My SBG Journey

(Update: Links fixed. Thanks @Mrs_LHenry!)

In my previous post, I started with an apology to my first-year students. (Can you tell I was raised Catholic?) Like many new teachers, I taught my students just as I was taught growing up. I used grades as rewards by giving extra credit for covering textbooks, filling out surveys, and turning in lab reports early. I used grades as punishment by taking away points for arriving late to class, leaving the lab area a mess, and turning in assignments late. The feedback I gave was limited: checks, Xs, or a point total. There was no chance for remediation. “You’ll just have to study harder next time and learn it right for the final.” I would say.

And I never thought twice about it.

But that’s changed now. Our focus is on learning. Feedback is more meaningful and remediation is unlimited. And by creating a classroom culture focused on trust and teamwork, students don’t need rewards or punishments or points.

SBG didn’t happen overnight. Kind of like walking into the cold ocean, one step at time.

I started with test corrections. Remediation was important, but I didn’t have time to make up new exams. I did it for a couple of years, but soon realized students would just copy off the kid with the right answer and not learn from their mistakes.

Then I read Dan Meyer’s manifesto “How Math Must Assess.” I simply broke up my major units into smaller skills. For example, my unit on “Motion” became two skills: “Constant Velocity Motion” and “Accelerated Motion.” And instead of giving long double-period exams, I gave short quizzes on each skill.

Bonus: I didn’t have to rewrite all my exams. I simply took my longer exams and broke them up into several quizzes. For extra remediation, I was fortunate to have Wizard Test Maker with a bank of old Regents exam questions, so making new quizzes was a snap.

Each quiz was 10 points. Each student had to take each quiz twice, for a total of 20 points per skill. There were quarterly cumulative exams to test for retention, which counted as several quizzes. The only way to remediate a quarterly exam was to do better on the Regents exam.

It wasn’t SBG, though, but it was a start. By allowing for remediation and having smaller quizzes instead of major exams, classroom climate improved dramatically. I was bummed when Regents exam scores stayed flat under my Dan-Meyer-inspired system, but the increase in student morale made it worth keeping. So I used it the following year.

But last June, I raided my schools professional development library for some summer reading. The three books I picked all talked about standards-based grading.

Learning about SBG was like learning Santa Claus wasn’t real; my whole world-view had shifted. I knew I had to implement SBG for the coming school year. As overwhelming as it seemed, I felt I would be doing a disservice to my students if I didn’t go SBG. I met with my principal to make sure I had her support, since it was unlike any grading system students or parents had seen before.

Now all that was left was to write the learning targets. Probably the easiest thing I did was to look at old exams and quizzes to see what I was testing for (which isn’t a new idea if you ascribe to Understanding by Design) and then match the questions to the goals. I also checked my state standards, my own lists of objectives I gave to students in previous years, and the College Board’s Science Standards for wording and completeness.

Each student tracked their own progress using a  2-pocket folder with prongs that was kept in the classroom along with their lab notebook. All the learning target sheets were 3-hole punched and put in the prongs. Students typically used the pockets to store old quizzes. In addition, there were progress reports students had to fill out mid-quarter and at quarter’s end.  I met with each student on the last day of the quarter to discuss grades and see if their self-assigned grade matched mine. My students really appreciated those conversations.

Now, this summer, I am ready to start tinkering again. I am moving to a tiered system where learning goals will be arranged according to difficulty within a topic (inspired by Jason Buell). In order to earn a “3” for a topic, students must be able to do all the level 1, 2, and 3 learning goals. The goals themselves will be graded on a binary basis (yes/no) rather than a 1-4 scale. This new system seeks to correct two problems:

(1) Some students had higher grades than their understanding because they were able to well on lots of simple skills (e.g., “I can calculate the kinetic energy of an object”) but had no clue on the major ideas (e.g., “I can use energy conservation to solve problems”). The tiered system should fix this.

(2) Sometimes I had difficulty assigning 1-4 scores. Sometimes I was inconsistent between students. Often, I never gave 3s. A 4 was for all correct. If a student did something wrong, it was because of some misconception, so that earned a 2. And a 1 was if they just wrote anything down. By using the binary yes/no system, I know I can be more consistent. Plus, I hope it drives more students to use remediation, rather than being complacent with a mediocre score.

That’s it for now! Here you can find all my SBG documents from last year. Revisions for next year will be there as well.

And here you can see all my students’ thoughts about my first year using SBG.

What has your SBG journey been like?


11 responses to “My SBG Journey

  1. Wow, inspiring stuff Frank. I love the student feedback that you received. For someone who is just about to take the dive into SBG, I look at those responses and it calms my nerves a bit.

    I was wondering how your tracking sheet will change when you move to topic scales. Will it be similar to Jason’s? (i.e. Yes/No for 2.0 and 3.0’s, then a bar graphing area for an overall assessment of the learning goal)

    Something else I’m curious about is the 4.0. Do you have a quick physics example of what a 4.0 might be in the Constant Velocity or Constant Acceleration models?

    Thanks for all of your help so far and for sharing your documents!

    Chad Hodgkins

  2. Frank Noschese

    Hi Chad,

    I envision my tracking sheets will look the same, but the targets will be re-arranged from lowest to highest difficulty (currently they are in the order of presentation in class).

    Now that I think about it, the more difficult and all encompassing tasks (like solving Conservation of Energy problems) typically fall at the end of the topic anyway, while more basic foundation skills (like drawing energy pie/bar charts) fall at the beginning — so maybe there won’t be too much change. And somewhere I’ll indicate the difficulty level for each target.

    Off the top of my head, being able to use simultaneous equations to solve CA and CV problems (e.g., “When and where does the policeman catch the speeder?”) would be 4.0 in my College-Prep class.

    Thanks for the comments!

  3. Pingback: Standards, learning targets, and scales | The Whole Animal

  4. I am new to standards based grading (well, I’m new to teaching entirely!) and got turned on to it through your posts on the NSTA physics listserv. Just wanted to thank you for this post, in particular, with all the nitty gritty implementation details and for sharing your docs. It’s really helpful for me as I figure out how to implement this in my own class!

  5. Pingback: SBG to Nowhere? | Action-Reaction

  6. Jennifer Gates

    Just happened upon your blog and I am really intrigued by the idea of SBG. Quick question, (hopefully it is not a dumb one), but how did you decide which standards fell in the A category, which into the B category and so on?

    • The “Core (A)” goals are typically skills that are deemed essential or simple. For example, computing the average speed of a object. The “Advanced (C)” goals are processes that require more complex thinking. For example, changing from one representation to another, a problem that requires multiple steps, etc. The “Intermediate (B) goals” fall in the middle. You should also check out Kelly O’Shea’s blog for more examples of SBG in action.

  7. Frank, thanks for leading me along this path. I too have jumped to SBG, but I’ve modified the grading a little and it works well so far. I’ve written quite a few SBG posts on my blog at For physics, I stuck with the 4-point grading and created 3 tiers for every concept. Solving a C-level problem gives you a C for the concept and moves you up to the B-level problem set. Same for B to A. For calculus, I stuck with the 4-point, two correct system. It’s been a lot of work constantly creating new quizzes, but the kids are learning and understanding more than ever before. I encourage every teacher to at least learn about this grading system and seriously consider switching. I couldn’t go back if I wanted to, the kids love it. You should hear them when they explain the system to the students I don’t teach. Success.

  8. Pingback: SBG – Jumping In, But Only Up to My Knees « Physics & Physical Science Demos, Labs, & Projects for High School Teachers

  9. Hi Frank, this post is a lifesaver. I work in a small new school in a French-speaking country on the West Coast of Africa. Our school follows the public school system, and so we are required to use the system of points and grades (our students will take the national exams).

    Everything in your post resonates with me, and I want to jump on the SBG wagon, with some reservations:

    – SB learning requires more time (for analysis, remediation, or even simply getting students to the place where they START to think!). And yet I am required to cover the curriculum and show that I have ‘taught’ the required topics. How do I get around this?

    – Parents are hung on seeing grades and/or percentages. How do I get them to begin to see this as a better way of learning for their children?
    I have heard people talk about combining the two systems (PBG and SBG) for a while. How would I go about implementing that?

    I treasure your advice on this road!

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