SBG and Trust

In a recent blog post, Jason Buell writes about the foundation of trust in standards-based grading. Jason nails it, but I blew it.

Last year was the first time I used SBG. I didn’t grade homework. As the months passed, my AP Physics C students gradually did less and less homework. Why? I think they seemed to be searching for the balance between (1) How much work do they need to do and (2) The grade they want to get. After all, these are the brightest students in the school and probably never needed to do homework to learn and self-assess. In the past, they just did homework to get points.

By second quarter, they all stopped doing the homework . And they all failed the subsequent quizzes, meaning they weren’t proficient in most of the learning targets. Surely an intervention was required! So I broke the trust and made homework an entrance ticket for future quizzes. 80% of the homework complete allowed them to take the quiz. No homework , no quiz. Non-completers had to work on the homework during quiz time and then arrange an after-school time to take the quiz.

You know what happened? The situation became WORSE. Homework got done, but not for learning and self-assessment. Many were STILL not meeting learning targets because they approached homework the wrong way. The entrance ticket method gave my homework the undeserved reputation of busy work, despite being a carefully structured and scaffolded set of problems and assignments.

And then there were a few students who let everything slide to the end of the quarter. A quarter’s worth of homework was done hastily at the last minute and, of course, learning targets were not met.

So I admitted my mistake and revoked the 80% homework rule. Homework became completely optional again. But I had done permanent damage. While only a handful of students returned to doing homework for the proper reasons (and it showed on their assessments), the majority still did very little. I had not taught them trust and the value of meaningful homework.

It wasn’t until reading Jason’s post that I made the connection that I had broke trust and had not been good model. Thanks, Jason. I suspect next year will be much better!

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?


Is it too late to apologize?

I began teaching in 1998.
To all my students from my first year of teaching:

I’m sorry for…

  • using grades as a reward
  • using grades as a punishment
  • neglecting to give you timely and meaningful feedback
  • saying “You better learn it in time for the final exam” when discussing your poor test scores
  • assigning homework every night (just because)
  • collecting and grading your copied homework
  • talking at you instead of talking with you
  • talking at you instead of listening to you
  • doing activities, activities, and more activities! (with no connection to your understanding)
  • giving you notes, notes, and more notes! (with no engagement by you)
  • reading my Powerpoint slides to you
  • asking low-level questions

And yet, you didn’t riot or declare mutiny. Perhaps, over the course of 11 years of schooling, you were used to it. And for that, I am truly sorry.

Mr. Noschese