Recap: Standards Based Grading Series Day 1

Today, I had the pleasure of hearing both Thomas Guskey and Lee Ann Jung share their expertise on Standards Based Grading in Arlington Heights, Illinois (#sblchat). The day-long conference is the first in a series of five face-to-face and online discussions on the components of SBG and implementing a standards based reporting process. If you aren’t familiar with Guskey and Jung, they are authorities on the topic from University of Kentucky, Lexington. Handouts from the session can be found here.

My district has not adopted SBG, however math educators in our middle schools have designed common assessments with SBG in mind. Some of us have implemented a quasi SBG approach given the constraints of our percentage-based report card system. Our district appears invested in SBG by sending several representatives from the elementary schools and a few representatives from the middle schools to learn more about the topic.

Often teachers embrace a grading practice because that’s what they experienced when they were in school—myself included. It took me several years to evolve and I’m still evolving.

Guskey began with three guiding questions that continue to stretch my thinking.

Guiding questions

  • Why do we use report cards and assign grades to students’ work?
  • Ideally, what purposes should report cards or grades serve?
  • What elements should teachers use in determining students’ grades?

He also reminded us of the various purposes of grading.

Purposes of grading

  • Communicate achievement status to parents
  • Provide info to students for self-evaluation
  • Select, identify or group students
  • Provide incentives for students
  • Evaluate the effective of instructional programs
  • Document students’ lack of effort or inappropriate responsibility.

As educators we need to establish a common purpose on what grades are for, identify the purpose, then identify the method of communication or documentation. According to Guskey, ninety percent of parents agree the report card is for them.

If the purpose is to report on student achievement the grade can get muddied with more than a dozen grading elements. Educators need to have a common understanding on what counts for a grade.

grading elements

Jung focused on the importance of 1) sharing learning targets with students so they have clear expectations and 2) providing formative feedback so students have the opportunity to meet the standard.

A featured take away was her GPS analogy. When driving we care more about where we are now and the turns we need to make in order to reach our destination. A report card should reflect that as well. If the purpose of a report card is to reflect where the student is at the end of the marking period, it should not be based on averages.

Percentage grades and 1-4 scales

Guskey shared how grade reporting becomes more subjective when more categories or levels comprise the grading scale. For example is a student precisely 86% proficient on a concept? He may have earned 86% on the correct number of items on an assessment, but what best describes a student’s level of proficiency? Or, on a learning target if a student earns a series of four 1s and ends the marking period with two 4s on a 1-4 scale, what grade do we report? The heart of the matter is to use informed professional judgment instead of mathematical algorithms.

In the next session the two will share their thoughts on grading exceptional learners.


Integer choice assessment part 2

The other day I posted a work in progress–an assessment menu for adding and subtracting integers. Matt Coaty’s comment inspired me to explore how students would share their understanding, as well as develop assessment criteria.

Today I’m unveiling a new and improved version. I’ve taken the idea of a literary book club meeting where students bring a discussion tool to talk about a novel and have turned it into a “Mathematics Symposium” where students bring activities they’ve created about a concept and share their mathematical understandings with the group.

Here’s a revised 2-5-8 menu with descriptions of the criteria for success, suggested product ideas, and a check on whether students have met the expectations, or if they are not yet there.


Each student will have up to ten minutes to share their activities. When the group is finished they will assess each other using this two sided rubric/checklist. If a student marks any area as superlative (italics) they are to indicate on the reverse side what distinguished it from the other choices.

symposium reflection

symposium notes

To determine a “final” grade, I’ll review the artifacts along with the students’ input. I’ve successfully used this format when I taught literature and it was quite successful. I’m looking forward to seeing how this translates in a math class.


PARCC assessment influences local assessment design

The math committee met today to continue our work creating local assessments. During our learning time we walked through 6 sample PARCC assessment items. Note: The math questions come after the ELA so keep hitting the right arrow until you get to the grade 6-8 math questions.


If one of your classes has been chosen to pilot the assessment, be sure your students play with it. When PARCC suggests students get used to the scrolling and buttons they mean it. I was using a 15 inch laptop and had to scroll.

But the real focus is on the assessment itself. For the past year and a half we’ve been designing local assessments with the common core in mind, but today’s preview of actual sample problems was an eye opener. Turns out we’ll need to revise some of our current assessments to address the performance requirements.



Instead of going back and revising some our previous local assessments we thought it would make more sense to begin applying what we now know to the next unit of study–inequalities.

Our students need to be exposed to multiple choice problems with multiple constructed responses. We spent a good twenty minutes on this problem and we’re still not satisfied with the wordsmithing. It may be better framed as Part A and B instead of problem 5 and 6. Anyway, here it is:



I’m beginning to second guess myself with some of these problems. We do a form of standards based grading. Is #13, in the image below, really a level 4? I’m now thinking it should be a level 3. And problem #14, is it too much of a reach to expect a 7th grader to write this inequality?


I’m looking for help. Please comment, point me to good assessment questions, or to bloggers who write about  assessment design.

Thanks in advance.

Getting kids and parents to focus on the learning–the grade will come. Trust me.

Open House idea. I’m trying to think of a subtle way to impress upon parents that the focus is on the learning not on the grade. Maybe for some the focus is on the grade. However I think parents and students would agree that if we focus on the learning the grade will come.

Since I’m bored, I created two GoAnimate videos that I might use at Open House.  The first is a 30 second discussion about grades.

This one is less than a minute long and focuses on the learning.

This will lead into a nice segue where I can talk about the success students had  last year when they set goals and monitored their progress. I constantly tweak this document so you may notice that it’s not exactly like what’s represented in the image below. Maybe I’ll show the parents what progress monitoring looks like.

progress monitoring
This student needed to be assessed 3 times before she achieved mastery. As you can see the student was honest with respect to the amount of effort she put forth.

My assessments are designed in a standards based grading format (that’s why you see Scores 1-4). Students set a goal of either 3.0, 3.5 or 4.0. Three is the target. My formative assessments are ongoing and students can reassess as long as they complete and follow through on a study plan which is their evidence of study.

I cringe when I hear, “What can I do to raise my grade?” or, “Is there extra credit?”

I want to work with parents and students to reframe those questions to be more like, “What can I do to improve?”

Maybe Open House is the place to start.

Grading policies–evolution or intelligent design?

Before I begin I want to recognize I Speak Math’s efforts to keep bloggers reflecting, and sharing.

Now to the question. I have to go with Darwin on this one because every grading policy I’ve designed or used has evolved into something else. When I first started teaching my grading practices were more about measuring compliance rather than measuring learning, especially when it came to homework.

Here’s how I USED to grade homework, 30% of the grade:

Appropriate heading with name, date, period, and assignment title

1 point

Using pencil

1 point

Using colored pen to grade assignment

1 point

Each problem written out

1 point

Work shown for each problem

3 points

Corrections made for incorrect problems

3 points


10 points

If it was late, kapow! The student earned less than full credit. One day late: up to 80% credit. Two days late: up to 60% credit. Three days late: up to 50% credit. After that: teacher discretion.

These policies reflected what I thought was important for the learner to know and be able to do—follow a check list and turn work in on time.

Every day I poured over homework like Scrooge overseeing his finances. It was tedious. It was time consuming. It was insane, IMHO. When late work entered the picture the maximum a student could earn was 8 points—if the assignment was perfect. But counting points was what I valued. I also wanted students to experience the consequence of late work. After all if we don’t pay our bills on time we incur a late fee.

It was exhausting to maintain. Counting tally marks for a homework grade and applying “penalty fees” required more time and effort than I could muster in a day. The policies had become an administrative nightmare but I was convinced I was doing right by the kids. So I asked for help.

For twelve years I made a reasonable request of my district, “I want a personal assistant.” Every year they politely declined responding, “Get real.”

Instead of giving me what I thought I needed, they gave me something to ponder. I began asking myself: What do I value? How can I be more effective?

I already knew I value my time GREATLY. But what is the value of homework and how should that be measured then reflected in the grade book? Should the finite amount of time I have be spent tallying and dispensing homework points, or developing meaningful lessons and helping students better understand and appreciate math?

I threw out the 10 point homework checklist and opted for a streamlined approach.

Here’s how I grade homework now, 5% of the grade. It’s:

  • Worth 5 points
  • A completion grade
  • Full credit, even if the student gets every problem wrong—as long as work is shown
  • No credit if the assignment is never turned in or no work is shown

This policy suits me pretty well. I’ve evolved to where I consider homework as practice. I think of it as a sacred mechanism where students are permitted to make mistakes without it harming their grade. I like the idea of weighing homework at five percent even though it violates the standards based grading policy which is that 100% of the grade is measured by progress towards meeting a standard. I may be compromising the purity of the grade, but 95% percent pure is pretty good.

As far as late work is concerned some may think I’m crazy to accept it after the summative. I figure I still want the student to practice/learn/master the concept even though their opportunity to demonstrate mastery has passed.

Also, I no longer penalize late work. I just document the behavior as a comment: 1) Late, please complete for credit; or 2) Awaiting student to show work on this assignment. To me a late work penalty is a double whammy. If homework is not completed chances are the consequence will likely be a poor performance on the assessment. If the student did well on the assessment, then (s)he didn’t need the homework in the first place.

The changes in my grade practices did not happen overnight. Over the years I’ve been influenced by Rick Wormeli, Bob Marzano, and others.  Refocusing this time and energy has given me more time to attend to student learning. I’m able to devote more time to create tasks, and brainstorm ways to better differentiate the learning.

However I could still use a personal assistant to grade my standards based grading assessments.

Getting students caught up

Julie’s prompt this week is…How do you help students in your class that are behind in math? What a great question.

Here are some reasons I thought of as to why students fall behind:


  •  lack of investment in their own learning
  •  insufficient self-advocacy skills
  •  inability to set goals and monitor their own progress
  •  inattention, social-emotional, or learning disability
  •  absences


  • infrequent formative assessments
  • pacing is too fast for the student
  • lack of differentiation during class or homework
  • insufficient monitored and/or independent practice

BEFORE they fall too far behind

Let me share what happened on Friday. I returned an equivalent ratios formative assessment to one of my classes and six students absolutely bombed it. Fifteen students earned a 2.5 or better (3 is the target, 4 is exceeds the target in my standards based grading grade book). The six who struggled demonstrated a level of proficiency of 1.5 or less. So as a class, they are either “getting it” or they “are not getting it at all”. There is no middle.

This was the first formative assessment so the group hasn’t fallen too far behind. But if I don’t do my job they’ll fall even farther behind.

After we discussed the assessment, I regrouped the class so I could meet with the six students. I assigned a Thinking Blocks online ratio activity to most of the class while I met with the struggling group. We had a conversation and this is what I learned…we were both at fault.

Let’s start with me.

It turns out that my pace was too fast and I didn’t give them enough monitored and independent practice. The short of it is I should have better differentiated this lesson to accommodate their needs. It also turns out that I need to help them develop self-advocacy skills. Students already set goals and monitor their progress (Student Goal Setting 6 RP1), but they need to take it more seriously.

Now them.

I want students to tell me to slow down. I also want them to ask questions. A few are not as invested in their learning as much as I am. I get it; they’re kids. But that also means they’re not old enough to choose not to learn. I intervene by insisting they either attend math lab or schedule a date with me after school.

WHEN they’ve fallen behind

When I pull students for math lab (fourth period) I reteach and monitor their practice problems. If it’s not busy, a student can receive one-to-one attention.  Other times it’s a bit busier where students drop in for help with one problem. Or it can be chaotic where I’m re-teaching two different classes at the same time while students drop in with a quick question.

Math lab fills a need but it is a horrible substitute for when a student misses class. On Thursday, two students who were previously absent thought they could make up an 84 minute lesson on one step equations in 30 minutes. It was disastrous.

In those situations perhaps I should insist students come before or after school. It adds to my day however it also forces the student to have “skin in the game”. I’m well aware there is life beyond school. Kids have after school activities and responsibilities. Those are important yet so is learning. It’s a dilemma.

Providing extra monitored practice, or some re-teaching to get a student caught up is one thing. I can handle that in class, in math lab, or after school. What I haven’t been able to do well is getting students caught up when they’ve been absent. That requires a heck of a lot more dexterity, juggling, and time.

Standards Based Grading–the best of 2012

I’ve previously written about SBG (Standards Based Grading in a Percentage Based WorldPowToon Presents Standards Based Grading, and Educating Parents about Standards Based Grading). It’s been my highlight of 2012 because I’m going solo with SBG in our building. In fact only one other teacher in our district is doing it. Our online grade book is point based and doesn’t support it. Parents and students are new to it. So why am I doing this?

I doing it because I truly want a reporting system that assesses specific standards based on a level of proficiency. That means not overly tainting the grade with behaviors such homework completion or extra credit.

Here’s my scale:

  • 4.0 exceeds the target. I know (can do) it well enough to make connections that weren’t taught.
  • 3.0 meets the target. I know (can do) everything that was taught without making mistakes.
  • 2.0 does not yet meet the target. I know (can do) all the easy parts, but I don’t know (can do) the harder parts.

Here’s my conversion when it comes time to report a grade:

  • 4.0 =100%
  • 3.5 = 95%
  • 3.0 = 90%
  • 2.5 = 80%
  • 2.0 = 70%
  • 1.5 = 60%
  • 1.0 = 50%

My grade book has three categories weighted as follows:

  • 95% Summative
  • 5% Practice (homework)
  • 0% Formative

The assessments are targeted by specific standards with problems grouped by level of difficulty. Here’s an assessment for 7G4 Circumference and Area where you can see how the problems are leveled.

Students had done a LOT of practice prior to this assessment. Even though “formative” is in the title, I ended up making it a summative because the vast majority of students met the target. A handful of kids need to arrange for an out of class assessment because they didn’t earn at least a three.

Here’s what it looks like in the grade book:


When I decide to report an official grade I create a summative assignment worth 10 points and convert the scale to a percent equivalent. Working with this point based grade book has been a bit of a challenge. The software thinks a score 3 out of 4 is 75%. It’s not; it’s a level of proficiency. It took parents and students several weeks to wrap their heads around that. Eventually they learned to ignore any grade (except the summative) and interpret numbers on a scale towards mastery rather than as a percentage.

I don’t want the above example to give you the impression that I only assess once. Here’s an example of where I assessed a standard three times over the course of a month.


Those of you familiar with E-school know it’s a student information management system with a mediocre grade book. I have to make due.

It has taken some time, but parents and students have learned to view the formatives not as a grade, but as information regarding how a student is progressing towards mastery.

On a related, but different note, next week our students will be taking winter MAPs. I’ll be interested in seeing how the kids do on the geometry portion of the assessment. This is our first year with the Common Core and my sixth grade standard and academic classes were living and breathing geometry for more than a quarter. When I get the results, I’ll post a summary and some thoughts.

The focus is on the learning: goal setting and progress monitoring

When I say goal setting I don’t want students to think, “My goal is to get an A by the end of the quarter.” The goal is to reach a level of proficiency on a learning standard. And when I say progress monitoring I don’t mean the students should only check their grades on-line. It means the students chart their progress and reflect on what needs to be done to demonstrate proficiency.

These ten minutes of class may be the most empowering time for my sixth graders because it is their time to reflect on their progress. Plus, by shifting the focus from grades to learning the students have put the horse in front of the cart. Granted it has taken some time, but they know the conversation in my classroom is about learning.

I’ve only been doing goal setting and progress monitoring since the start of the year (along with Standards Based Grading), so I would love your feedback on what works for you.  

In my classes, students set goals using Marzano’s 4 point proficiency scale knowing that 3 is the target. Every time students complete a formative assessment, they monitor their progress using a version of this Student Goal Setting 7NS1 document. They keep their goal setting sheets in a three prong folder at school.

It’s a simple but powerful process; students monitor their progress by shading in a bar chart. The visual representation makes an impact. They own their learning, and they identify “growth opportunities.”

Here’s an example:

progress monitoring
Students completed the first section after the pre-test. The second and third sections were completed after each formative.

What I like about the scale is how it’s not connected to a grade. I know that eventually I need to issue a grade, but the focus remains on learning until I need to convert it.

As far as results? When converted to grades zero students in my four math classes earned lower than a 75% in the first quarter. The real test will be this winter and spring when students take the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test. I know it’s not solely due to goal setting. Formative assessments and standards based grading are other variables that  enter into the equation.

Hattie’s and Marzano’s research convinced me to try it. My experience thus far has convinced me to continue.

I’m interested in learning how others are implementing goal setting and progress monitoring. Please share your experience.

Experiencing success and creating a sense of hope

If you want to lose weight monitor your calorie intake and the amount of daily excerise. If you want to achieve monitor your learning and the amount of effort you exert. It’s early in the year and we may still be in the honeymoon phase, but student goal setting and progress monitoring are working.

The students just finished their second formative assessment on decimals and nearly every student is at at a 3 or better. They’re keeping track of their progress by shading in a bar chart and comparing the results to the previous formative. Charting has turned out to be a powerful tool because the kids create a visual representation of their progress. As they say, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” The students literally see they are learning and improving. I may be over extrapolating, but I’ll take a cognitive leap to suggest that the less confident student, over time, will become more confident in math.

The students however are still hooked on grades. They asked, “Is this for a grade?”

All I could say was, “If I had to report a grade today, it would be what you see on this knowledge check.” I said, “We are officially done working on decimals but chances are you’ll get another assessment to see how much you remember.” I do have a few students who haven’t reached the level 3 target, but they can arrange for an out of class assessment. They just have to schedule a date and time and come to the session with evidence that they’ve practiced.

I wonder if there is evidence that SBG provides additional student motivation. It seems that a delay in reporting of a grade gives students a sense of hope and as a result they continue to strive to meet the learning target.

Educating parents and students about standards based grading

My phone and email were quiet one week after Open House. A parent however ran into my principal while attending another grade level’s open house and gave him some feedback which he passed along to me. They were two great suggestions: 1) continue to send emails over the next couple of weeks announcing when updates have been posted to the online grade book, and 2) explain once again why I am doing this.

The end of this post details what I sent home. It’s been only one day, but I’ve received just two emails requesting clarification. The clarification was what I anticipated–taking a score of 2 or 3 out of 4 and intepreting it as a 50% or 75%. I reiterated that it was not a grade, but merely a record of where the student is at.

Parents and students are accustomed to a gradebook that captures the end result. They need time to digest the idea that a grade book can be thought of as a running record of progress. This hit home today when a student said to me, “Rumor has it you are counting a pre-test as a grade.”

I told Emma, “No, I entered it in the grade book only as documentation that this is where you are at as of this date. It is not a grade.” She slowly began to understand this grading practice. This is an adjustment period and I hope everyone will come to appreciate SBG over the course of the quarter.

Another student questioned why I don’t just make each assessment worth 10 points. I understand where he is coming from, but returning to a point value defeats the purpose of SBG and students still end up focusing on the grade.

I’m curious as to how others have handled this question. Again I’m doing SBG using a percentage based grade book.

I haven’t forgotten. Here’s the email I sent to parents:


For those interested in learning a bit more about standards based grading, please read the information below. Again, if you have questions or concerns, please contact me via email or phone.

Why SBG?
1.  SBG measures and reports the learner’s progress in a clear, precise manner. An assessment reported in the traditional grade book would have very limited information such as rational numbers test, 85%. This type of grade book entry does not describe the student’s strengths and areas that need more practice.

Continuing with the rational numbers example, in SBG the concepts are recorded and reported individually. This way everyone knows where the student excels and struggles. The grade book reflects individual levels of mastery such as adding and subtracting fractions, mixed numbers, decimals, and integers, as well as a separate entry for multiplying and dividing these concepts.

2.  Another important feature of SBG is maintaining a running record of the student’s understanding of the major topics in each unit. Parents often ask, “How is my child doing?” Seeing your child’s trend moving from 2/4 to 4/4 indicates your child’s learning is moving closer to the learning target and beyond.

Today and tomorrow, Monday and Tuesday, I am explaining the process to the students and returning to them their “pre-test” on the first learning concept(s). In Home Access today you will see your child’s current level of proficiency. If I see your child on “B” days, I will share the pre-test results tomorrow, Tuesday. As I mentioned at Open House, 3 is the target and 4 is more complex content.

Thank you for the opportunity to teach your child and I look forward to a great year of learning.