A small 100 page book arrived in the mail right before the start of this school year. I had no idea it would completely transform my classroom.
The book, sent to me as an ASCD member, is titled Rethinking Grading by Cathy Vatterott. I had been interested in standards-based proficiency prior to receiving this book because of our district adopted Units of Study (UoS). The UoS are teacher created pre-tests, post tests, and performance tasks that assess student progress on the standards. Standards-based assessments led me to build standards-based lessons and standards-based reporting seemed like the next step.
After reading the book I committed to setting up a standards-based grade book. This brought on some challenges. First, I have to use a traditional grade book that is web-based. I tried setting it up the grading scale so that I could enter scores of 1, 2, 3, 4. It did not work the way I had hoped. The grade book translated the score into a letter grade and the grades were not reflecting what students were learning. Tweaking it caused confusion and students were questioning why their grades were changing when no new assignment had been entered.
My fix for this was to make a percentage conversion scale to communicate proficiency levels to students. Exemplary (4) is 100, Proficient (3) is 90, Progressing (2) is 70 and Beginning (1) is 60. Because there was too big of a gap between proficient and progressing, I added Close to Proficient (2.5) as 80. This is working so far. Students are accustomed to percentages. I know that this fix means I am not implementing pure SBG, but trying to be standards-based in a traditional grades system has required me to make some compromises.
My initial goal for transitioning to a standards based grading focus was to give students, parents, and other educators information in the grade book that would actually communicate what students are learning in my class. Entering scores as “Argument Essay,” “Unit 1 Test,” or “Unit 1 Packet” portrays no actual information about what a student needs for enrichment or remediation. Also, I realized that grading with a rubric that had standards-based categories and then averaging points from each section to form one grade was destroying valuable information.
Students initially struggled with the SBG concept. I only report on assessments in the grade book. Students asked constantly how many points assignments were worth, how they could get extra credit, and how they could get an “A”. It has taken most of the year to get them to change their mindset. My new goal became transforming my class from a group of students to a group of learners. Students are points addicts that are not all that concerned about learning. Learners are motivated to add to their skills or knowledge for the purpose of self-improvement, exploration, or to satisfy curiosity.
My instruction had to change to reach this new goal. I had to have engaging activities that had a standards-based learning goal. These activities had to be authentic and had to have high impact on student learning and to develop understanding. These activities had to lead into the UoS post-tests and performance tasks. Students had to be motivated to complete assignments for learning, not for points.
Surprisingly, this was not that difficult. I discovered that my attitude toward student learning had more to do with motivating them than assigning arbitrary points to activities ever did. Once students realized that to get a grade in my class they had to perform, it changed the way they thought about learning. When students asked me “How do I get an A?” I replied by telling them they had to prove to me that they understood the standards. This put the pressure on the student to learn and demonstrate the learning. I now have students coming to me and asking “When can I reassess on theme?” This. is. incredible. Students know specifically what they know and don’t know. They know how to work on what they don’t know, and they come to me when they are ready to prove that they learned it. I don’t know any better example I could give to teachers and parents who think that accepting late work doesn’t teach life skills. My students have learned more life skills and “soft skills” from this journey than any grading policy that teachers typically implement in the name of preparing students for college and life.
One last example comes from what happened in my class yesterday. My seventh grade class has had the most difficulty with learning how to take responsibility for learning. We are giving the CAASPP test this week and next. I had to decide whether to continue with the test or give the performance task lesson, since we were on late start schedule. I decided that it should be the kids’ decision, since the outcome affects them, not me. As soon as I finished explaining the two options and paused, they immediately turned to each other and started discussing the pros and cons of each option. This was not what I expected. I thought I was just going to have them vote. I watched amazed for two minutes while they talked. It was obvious to me at that moment that they have become learners who know how to collaborate and believe that the best decision is met after consulting with a team.
On a side note, teachers who had given the performance task lesson earlier in the week told me how difficult it was to teach because students just didn’t care about it and there was no assignment attached to it to keep them accountable. I did not have that experience. The learners were interacting and involved with the lesson until the end of the period when the bell rang. There was no written assignment, there were no points, just an opportunity to learn.