Monday, July 12, 2010

The Foundation of Standards-Based Grading

Two separate digital events collide:
  1. On twitter, Russ Goerend asked Shawn, Matt, and me (and any other takers) to try to define standards-based grading in one tweet.
  2. Kate Nowak drops this on us for Riley's Virtual Conference on Soft Skills.
and produce this:

Standards-based grading is built on trust.

Your students must trust you. The number one question I and others get is wondering if students will still do homework or other classwork if it's not worth points. I can answer with 100% certainty the answer is yes. Yes they'll do whatever you ask them to do, but only if your students trust you. They're trusting that what you're giving them will help them reach their goal. It's not busy work. It's not assigned out of habit. It's meaningful and will help them get from A to B. They will do it because they believe it will help them learn. They must trust that you are helping them get there.

You must trust your students. Allow them to surprise you. Give them freedom. Allow them to fail but allow them to learn from those failures. If you don't trust your students, they will fail. If you believe they won't do it if you don't make it worth points, then they won't do it. Trust your students.

You must trust yourself. Deep in your heart, you've got to trust that what you're giving them will help them learn. Everything you do is to help them learn. If you don't believe that, they're not going to believe it either. You need to trust yourself because the first day of school you're going to give a speech like this:
Hi. My name is Mr. Buell. You're used to being told what to do. You're used to getting something for doing, rather than learning. You're used to being rewarded for compliance, rather than creativity. Get used to something different. I will make suggestions to help you learn. You may choose to take those and in fact, I recommend that you take them. But only you know who are truly are and how you learn best. And hopefully, by the end of the year, you will know yourself a little better.

It's scary. Points are a shield.  When you take away that shield all you're left with is the trust you have in yourself that you're doing what's right.

Go ahead and build your topics and design your assessments. Do all the manual work that needs to be done; but always remember, that it's all built on trust. That work comes first and foremost. Start with a strong foundation and build something that lasts.

Trust each other. Trust yourself.

The last word comes from a series of tweets by @PersidaB that I'm putting together:
Before you can do SBG, I believe you need a transformation in the classroom. Where what you ask them to do becomes an opportunity to learn rather than another piece of paper to "complete". It's a shift in purpose and philosophy. And requires teacher and student training to shift thinking in purpose of why they're in the classroom.

Edit: Ok, now Frank gets the last word. Fantastic post by one of the SBG Borg: 


  1. I guess the hard part is looking at myself and knowing the assignments I give aren't helping them learn. Which means I don't know how to create a meaningful and effective assignments that encourage learning or the assessment that tells me if they've learned. While it would have been helpful to have learned this in college, I can't rely on their mistakes as my excuse. What makes an assignment/assessment meaningful?

  2. Thanks for sharing that Jason. Makes more sense to me. I'm getting there - it just takes me time and thought to put it all together. This is a major change for me and I'm so glad I have the summer to work through it first. Thanks for all of your advice and help.

  3. Well said! Reminds me of Nel Noddings's writings about "care" being the real, authentic basis behind education. I'm often too much "in my head" about teaching and learning - technical details, quantiative data, etc etc etc. Its important to pay attention to the "head" stuff, but your post is a good reminder that the "heart" stuff is really underneath it all, making it real and worthwhile.

  4. Jason, you nailed it! But last year, I blew it. My comment turned into a full-fledged blog post:

    Thanks for showing me the connection!

  5. @misscalcul8 - there's two issues to deal with. Meaningful in the context of "this will matter for the rest of their lives" and meaningful as in "this will help them learn what they need to learn." Focus on B. The first one will drive you INSANE as a newish teacher and is something that every teacher grapples with constantly. Don't worry about it. And although probably most of us do create a lot of stuff from scratch, it's not required. Just take a look at the stuff you have already (downloaded or textbook or created) and really take a look. What is it they need to know to do it? What is it they're practicing here? If it doesn't match up with one of your goals, chuck it or modify it. Example: I've got a social studies teacher that is infamous for his endless supply of word searches. What do you learn from a word search? Not a thing. Even though it has social studies terms in it, their is no actual learning required to complete it.

  6. Thanks for the post and your last comment (esp the part about driving yourself insane). This is something I needed to hear today.

  7. Definitely agree on all points. Especially the part about trusting yourself.

    When you start tinkering with grades, you've got to trust yourself. As Rob said, when you believe in it, stand behind it, fight for it to the death (figuratively) people buy in.

    A lot of my students last year as well as my admin bought in to SBG due to my conviction for the system and the ability to present a clear / concise argument. It probably also helped that I was passionate about something to help the children as opposed to some other whacko thing.

  8. Jason, this is a courageous post. You have used the word "trust" to describe what I speak of in the same context as "respect."

    I like the way you put it.

    I've never had a pile of late papers on my desk at the end of a marking period.

  9. Thanks for this post. I'm dropping grading homework next year in precalculus and it's a bit nerve wracking so posts like this reassure the non-fear-mongering side of my brain. I also like thinking about the extra time I'll have to plan lessons and assessments and give better/more feedback. Cheers.

  10. How do you deal with the "lower level" classes like Intro to Math, where you have students in high school who still don't know how to add and subtract positive and negative integers, where half the class is special needs? Don't these kids need structure and discipline and at least a participation grade for homework?

    1. I can only speak to my own experience, but I think most of the lower level kids have had many years of structure and discipline. Every class is like: Go over HW, listen and take notes, start HW. I'm not against structure and discipline. I just think that maybe those two things take a different form than we're used to. The structure of clear targets and quality descriptors. The discipline to do the work necessary to improve rather than taking a zero. If nothing else, I think a remedial class is the type of class where it's imperative to try something different because the last 9 years of sameness haven't been successful.