Wednesday, September 17, 2014

My Year with Standards Based Grading (Part 2)

I'm really bad at blogging. I have lots of ideas scribbled down, and even a few drafts started, but I struggle with actually writing things up and publishing them. I'm trying to work on that. The result, however, is a large gap between my last post and what's happening now. There's so much that's happened in between that I don't have documented. This is my attempt at a "catch-up" post. After this, I'll use the ideas I jotted down in the context of my current classes.

So, here's a recap of what happened with my experiment in Standards Based Grading. Here's my idealistic, no-points system I started with in the fall of 2012.

There were a lot of problems with it. I had just started my graduate program, and combining the workload of redesigning how I teach and assess with the graduate workload was a bad idea. It took me a loooong time to write up meaningful feedback about what went wrong and what went right for each student. My students, despite the feedback I was writing up and the general rubric, had no idea what the difference between a "proficient" and an "advanced". They wanted me to spell it out for each topic, and I struggled to figure out a way to do that without just telling them the answers to everything. Adding the general, "I'm looking for you to pull together all of the ideas about this topic and use them and express them in a concise and mathematical way," was not an illuminating statement for them.

Most of my students were really unhappy about this grading system. They didn't want to be guinea pigs, they didn't want it to jeopardize their chances for college, they didn't think it was fair. Near the end of the semester, my director and our college counselor joined me in the classroom and ran a discussion with the students to let them say what they needed to say. I stayed (mostly) silent, and took notes on what they were saying. Here's a summary of the major points:

  • Ease into it – start with younger students, not seniors!
  • HW optional a bad idea… it won’t get done, despite the best intentions. Grade it.
  • Need more help determining what each level of work looks like
  • Are they being graded against a standard or other students’ work?
  • Scaffold communicating what they understand
  • Don’t like grade fluctuations, want some stability to count on.
  • Different from previous courses – getting the answer isn't the focus anymore.
  • Oral assessments are a great idea

The open discussion helped adjust the mood of the classroom, and I tried to implement some of those suggestions in our last few weeks of class, but they knew that I wouldn't change the whole system for just a few weeks.

But I certainly did for the next semester, Spring 2013 (we're on a 4x4 block schedule, so I had new classes). I was exhausted from trying to keep up with the workload of my system and looking to both ease up on how much work it was and how much complaining I got. So I gave up the "no points" idea and my 5 levels of achievement. Instead, I would take my assessments, figure out how many points there were for each skill in each problem and total them up. I didn't use a fixed 5 or 10 points for skills. It made it easier to grade, and for students to see what points they didn't earn. I was still writing comments for them, but they weren't quite as involved. The downside was that each time we reassessed a skill as a class, the base number of points changed. That made it a little harder to look at the scores as a quick reference for growth or decay over time.

I was going to say that another downside was a return to a fixation on getting points, but given how much trouble the previous class gave me over "Why isn't this advanced? See I had this thing that SHE wrote about..." I'm not sure there really was a change in mindset. Just a change in terminology.

I'm not really sure if what I'm doing counts as SBG anymore, since I'm using points again, but I kept the aspects that focused on growth over time and communicating what skills need to be worked on, so I'm going to call it an SBG-hybrid. I feel guilty from time to time when colleagues still refer to what I do as SBG, but this post by Frank Noschese eases that a bit.