Standards-based grading welcomes me back with open arms!

A few years ago, I dove into the world of standards-based grading (SBG). While it had its merits, I decided to dump SBG for what I called UNgrading. I happily rolled with UNgrading for two years and mostly loved it. My chief struggle was finding time to conference with all students about their grades.

This year, I’m teaching at a new school with much less flexibility. My new school is much more locked in to curriculum and pacing guides, common assessments, etc. I have larger classes and a larger student load overall.

After a few weeks of existential vertigo, I needed to break the status quo. Full-fledged project-based learning with UNgrading wasn’t an option for me or for my new colleagues, so I decided SBG would champion my subversion campaign.

I have mostly avoided my previous gradebook frustrations with a version of the Keep It Simple Standards-Based Grading recommended by Frank Noschese. I have also read everything on the blogs of Shawn Cornally and Jason Buell and they have been crazy helpful. Yay blogosphere!

The cool thing is that several of my colleagues have expressed interest in jumping on board the SBG Express! My new administrators have been incredibly supportive of SBG as well.

I’m not happy that my primary form of assessment so far has been lab reports and quizzes. I definitely need help in this area.

I still have a lot of room for improving how well I communicate my grading method to my students (and parents). The kids are only just now starting to get it, 12 weeks into the school year.

In spite of these struggles, I feel like I’m on the right track!

Why I dumped SBG (and why you probably shouldn’t)

I jumped on the SBG (standards based grading) express 2 years ago.  My main reason for going to SBG was an extreme dissatisfaction with the grading status quo.  I felt like I was doing kids a disservice with points and weighted categories and the like.

So I dove headfirst into SBG along with 2 of my coworkers.  We had read Marzano’s Classroom Grading that Works and a few other articles about SBG on the web.  That wast the extent of our SBG training.

We immediately got big push back from the “old-school” parents in our district.  We actually had to hold a 2 hour sit down meeting with several of them.  It was uncomfortable (and a bit bizarre).  I’m still not sure exactly what they wanted.

Anyway, 2 years of SBG led me to both love and hate it.

I loved replacing old evidence of student learning with new.  I loved focusing grades on learning and nothing else.  I loved getting rid of the grading of meaningless work.

I hated that kids never really understood their grades.  No matter how much I explained it to them, many never really got the system.  That meant that I was giving them grades that they really didn’t understand.   Shoot, sometimes I didn’t understand the way the computer tabulated them.

What I really hated was trying to do SBG in the awkward, clunky, slow online gradebook that we are mandated to use.  The system (Skyward) has a standards-based gradebook but it really wasn’t functional.  We had to create a bunch of weird workarounds within the system to make it work.  Even after that, the system still insisted on averaging their grades.

Mainly, I dumped SBG because it didn’t fit great with Project-Based Learning.  Because students are only receiving grades for their projects – grades they give themselves – there are not enough assessments or reassessment options for SBG.  That being said, I am keeping a shadow gradebook (in EasyGrade Pro) in which I’m using very subjective SBG.  This is only for me to see.  I’m considering it a bit of action research on my UNgrading practices as compared to SBG.

Obviously, I’m very happy with UNgrading and strongly believe it’s the right way to go.  However, many of you out there aren’t ready to make that leap yet.  Until then, SBG is a nice brigdge.

As if I have time to keep up 2 gradebooks… and my head explodes.

UNgrading – the early returns

This is the third in a series of posts about UNgrading.  The previous two posts were: Why I’m UNgrading my students and How I’m UNgrading my students.

a new day has dawned in my classroom

a new day has dawned in my classroom

We are about to begin week 6 of the school year and I’ve not given my students a grade.  Sometimes I feel a little like I’m neglecting part of my job.  Most of the time I feel like a huge burden has been lifted.

The early results of UNgrading are observational and subjective, so take with a grain of salt.

Brief Background:

What my students have been doing:

I’m a project based learning adherent, so each class (biology, chemistry, physics) has completed one long-term project this year.

In biology, the project was integrated with social studies and English and was focused on the driving question, “What determines who I become?”  This project integrated studies of genetics and heredity (biology) with elements of culture and famous world leaders (social studies).  English focused on writing and speech skills.  At the culmination of the project, students created a poster to answer the driving question.  This poster integrated various pieces from each class.  The posters were presented at a poster session prior to Open House.

In physics, students took on the challenge of the egg drop.  Our school gym has a roof that is about 40 feet high and I climb up there to drop their egg protection devices.  They were given a very limited list of materials with minimal quantities of each allowed.  They made and tested prototypes, completed a scale diagram of their plan for their final device, built their device, and presented their product to their peers with an explanation of the physics behind their design.  The final result, of course, was the egg drop itself.  We had about 100 students and staff in attendance at the event (our school has ~250 students).

In chemistry, we dove headlong into Whole Class Inquiry.  The students explored the particle model of matter with a couple of brief labs, followed by modeling-style whiteboard sessions.  We then went through an inquiry involving baking soda and vinegar and various apparatus that eventually forced water into a graduated cylinder.  The students determined which variables to manipulate about the system and then designed and carried out their experiments.  Finally, they had to bring all of their separate group data together to complete a whole class inquiry assessment.  In this challenge I set the parameters and they had to use their experimental data to complete a single trial experiment.

What I’ve seen so far without grades:

  • This is purely substantial evidence but I feel like I’ve seen a much greater level of curiosity and question asking.  I strongly believe that I’ve never seen so much genuine wonder and inquiry in my classroom.
  • Kids are grading themselves right about where I would have probably done it anyway.  Yeah, a few here and there are a little high or a little low.  Only a handful have been off by more than a grade (i.e. – A vs. C).  Those I just had a brief, gentle conversation with and asked them why they gave that grade.  The ones who undergraded were all too happy to bring it up.  Those who overgraded were quick (maybe too quick) to say that they thought they went too high.
  • The focus on quality work in projects has been at least as good as before, if not better.  Maybe that’s more because the projects were rigorous and engaging and had an audience at the end.  Still, I had to (gently) kick kids out of my room on consecutive Fridays (my day to go home early) at 4 because I wanted to head out.  High schoolers!  On a Friday!  I wouldn’t have been caught dead near a classroom on a Friday afternoon in high school!
  • The focus on content learning during projects has been at least as good if not better than in past years.  Counterintuitively, instead of focusing on really “pretty” products (which I think they equate to “better”), they are doing more functional work focused on learning the necessary content.  Scores on conventional quizzes (not graded) have been at least as good as in past years as well.
  • The relationships in the classroom are better than ever.  My relationship with my students has been very positive.  I feel like I’m acting as more of a mentor or facilitator than ever before.  I feel like we’re on the same side.  My students are also getting along very well with each other.  I do think that grades foster competition among peers, even when there is no curving of the grades.
  • I’ve had no complaints.  No student has complained about UNgrading (not a big surprise).  As yet, no parent has either.  As long as the students and parents are happy, so are my administrators!

The Bottom Line:

  • Students are working at least as hard as before, if not harder, and doing quality work.
  • Students are focusing on learning and being curious more than ever.
  • Relationships are better than ever.

Having seen these positive results so far this year, it’s hard to imagine ever going back to giving grades.  I’m really curious to see what happens when we hit that time of the year when student motivation really starts to wane.  How will the absence of the carrot and the stick affect their willingness to work and to learn when they want to be nowhere near school?

My next step is to keep sharing my learning about UNgrading with my colleagues.  Hopefully I can steal some more converts away from the Dark Side!

How I’m UNgrading my students

In my last post, I described why I’m UNgrading my students.  Yet, we all know the why is the easy part.  I’ve convinced many teachers that grades are harmful and that the carrot and the stick don’t motivate people.



However, these teachers usually give me the, “well, in a perfect world, there wouldn’t be grades, but…” response and I know the real conversation is over.

Still with me?  Good.

As I outlined in my last post, I’m working within a very typical system.  Not a charter school nor an alternative school; major poverty issues, etc.

My goal for this year is to not give my students a single grade.

So, how am I navigating these waters? Keep in mind that it’s a work in progress:

  • For the first 2 required progress report dates of the year, I had students complete a form telling me what grade they deserved and why. I entered their grades into the gradebook and attached their form to it to take home. The only change I made to any of their grades was to raise a “D” to a “B” in one case.
  • For athletic eligibility, I’ve done a similar thing. Athletes fill out a quick form for me on Thursday and I post it as is. I’ve really come to believe that using athletic eligibility as a carrot/ stick is cruel. For some of our kids, that’s the only reason they’re in school at all. Taking it away from them usually results in giving up.
  • Students are creating the rubrics for each project we do. They dtermine the criteria and the constraints for the project. I make sure they don’t get too specific or symplistic.
  • At the end of each project, student give themselves a grade using their rubric. That is the grade they get. If I really think a student is way off, I will sit down with them and talk about it. Hopefully, they will convince me (with their knowledge) that I missed something. If not, we may split the difference. Part of what I’m looking for here too is how they feel about their project. If they are really proud of their work, who am I to tell them that it’s not good enough?
  • Students are also compiling a digital portfolio of their work as we go. At the end of the semester, I will meet with each. They will tell me what grade they deserve and why.
  • We have also had a few whole class inquiry activities this year. In these types of challenges, the class was told that they would receive a common grade. This grade was solely determined by group consensus, not by me.
  • Finally, I’m giving lots and lots of descriptive feedback in the general format of “I Notice/ I Wonder/ What If?”.  I’m having students use this same format to give peer feedback.

This is how I’m working within district requirements while doing my best to subvert grades.  I’m calling it UNgrading because the students are getting grades, just not from me.

Big thanks to Joe Bower and Alfie Kohn for the courage to go forward with this system!

Next post: UNgrading – the early returns are in!

Why I’m UNgrading my students

I couldn’t call it DE-grading, now could I…

I never felt right about grades before...

I never felt right about grades before...

It couldn’t really be this easy, could it?

  • Increased motivation to learn for the sake of learning
  • More time on task
  • A rise in creativity and critical thinking
  • Improved work completion
  • A much more positive classroom culture
  • No angry calls from parents

I’ve seen all of these things in my classes in the first month of school.

What did I do?  More importantly, what DIDN’T I do?  You’re thinking, “here comes the sales pitch…”

I haven’t given my students a single grade.

I’m calling in UNgrading.  I want to thank Joe Bower and Alfie Kohn for the inspiration and courage to dive in and do it!

First, some context, so you can see how your system and mine are similar and different:

  • I teach high school science at a public school (not a charter)
  • 90+% of my students qualify for free and reduced lunch
  • 90+% of my students are ethnic minorities
  • We have a traditional school structure (standard course offerings, 6 period days, 55 minutes per class, etc.)
  • I am required to report athletic eligibility grades every Friday
  • I am required to give students progress reports every 2 weeks
  • I must report grades at the end of each quarter
  • My electronic gradebook is viewable by any parent at any time

Pretty standard stuff, really.

For years, I’ve wanted to do away with grades but never was sure how.  Somewhere in my mind, I was still caught up in the fallacy of needing grades to motivate students.  I also felt a strong need to have a defensible position for my grades.  I wandered through the woods of various point systems my first 3 years.  I gave standards-based grading (SBG) the old college try the last 2 years.  Retakes and no late penalties; all that stuff was part of my system.  No matter what I did, it never felt right.

I always said, “I love teaching but I hate grading!”

Now I know why: I was evaluating student work and passing judgement on it.  No matter how clear and detailed my rubrics were, it was still my subjective evaluation of their work.  In fact, the more clear and detailed my rubrics, the more boring their work became – both for them to do and for me to assess.

Next post: How I’m doing UNgrading!

Image used under cc license from the flickr stream of amboo who?