Tuesday, April 30, 2013

If I Don't Grade It, The Students Won't Do It!

Three years ago as I began my crude implementation of standards based grading, I made the decision to NEVER say, "this is for a grade..."  I put the dots because there is a plethora of continuing statements that are inevitably attached to those 5 words depending on the situation.  I would love to say that I have completely eradicated that statement.  Unfortunately for my students sake, that has not happened.  In fact, I caught myself saying it last week as I introduced an end of the year project my students will be completing.  "I caught myself" is an important statement.  When I started this quest I began by building an awareness of how often I "threatened" my students by saying it.  I see the statement as a threat where others might see it as "motivation".  I was shocked by how often the words would come out of my mouth.  Slowly, it has been three years, it rarely rears it's ugly head and when it does (LAST WEEK) I get a sick feeling in my stomach and the students give me perplexed looks as if to say, "Really?"

 I have worked hard to remove the "threat" of grades for my math courses in two ways:
  •  Not punishing students for what they do not know (by grading and putting scores on quizzes and homework and classwork into my grade book) 
  • Working to provide feedback on levels of achievement on individual essential standards rather than one overall grade
Most weeks, I have a quiz that enables me to see where students are in their proof and understanding of our essential math standards.  I get a picture of where each student is and they get feedback on their strengths and struggles.  This process has evolved into a non-threatening, non-cheating experience which the students know provides vital information to all involved.  Non-threatening because students look forward to the feedback they gain and they willingly write in big letters: "I don't understand this" on their quizzes knowing they will not be punished, but instead helped, encouraged, and expected to understand.  I love how the non-threatening environment has created a non-cheating environment.  The students know that I need to have a complete picture of what they understand and that if they copy from their neighbor during an assessment, I will not get that picture and they may not get help.  I find myself saying, "I need to know what you know and what you don't know, so I can help you!"

This school year one of my math periods is an "enrichment" class that is ungraded, filled with struggling students, and has a three week rotation (the logistics of the program are detailed and will not be addressed in this post).  Every three weeks, I get a new batch of students from all the math teachers on campus needing specific "enrichment" (remediation) on specific essential math standards.  This class is un-graded and has surprised me.  In anticipation of this class I thought it was going to be extremely difficult to motivate struggling students grouped together.  It has become the best part of my school day!  There are so many cool things about this class but I want to focus on the environment that exists because of it's non-gradedness.

  • The students enter the room with a sigh of relief rather than anxiety, they can relax knowing it is a place to make mistakes, get help and learn from them.
  • The students are focused on improving their understanding of the math standards without the threat of punishment for lack of performance.
  • The students received meaningful feedback on their understanding which motivated them to continue their quest for understanding.
  • We have built relationships that go beyond the classroom - most of the students are not in my math classes, yet these students go out of their way to speak to me when I see them on campus, they even come to me after school to serve their detentions.
  • I am still their teacher, not their friend but by concentrating on establishing a safe trusting environment, the students are learning and improving their math understanding
  • I need to figure out a way to use this information with other teachers to help them understand and consider how to change the learning environment in their classes.

I have been thinking about the"If I don't grade it, the students won't do it!" statement often lately.  Every time I hear an educator use this argument, it makes me cringe.  The snarky remark I would love to say is, "If a grade is the only motivation for a student to complete your assignment, then it is a crappy assignment."  As an educator who is working through the implementation of standards based grading, I want to bring more teachers on board not drive them away and have them thinking I've lost my mind.

The statement expresses resistance as educators struggle with evolving grading practices shared by such experts as Rick Wormeli, Robert Marzano, Richard Stiggins, Thomas Guskey, and many others.  I completely understand where the resistance is coming from.  In my school district we have created common assessments based on essential learning standards for all of our "core" classes - language arts, mathematics, social studies, and science.  This summer I am going to use my experiences to create some baby steps for implementation of standards based grading (sbg) and guide teachers as they consider the shift from grading as "motivation" to grading as "feedback" starting with this great blog post: Assessments: The Collateral Damage of SBG by Daniel Schneider a very insightful and reflective SECOND year teacher.  I will also use my "classroom experts" who are working on sbg implementation everyday and sharing on twitter: #sbar #sbgchat
Thanks to all for your support and inspiration!

I would LOVE any feedback, advice, help, ideas, anything you can share!


  1. I love the idea of SBG but i am really struggling with the logistics of implementing it, esp given how different it is from the norm at my school and that I teach history classes with hundreds of supposed standards -- most of which are not the ones I think are actually important to teach (and which I do teach, but it's a constant struggle to squeeze it all in.). I'm also struggling w how to assess timeliness and work habits, which are important pieces of the puzzle, without resorting to tactics like deducting points. Also: I am required to give quarterly exams, and the midterms and finals must count for a certain percentage of the grade.

  2. To finish -- I would welcome advice!!!

    1. Hi Laura,
      ALL of your points are the same struggles many teachers experience when considering sbg. My first suggestion would be to start with your assessments.
      Here is a link to one of our pre-algebra assessments that has a standard scoring rubric for each problem that our department agreed upon: http://goo.gl/xyKcT

      When I first began using sbg, I would give each item it's "score" and then I would average all of the scores to get one score for the test. Ido not do that any longer. I use a standards based grade book which allows the students to keep track of the standards they are passing or not and it "averages" the scores into an "overall grade" for me. I have not put an overall grade on a chapter math test for the past 2 years. Most of my colleagues do give the rubric score and then they also give each problem a points value which enables them to "calculate" a grade for the test. Although the teachers at my school track student performance on standards, I am the only one who is actively working to implement a sbg system - which at times makes my life extremely difficult!

      The standards based grade book also allows me to pull out the "behavior" grades so that the students and parents can see those, but they do not affect the demonstration of learning grade.

      If you are on twitter follow the #sbar and #sbgchat hastags and join the #sbgchat on Wednesday Nights 9:00pm Eastern. There are so many of us out there that are struggling as we implement and we are all doing it differently because our situations are so different. It is a very individual process.

      Read Matt Townsley's Blog for incredible resources! He is moving an entire district through the sbg implementation process!

      I hope that helps, let me know if you need more!

    2. Thank you!!

      A question on the assessment -- I see that there are four points per category, but only three descriptions (proficient, etc.) How do they line up?

      I'm using an online gradebook that lets you classify assignments by category, and this quarter I'm piloting a semi-sbg system with a couple of my classes -- I'm keeping about 25% "content" (aka quiz grades plus assorted other content measures) and about 25% work habits (aka i check off that they appear to have done their homework, usually notes on reading). But for the other 50% I've determined five key skills standards (use of evidence, analysis, writing skills, etc.) and created ten different categories in the gradebook: evidence-f (for formative), evidence-s (for summative), etc -- and marked the "f" categories so they don't get calculated into their final grade. Then for their first big project I created a rubric aligned with those five standards and graded them separately, and put those separate grades in the gradebook under the FORMATIVE categories (though I gave them a combined overall grade too.) For their final year project I plan to have similar categories and if they improve only that final grade goes in the gradebook. I will see how this works and then adjust for my classes next year.

      Do you know anyone who does this for history and has figured out how to mesh skills standards like those I mentioned, which seem to logically parallel math standards, as well as content information standards, which I'm having a harder time wrapping into this model?

      Thank you again, and I will definitely follow all those resources you suggested.

    3. Hi Laura,
      We do use a 4 point rubric but we found that the areas we had to designate were between Advanced and Proficient and Proficient and Developing. At our school we have a No Mark System so if a student gets less than a 3 on any of the essential standards it is considered a No Mark and they must complete correctives to raise the grade, otherwise their overall grade is a No Mark. Our middle school was forced to take on the high school grading system of A, B, C, No Mark. I have a blog post about this here: http://goo.gl/VJuyj.

      It sounds like you are off to a great start with your SBG gradebook. I will be incorporating more "project based learning" into my math class and will be working to incorporate SBG into the grading. They will have the skills based tests and then the project will require the students to apply the math skills into a real-life situation.

      I do not know of any history folks, but I will put a shout out to the #sbgchat and #sbar twitter groups I follow and get back to you! Keep up the great work!!