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Standards Based Grading Meets Traditional Grading

My students recently received their progress reports for 3rd quarter and maybe they need a reminder of why I am trying standards based grading and how I turn their various degrees of mastery into a letter grade. 

Before I get into the details,  let's remember why I am making this choice. I want the feedback they receive from me to be just that: feedback on what they should keep doing and what they need to improve upon. I feel that giving letter grades doesn't promote a growth mindset and can be interpreted as punishment rather than an indication of progress.

As such, I need to give my students lots of chances to make mistakes, receive feedback and demonstrate mastery of our learning targets. My students take skill quizzes (short, ten minute maximum) 2 - 3 times per week. I check them, given written feedback, track performance with learning targets and return them the next days. Students make corrections as needed and then decide if they want to reassess

Yes, these skill quizzes can be redone! Students get to retake the skill quiz after quick remediation (that I call a ticket) so that they have another chance to demonstrate mastery. This style of assessment is known as formative, low stakes assessment. 

This style of assessing generates a lot of data. This is why I chose to track student performance using Active Grade. It also requires a lot of my time; hence I plan on looking at more automated options like Exit Ticket for next year.

Students, if you are reading this, please show your active grade profile to your families. Have a conversation about which concepts you want to make progress on and how can do so.
Sample student report.
What the numbers mean.

So how do I take all of these scores out of 4 for each skill and turn them into a letter grade that is supposed to represent my students' progress on everything? Well there is a method to the madness. One that I think is fair, but is evolving as I learn more about grading this way. 

Fist off, I have to tell Active Grade how I want it to average together all attempts at each skill. For example, let's consider the following scenario: a student assesses the learning target "I can graph and interpret the slope of horizontal and vertical lines" four times and gets scores of 1, 2, 3 and 3.5. If I calculated a simple average, the student would get a score of 2.375, implying that his skill level is somewhere between developing and proficient. However, his most recent attempt, a 3.5, implies his skill level is secure. Therefore, I do not use a regular average and instead have settled on a weighted average that gives more weight to the most recent attempt. This choice does assume that my students improve, but has thus far been supported by their performance. Other options don't seem to fit with the rigorous nature of our school. For example, if instead I only counted their highest performance, this might dissuade a student from always giving each attempt full effort if at one time he demonstrated mastery. With a decaying average, the same student gets a 3.125 for the same 4 scores, matching a skill level between proficiency and secure. The more times a student assesses, the more chances he or she has to throw higher scores into the average. What I would really like my students to focus on, though, is that reassessing provides more opportunities to demonstrate mastery and will lead to higher rates of retention in the end.

Secondly,  I have divided all the learning targets into Specific Skills and Essential Skills. Essential skills are arguably more important skills that I want my students to master by the end of the year. The learning targets that I label as Specific Skills are also important, but not so much so that I want my students' grades to be weighed down if they should only reach a skill level of developing or proficient. The combination of standard calculation method with how the type of standard impacts the overall grade, gives me a letter grade.

This is how I tell Active Grade to calculate overall grades at the moment. 
So why don't I allow students to see their overall grade, all the time? I want my students to focus on which learning targets they are secure in or have mastered and which they need to dedicate more practice to. The point of standards based grading is to give feedback in a way that isn't punitive, so that students own their progress and feel empowered to strive towards mastery. I want my students to get an assessment back and use the feedback to make corrections and learn. Past experience has taught me that if a grade is written on an assessment, that grade becomes the focus. The following are common scenarios that I witnessed after handing back tests with scores or letter grades present: an A- that lead to defensive questions of point assignment, a B that left a student feeling inadequate, a C met with feelings of hopelessness and, an A met with brash statements of superiority. Of course there are students who can take the grade, not let it define them, and incorporate the feedback into a path forward. Sadly, however, this has not been the norm.

Our students are in the midst of forming their opinions of what they can and cannot do. I want to do everything I can to show them that anything they want to pursue, is within their reach. A person with a growth mindset acknowledges challenge and makes up his or her mind to persevere through them. Algebra 1 provides the building blocks for higher level thinking in mathematics. I believe that this system of feedback will better enable my students to form a growth mindset towards math, without diluting rigor. 

The other portion (about 1/3) of their overall grade, is their digital portfolio. The math blog is the create and reflect part of the class. Students reflect upon in class tasks, create problems and videos and do problems created by other students. It is a comprehensive record of everything they're learning. I grade these more traditionally - the prompts and rubrics are posted on our learning management system (The Hub). Grades are calculated by points and scores are shown on the hub. Students are, however, always welcome to address issues and resubmit for a higher score (another nudge to my belief that grades should provide room for growth and process).

I love reading about best practices in teaching, learning and assessing. I am a nerd for my career. Whether reading books or journal articles or participating in twitter chats, I am continually working on my own growth mindset - my teaching practice can always improve to suit the needs of my students. I hope this explanation helps to clarify my grading process and further demonstrates my commitment to my students' learning. For more on how standards based grading is working for me, see here.


  1. This post is awesome! I've shared it with others to describe what standards-based grading is and can't wait to talk to you more about it!

    1. Thank you! SBG is definitely a work in progress for me. I know I need help in how to include and assess each concept I teach into broader learning targets. I also need to work with Haiku as I would like more feedback regarding which calculation method is the most fair.


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