.  The event ended up being in the cafetorium (that’s what we call the auditorium/cafeteria).  It’s a huge wide-open space that usually holds elementary and middle school lunches.  The speaker introduced himself and told everyone that he was there* to chat about standards-based grading/policies.  There’s been talk that the district will be moving towards standards-based grading at some point in the next few years.

The presenter went through questions related to why teachers grade students, why standards are used, and how inadequate a 100 scale is while emphasizing the need to use feedback instead.  I think most educators there were  aware that specific feedback is a more useful tool than points.  The presenter reaffirmed the audience’s beliefs and also  dolled out research by Paul Blake and Dylan Wiliam’s “Inside the Black Box” study.

After about an hour and half the presenter mentioned how he would introduce a  standards-based reporting model.  He also prefaced this saying that there’s not a perfect model.

4 – “Blows the expectations out of the water”

3– “Meets the expectations”

2– “Student needs a little help to meet the expectations”

1– “Student needs a lot of help to meet the expectations”

I’ve never had standards-based grading explained like this and it was refreshing.  I noticed a few teachers nodding and a few commenting about the simplicity behind the reasoning.  The presenter went through a number of submitted questions related to what happens when teachers have different opinions on what “blows the expectations out of the water.”  Questions also came up about how many standards to report for the report card.  There wasn’t exactly a right answer with this, but the presenter mentioned that students have “all of the year” to meet the standard.  There were questions about this.  Consistency with teachers’ expectations was also addressed and many teachers believed this would be a good use of PLC time.

in some schools that use standards-based grading, I’ve seen a number models where teachers use a percent scale and then convert that value to a 1-4.  I’m sure there are plenty of standards-based grading models out there and doubt there’s a fool-proof way to implement this new communication tool.

The good news is that I believe teachers are already using standard-based practices.  Some teachers are eliminating points and percentages on some of the assignments. They’re also moving towards a “Not Yet” or “Met” policy with tasks.  Report card grades tend to reflect unit assessments. I know of some classrooms that are already using classroom policies that reflect a standards-based model, while others don’t. Moving forward, I believe there’ll need to be support in developing consistency as districts move towards new reporting models.  Some Illinois districts have moved towards or have already started using standards-based policies and some have encountered turbulence.  I believe there’s consensus that averaging grades isn’t always the best option.  Moving away from that will cause some to squirm and ensuring that there’s a smooth transition won’t be easy.  Communication and consistency will play a major role in how it’s received by all stakeholders.

*Bonus – the presenter introduced the think, ink, share process.  I wasn’t aware of this and am planning on trying it out in a couple days.

Grading Practices

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School started about two months ago.  Since then so much has happened and the first trimester is closing upon the school.  Report cards are starting to creep up on teachers and the very busy month of November is knocking.  My school has parent/teacher conferences as well as a bunch of professional development sessions planned for the turkey month.

While thinking back about the last two months there’s a lot that comes to mind.  Specifically, I made a change in my grading policy.  I wrote about that here. I decided to move from a point-based system to something that better resembled a standards-based approach.  It’s definitely not 100% standards-based, but it’s moving towards that model.

Basically, students complete a quiz or project and receive it back with my feedback.   Students either get a M or NY.  If they receive a M they file away the papers.  A NY means that the students are required to redo/change the assignment so that they meet the expectations on the second attempt.  I keep the score on the second attempt.  It’s not a perfect system, but I believe this policy is making positive ground.  My reflections on the first two months of using this are below.

1.)  Students are much less anxious about the quizzes and projects.  Maybe knowing that they get another opportunity allows them to take a risk or try a new strategy that they otherwise wouldn’t have considered.

2.)  I’ve become more precise in what I expect students to complete.  Part of this is due to wanting to make sure that a boat load of students don’t have to redo the assignment because of unclear directions.  I’ve been using a “criteria for success” indicator on each project.  This eliminates the points aspect, but also gives students an opportunity to evaluate their own progress on the assignment before turning it in.

3.)  Students are a bit more assertive in looking at their own misconceptions/simple mistakes when they look at a NY that’s returned to them.  Some students ask for additional help or resources before completing the assignment a second time.  Students aren’t allowed to redo the assignment at home so some have used technology tools in the classroom to research the skill before making a second attempt.

4.)  When I first started using the M/NY criteria I found that time was an issue.  It still is although it’s managed a bit better with some clear expectations upfront.  Students that receive a NY have to redo the assignment before the end of that unit.  Some students finish it on the day I return the sheet, while others wait until close to the last minute. I don’t accept the assignment after the unit is over.

5.)  It’s not perfect.  I don’t think any grading policy is perfect.  It takes students more time to complete assignments, especially if they have to take it twice.  There’s also more feedback involved, which takes additional time.  Also, this policy is in place for assignments, but not necessarily tests.  What happens to students that take more than twice to achieve mastery?  Good question and I haven’t answered that yet.  The district still requires letter grades at the upper elementary level.  My district current doesn’t use standards-based grading, but at some point it may move towards that model.  I’m already seeing positive strides in my own classroom and a slight change in how students view assignments.  It’s more of a focus on moving towards the mastery of a concept vs. look at my points.  We’re making positive progress.

Working Towards Mastery

The last five days concluded the first full week of school with students.  This past week teachers started to dive into content and policies were in full effect.  My school had its curriculum night on Tuesday and Wednesday.  It was there that many teachers explained their expectations, homework and grading policies to parents.  My presentation was similar to last year, but I added a brief component related to grading/feedback.  This part of the curriculum night presentation stemmed from the events in the paragraphs below.

Earlier in the week I spoke with my classes about giving them chances in class to review feedback and redo assignments.  I told them that students are able to do this when the environment allows for second chances exist. This year assignments completed in class will note a NY or M near the top of the paper.  I’m actually borrowing this idea from a class I took years ago.  I introduced this process to students earlier in the week using an anchor chart.

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The NY means that the student isn’t yet meeting expectations for that particular skill.  Students are asked redo any assignment that includes an NY.  They don’t need to necessarily redo the entire assignment.  Instead, I’ll highlight a certain section that needs to be changed.  Students then redo and return that assignment.  An M indicates that the student met the expectations for the assignment. Ideally, the NY papers eventually turn into M papers. So far the process is working well.  I’d say the majority of the NY papers that are returned have turned into papers that meet the expectations.

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Management is something that I’ll be looking at improving.  Finding time for students to redo the projects hasn’t turned problematic, but I’m looking at designating a certain time in class for students to work on the NY papers.  I haven’t yet set a deadline to when I’ll accept all the redo papers. It’ll most likely be a week for the trimester ends, but that decision hasn’t been set in stone.

Currently, I’m only using this process for projects completed in class. The good news is that students are starting to redo and turn the sheets back in.  Another positive is that students aren’t focusing on the grade on the project.  They’re looking at what concept needs strengthening, asking for help when needed and redoing the project.  In doing this students are working towards the mastery of concepts rather than focusing entirely on the grade alone.


Retakes at the Elementary Level


Over a week ago my fourth grade class explored discount using Amazon.  The lesson went well and the students explored discounts and percents.  Students turned in their task and were given a second attempt.  Some of the students decided to redo their project and improved their performance the second time.  This impromptu redo process seemed to give students another opportunity to show mastery.

On Monday my fourth grade students completed another task.  This task was related to discounts and sales tax.  This was a challenging assignment for fourth graders.  Students were asked to find a discount and calculate the sales tax.  Students worked on this assignment for about 15 minuets and then turned it in.  That night I reviewed the task and found around 30% of the students didn’t achieve mastery.  I decided to use the same strategy as I did with the Amazon task.  I wrote down questions and had students use that feedback to attempt the assignment a second time.  Again, the scores improved and I took the higher score.

I’m seeing potential in using a second attempt strategy.  I feel like it might be one way to move towards a standards-based grading strategy.  This can’t be done with all assignments but I used it with the last two tasks.  Actually, it might be possible to expand this but there are hurdles surrounding the idea of allowing retakes.  The idea of standards-based grading has been discussed in my district but it hast been fully implemented.  Some teachers at the middle school have used models with some success.  It hasn’t been discussed at the elementary level. This may be the direction my district is moving.  Personally, I feel like retakes have a place in elementary schools.  I’m planning on expanding a redo policy for the other grade levels that I teach.

I’m encouraged to see the benefits of using this technique in the classroom. This is all good but I’ve run into a few issues.   Some students that didn’t perform well decided to not take advantage of a second attempt.  They decided that a 1/5 or 2/5 was fine.  Also, I’m finding that timing for the second attempt is starting to become an issue.  Creating time for students to retake the tasks can be challenging.  Those that truly want to retake the assignment find time at some point during the day to make a second attempt. Other students need consistent reminders.  Another thing that I noticed is that some students want to retake the task a third time.  Is this reasonable?  These are a few points and questions that I’m considering while planning out the last third of the school year.

I’m interested in hearing your perspective.


Teaching and Scuba Diving


Last week I took some personal time to disconnect and spend time with my family before school starts up again. While away I decided to swim and snorkel. I’ve always enjoyed snorkeling and watching the life under the ocean. We stayed at a particular facility that had a scuba diving class. My wife and I decided to take the class and learn about the scuba diving experience. The class was great and the instructor gave a basic overview of the equipment and we practiced different skills in a pool before heading out into the ocean. The ocean experience went so well that we decided to pursue a scuba certificate.

The instructor communicated that a certificate would require us to read an instructional book, take a test, practice skills in a pool and then show mastery of the skills in the ocean. That evening I read through the book. The book began with a section on performance-based mastery.  The section explained that students will be instructed using student-centered learning strategies.  Meeting the objectives are what’s important – not how long it takes.  As I read this I felt a bit of weight come off of my shoulders.

Each section had questions that required an answer and then you checked your own answers on the following page. At the end of each section there was a review of the content. After a few hours the book was complete.  The next morning I reviewed the book and my responses with the instructor. Time was given to ask questions. I was then given a 30 question open-book test. In all honesty, I have to admit that I used the book to find some of the answers. The test wasn’t timed and I didn’t feel anxiety during this process. After the test was complete the instructor quickly reviewed the answers and then we jumped in the pool.

The instructor went through specific skills that he showed me in advance. We learned how to clear a mask, check air gauges, and establish buoyancy.  There were many other skills, I just can’t remember them all as I write this post. I’d like to say that I perfectly practiced each skill on the first try, but I didn’t. In fact I commend the instructor for his patience with me. After each failed attempt the instructor gave feedback and we tried again. After about 3 hours we were finished and ready to show the skills in the ocean. My wife and I then went down to the bottom of the ocean to demonstrate the skills needed for a certificate.


After the ocean dive, I reflected on this learning experience and came up with a few takeaways:

  • I never received a grade or even an official percentage during this process
  • The feedback I received during this journey was clear and could immediately be used
  • I practiced the skill until I was able to independently complete it on my own
  • I was given time to reflect on my performance and ask clarifying questions
  • My documented proficiency was based on my last dive

I also thought of how much more pressure I would have felt if I was graded on each section of the certificate process. I would most likely fixate on each individual grade and not necessarily the skill. Instead, this process had me focus on the skill and the proficiency of that particular skill. I was able to fail, reflect, ask question and retry until I became proficient.  I found the low-risk opportunities to practice were beneficial during this learning experience.  This led me to ask …

How often do educators utilize these strategies in the classroom?  

This is just something I’m considering before school starts in a few weeks.

By the way, we passed the final dive and are looking forward to diving at some point in the future.

photo credit: CaptPiper via photopin cc




Standards-based Grading Strategies in Second Grade

Second Grade

Yesterday, students in my second grade class took a unit assessment on fractions.  Generally after the assessment students review their results and reflect on progress made.  I graded the tests last night and the scores were across the board, as some did extremely well while others floundered.  The point values were placed on the top of each test to be reviewed by the students and parents.  I don’t put a grade on the test, but instead add bits of feedback for questions missed.  I’ve used similar strategies with homework for the past few years.  No one had a perfect score, but I definitely wanted the students to check their results before we move on to the geometry unit.  I think reflecting on achievement can lead to personal goal setting.  

There are many ways in which I could facilitate the reflection process.  The class could review the test together, question by question.  Students could ask questions to determine misunderstandings. Or I could have the students work in partners to review questions missed.  Or possibly even have the students fill out a reflection sheet.  I feel like these strategies provide value, but the results vary and aren’t individualized, except for the reflection sheet.  All of the strategies tend to be missing a student ownership/accountability piece.

Regardless of the grade/score I want students to be able to focus on the learning, not necessarily the grade. This is a focus in all my classes.  This emphasis as well as participating in #sblchat has led me to embrace more standards-based grading strategies.  Even at the second grade level I feel that it’s valuable to set a growth-mindset tone.  I’m becoming more comfortable in using standards-based strategies in the classroom and am starting to see the benefits as the school year continues.   

Instead of using a strategy that I’ve used before, I decided to try something different.  I spent about 10 minutes reteaching misconceptions that I found while grading.  Some of the major themes were retaught in this mini lesson.  I then gave all the students an opportunity to retake the test questions that were missed.  I gave students a blank test and highlighted specific questions that were missed.  I met with students as they finished their retake. The student and I reviewed the assessment results and the retake opportunity. Students were given  about 3-5 minutes to meet with me to review the retake.  I’d like to spend more time with each student but time was definitely a constraint. I feel like the conferences were helpful as I was able to confer with students about their thinking, retake and test. I added any second attempt points to the original total.

Even though this was a time-consuming activity I feel like it was time well spent.  I even had a few students ask if we we’re going to do this after every assessment.  I’m not sure about that, but I may use this strategy again in the future.

Standards Based Grading Journey

I’ll admit it, I’m changing my policies again.  I’m moving more towards a standards based grading approach this year.  This is a big step.  I’m not completely using SBG, but I’m making subtle changes in my practice like removing homework grades and focusing more on content mastery. I’m removing a few traditional practices and adding others.  I still grade projects with a rubric, specific quizzes, and unit assessments.  Beyond the projects, quizzes, and tests, students are reflecting on assignments and working towards mastery. I’m finding that SBG is a step in the right direction although it isn’t the norm at my school.  I believe a systematic approach towards moving to SBG is in the future, but for the time being grading policies are created by individual teachers.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been assigning less homework.  I didn’t make it a goal to assign less, but focusing on student reflection and providing multiple attempts in class to master concepts have decreased the homework load.  Students were surprised at first that I wasn’t “grading” the homework.  I heard comments like “why do we need to complete this if it’s not for a grade?” and “so this isn’t mandatory?”  Too many times I find that students focus on the grade and not necessarily the learning process.  I communicated at my back to school night that homework is designed to be practice and I won’t be grading practice.  After a few weeks of SBG policies, student comments questioning the change have decreased and have been replaced with a more reflective tone.  Communicating SBG practices can be challenging at times, especially if students/parents expect traditional grading practices. Here (123)  are a few different ways to explain SBG benefits and policies to stakeholders.

Another change that I’ve made is increasing the amount of formative assessments that take place in class. In my class formative assessments are a tool that’s designed to offer direct and meaningful feedback to students.  Here’s an example:

I gave my students a quiz on central tendency (mode, median, range).  I reviewed the results and found that many students didn’t have a clear understanding of median.  Students weren’t ordering the numbers least to greatest first.  So, on each paper I gave specific feedback regarding how to find certain data points.  In the past I would’ve probably graded the assignment and handed it back to the students and move forward.  The reflection piece would’ve been the responsibility of the student.  This year I pasted this modified reflection sheet in students’ math journals.  It’s in a Word document if you’d like to edit it for your specific class.  Students completed the sheet to analyze their mistakes and looked for ways to improve in the future.

Assignment Correction Form
Assignment Correction Form

So far this SBG journey is paying out benefits.  Students are beginning to understand that reflection plays an important role in the learning process.  I believe that this is an #eduwin.  I think many teachers can see the benefits of SBG, although I continue to be concerned with the long-term sustainability as students move on to middle/high school where grades heavily influence grade point averages.

Top photo credit: Old Shoe Woman via photopin cc

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