SBG*: Everything Its Cracked Up To Be

*For the uninitiated, SBG stands for “Standards Based Grading”. If you just said, “That still tells me nothing, Taylor,” then you can read better explanations than I could write here and here. I owe a lot to that latter link and its author, Frank Noschese for this post and the experience that this post is about, and I suggest you read it before you read this if you are not familiar with SBG.

Yesterday I submitted final grades for the first class I’ve ever taught that I was in fully and completely charge of. The difference in experiences teaching that class and the one I had back in November feels astronomical. (Okay, I’ll stop linking to things now.) Between then and today, I survived my student teaching placement, delivered pizza for 3 months in Clifton, avoided taking the Praxis and substitute teaching, and then landed a job as a full time mathematics tutor and adjunct instructor at the community college in my hometown.

I should probably note that comparing four classes of 8th graders and one class each of Seniors and Freshmen to a class with 9 students at a community college is highly suspect, but this is a post about assessment practices rather than classroom management (which frankly, I probably still suck at).

I was asked to teach “Foundations of Quantitative Reasoning” last minute so I had very little time to prepare. (By the way that  title has to be *the* most unimaginative title for a course I have ever heard. “Hey! Let’s name the course after the Breadth of Knowledge requirement that it satisfies!”) I was given a text, “Using and Understanding Mathematics”. It has some positive qualities about it, particularly its effort to address and debunk math phobias, but falls prey to something I have seen math textbooks do from time to time, which is to try to oversimplify or automate to avoid a more in-depth explanation of why something is the way it is. I believe this not only leads to more confusion for the math novice, but also robs the student of understanding and exchanges it for an unnecessary algorithm to memorize (and forget or mess up or be confused about).

This class being my first foray into SBG–and being completely responsible for a class in general–I chose to use a Standards-Based Grading system modeled heavily after the suggestions laid out in that post above by Frank Noschese because of its simplicity. The grading rubric for standards is binary, current grades are easy to calculate, and it minimizes confusion for those not used to the system (me and my students).

I made some minor changes almost immediately. (Like the pirate’s code, they’re more like guidelines anyway.) Binary “YES” or “NO” for standards was too cut-and-dry for me. I needed a way to recognize that a student somewhat understood a concept, but hadn’t really grasped it fully yet. I added a rating of “Partially” to introduce a little continuity in my grading system. This was technically more work for me, but since the goal was to make assessments and grades meaningful for students, I felt it was necessary.

The second change I made was the formula for determining how ratings on standards and participation interact to determine the final grade. Frank suggested a 50/50 formula in his post: 50% standards and 50% everything else–I assume because of his guiding principle of simplicity in that post–however I could not get away from the thought that if a student were to be rated yes on all standards but did nothing else, they would fail the class. This seemed to be inconsistent to me, so I adjusted it to make ratings 75% of the final grade. That is, if a student only came to class for the final exam, scored YES on all standards, he would pass the class with a C. I am still torn on whether at the collegiate level I should be rewarding that demonstration of knowledge with an A, but I would feel more comfortable giving a C to a high-school student who refused to participate in class, but demonstrated excellent content knowledge. (I seriously doubt a situation like that is possible though.)

I created spreadsheets for each student in Google Docs so that they had access to their current grade at all times. (They were allowed to view, but not edit, for obvious reasons.)

We had quizzes at the end of every class. Not open book, not open note, not take home. Always in class. This allows me to be certain that I am assessing the students knowledge and skills in mathematics and no one else’s. Even though my students acclimated fairly quickly, they would still sometimes ask for those things. I think if I had the class for a longer period of time it would have sank in eventually. Surprisingly (and to my great pleasure) no one ever asked for extra credit. Ever.

Overall the students responded very well to the system and I had almost 100% positive feedback from them. I really believe that using a standards-based system is the only way I could ever grade a math class. The system’s ability to remove a lot of meaningless work on my part and the students’ is invaluable. The only out-of-class assignment I gave was a biography paper. No homework. The students took responsibility and did necessary practice on their own. Less paperwork for me and less needless stress from deadlines for them. SBG’s biggest strength in my mind is its ability to remove the pressure to perform without mistakes–a big contributor to math phobia in the classroom. That safety net of as many opportunities to “prove” that they understand a concept to me rather than one or two shots on a midterm and a final has inestimable value. That aspect alone is enough for me to put up with some of the extra legwork I have to do with keeping track of grades with SBG. I realize that nothing I have said is new, but I wanted to add my voice to the crowd. If you aren’t using SBG to assess your students. Do it. Do it NAUGH.

However! There were a few issues I came across as a first time user. I am working to figure these out as I plan for the Trigonometry class I begin teaching this coming Monday.

  • I am still not comfortable with the amount of ratings. “Yes, Partially, No” just simply doesn’t fully describe all possible levels of understanding that I saw in students’ work on quizzes. I will probably move up to a 5 point rubric. Speaking of that:
  • I need a better way to ensure that my rating is accurate. I told students that once they were rated YES on a standard they could not go back down, but in several cases I saw students completely miss a question on a standard that they had previously gotten correct. I will probably adopt a system similar to Jonathan Claydon that does not rate a student with a 5 on standard until they have been rated a 4 twice. (I know I promised no more links, but I needed to give him credit.)
  • I realized that my final exam was almost completely pointless with the exception of the most recent standards, which most of the class needed a second shot at, but that I wanted them to answer on all standards so that I could measure retention. (It was an accelerated summer course–something else I think is terrible, so there wasn’t much time between learning and assessment, but thats another post.)  I had to resort to pizza as a bribe. However, I think the new rating system will do away with this problem for the most part. I like the idea of the final being unnecessary because all of the students have already mastered the material.
  • I need a more efficient way to track student ratings on standards. Even with just 9 students it could be a pain. My upcoming class has 17 enrolled and I cannot spend the time entering ratings for that many students in the manner I was doing before. I have a BlueHarvest account, but I am reluctant to ask students to use it because I fear the extra website to visit and figure out will cause friction. I may avoid technology entirely, keep a pencil and paper gradebook, and tell students they should keep their own records as well, but ask me if they want to verify.
  • I had one student unofficially withdrawal. I may be making a bigger deal out of this than it really is (students in college withdrawal, it happens) because of the small class size. However, I feel as though confusion about my grading system lead this particular student to disengage from the class.

I am definitely pleased with how the class went and I am looking forward to improving in my future classes.