Standards-based grading made easy (and less effective)

I’m using standards-based grading (SBG) in my night school Math 12 class right now.  Kind of.  What it amounts to at the moment is that I take the end-of-unit assessment and split it apart into one mark per standard (ie. per skill) rather than a lump-sum grade.

However, SBG is often hailed as a formative assessment tool.  I am doing a lousy job of formative assessment – not completely absent, but not great.  This approach does give students better feedback to use on rewrites, but I don’t particularly have time to adjust my lessons by the time I mark these end-of-unit tests.

The reason I think this is worth sharing is twofold: a) to demonstrate that using SBG is no guarantee that you’re doing things “formatively”; b) to show that SBG has advantages as a form of summative assessment as well as formative.

So what does SBG get me?  For starters, it gives me more fine-grained control over how I weight specific knowledge in the final grade.  If I think that graphing sinusoids should be worth 1/3 of the mark for this unit, I don’t have to pad the assessment with extra questions until I can make the “points” total up to 1/3 of the test.  I can just set the weight on the standard scorecard, and then all I need to care about when writing the test is ensuring that I ask questions that completely demonstrate all of the required skills.

It also makes that grade handed back more meaningful to students.  If they see a 72%, they have to go unpacking what they got wrong, and they may or may not isolate that down to specific skills that they misunderstood.  With the scorecard approach, they can see which stuff they didn’t get at a glance.

It also helps remedy the weird logistics of teaching a night-school class when it comes to test rewrites.  I don’t have office hours or a classroom that you can find me at during lunchtime.  We don’t have time for a full test rewrite during class time.  Breaking the content up into distinct standards means that I can have them re-demonstrate mastery of smaller parts during the 20-30 min we have available at the end of a typical class.

But perhaps the biggest difference it’s made for me is that I’m more confident that the scores I’m assigning to students are grounded in reality.  This is related to having better control over distribution of weights, but it’s more than that.  The SBG approach pushes me to write up a descriptive rubric for what level of ability I would rate as a 2/4, and what’s required beyond that to get a 4/4.  So if I look at that scorecard, I know that someone’s barely-passing grade is aligned with, on average, a barely-good-enough set of understandings and skills, and I can specify exactly why.  In short, I can justify that grade at a glance, to others and (more importantly) to myself.

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