Category Archives: assessment

Standards Based Learning and Standards Based Grading from the trenches – part 3

This post is the third in a series about my journey with Standards Based Learning and Grading.

Removing the Behavior

Ready to start making a change?  One of the easiest ways to start reforming grading practices is to remove the behaviors or process.  Encouraging positive behavior is a very important component of what we do as educators, but process has no place averaged in with proficiency or mastery of learning targets or standards.  When we muddy the grading waters with behaviors, we render the grade meaningless.  Our goal should be to accurately and clearly report the proficiency level of our students regarding standards at that moment in time on a report card, along with a separate process report explaining classroom behaviors.


Once you remove the behaviors and compliance from the grade, what to do in order to teach important life skills like responsibility, caring, and respect? Helping students become good citizens is high on my priority list.  We work together to develop good study habits and collaborative skills.  We discuss work ethic, timeliness, goal setting, and meeting expectations; these items are simply not included in their academic grade.  Forming relationships with kids and creating class culture will contribute much more to positive behavior than a grading system that is punitive.  When kids are acting irresponsibly or inappropriately, it is time to step in and guide them, not give a participation grade.  We have to assist our students to become the adults we know they can be.  We must model the behaviors we want to see, demand the same behaviors from our students, and lead them to make good decisions.  Our students bring us their best each day, we have to meet them where they are in order to move forward.


We work to facilitate learners, not to build compliant robots.  The professions and jobs that our students will fulfill do not require factory model, inside the box learners.  They will need innovative creators who will move this world forward into the next era.  If our students are encouraged to be compliant, maintain the status quo, and keep learning safe, how will we progress?  We must demand more, drive learning, and challenge our thinking.  As lead learners, we must continually grow ourselves and model the behaviors we want to see in our students.  Model learning.  Take risks.  Demonstrate timeliness.  Demand critical thinking and problem solving.  And above all…form relationships.  Show students that you care about their growth and development.

I have this sign hanging in the front of my classroom to always keep our focus on what is most important…

image from venspired.com


Many times, our world seems to lack caring, thoughtful relationships, and promotes irresponsible, disrespectful behavior.  I would like to model something different for our next generation.  I would like to show them how their behaviors are always their choice, and that these choices impact their future.  Grading has no place in these discussions and lessons. Life is not something that is done to you…make sure your impact is a positive one.

Standards Based Learning and Standards Based Grading from the trenches – part 2

This post is the second in a series about my journey and growth with Standards Based Grading and Learning


Culture Shock


So, you are thinking about changing the way you grade?  Traditional systems do not work for you?  Get ready for a culture shock.  Most grading systems are antiquated and are used to rank and sort students.  They create cultures of compliance, competition, and fear.  Yet, many in our profession cling to them like glue.  They are afraid to analyze why they grade, how they grade, and what they are communicating to their students and parents.  They hide behind percentages and letters.  This culture must shift.  Compliance must be replaced with citizenship, competition with collaboration, and fear with risk taking and confidence in the learning process.  


Grades and scores are communication.  They represent a student’s proficiency level in relation to standards at a given moment in time, nothing more, nothing less.  But are grades this simple in today’s schools? No, they are not.  Grades are a haphazard mix of achievement, growth, and behaviors.  They are used by some as motivation and repercussion, when in reality they can elicit the opposite result that is sought.  Grades are not punishment, nor are they a means to encourage positive behavior in the classroom.


The premise of moving to a standards based system is a simple idea.  Learning is the most important feature in a classroom.  Everything that we do should be learning centered – including grading and assessment.  Learning is messy and chaotic.  Learning does not involve a teacher handing out information and the students regurgitating it.  Learning is taking a risk, trying something new, persevering and relentlessly seeking new and further understandings.  We must take this idea and make it apparent in everything we do as educators.  No time can be wasted in a student’s mind worrying about how many points they need to earn a grade, when they should be considering how to grow their proficiency and improve their mastery.


Just because the premise is straightforward doesn’t mean that converting to a standards based system is easy. Grading is a very personal part of what we do as educators.  Deciding to analyze your grading procedures and practices is a reflective experience that takes bravery and honesty.  Changing to a standards based system is a complete paradigm shift from what most of us were taught and practiced during our teacher preparatory programs.  It is a shift from the way we ‘did’ school, from the way it has been done for generations.  It is a shock to our system, but a wonderful way to model learning, growth, and change for our students.


Creating and nurturing a standards based culture for learning is no easy task. Diligence and grit are required to evoke and maintain change.  All must make a commitment to learning – students and teachers alike.  A community of learners struggling, growing, improving, failing, recovering, and succeeding together.


Standards Based Learning and Standards Based Grading from the trenches – part 1

This post is the first in a series about my journey with Standards Based Learning and Grading.  


My journey of positive deviance

Positive deviance…the way I see it, I will do anything to help my students learn.  I don’t care whether it will make me popular or well liked among my peers.  I am driven, passionate about education, and willing to work as hard as possible to reach every student.  I want to create passionate lifelong learners.
That being said, at times I am not the most popular in the building.  I am seen as the one who is always pushing the barrier, always innovating my instructional practices.  I have been told to my face several times, “Oh, well, that works in your classroom, but it could never work in mine.”  How do you know unless you try?  I understand that no two teacher’s classrooms will or should look exactly the same.  But to keep with old methods just because that is the way it has always been done or because it is the way you were taught is a ridiculous notion.  Times change, people evolve, research continues, learning happens, and we cannot in good faith sit idle and expect our profession to stagnate.  If we stagnate, our kids stagnate.  If we don’t work to improve and learn ourselves, what kind of example are we setting for our kids?  We must be the lead learners in our environments.  We must model what we expect and lead our students to seek knowledge.
Standards based learning and grading were an easy fit for me.  I needed to be learner focused.  I wanted a system that clearly communicated proficiency and mastery levels to my students and parents.  I desired to be criterion referenced rather than norm referenced.  As good of a fit as standards based learning and grading are for me, they are still finding their way into my school and district.  It is a tough road to be one of only a few charting this course, but it is well worth it to see the positive change in my students.  The culture of learning that is present in my classroom is a testament to the value of standards based learning, assessment, and grading.  My students are performing at higher levels and are more engaged in the learning process than ever before.
At the beginning of my teaching career, I was a traditional grader.  I had been taught in my undergraduate work and throughout student teaching how to assign points to assignments and assessments, grade behaviors like participation, and was encouraged to have a ‘no tolerance’ approach to late work.  I followed these practices and maintained the status quo in the educational world.  My students learned information, but did they excel?  No, they maintained the status quo as well in an system based on one size fits all standardized instruction and assessment.  Every student was supposed to be treated exactly the same in order to be fair.
After 10 years of teaching, I needed a paradigm shift.  I had finally recognized that my students were individuals and had very different needs in the classroom.  Being fair to my students meant that I not only needed to understand them as learners and people, but also that they required a variety of instructional methods, assessments, and practice.  I reflected, studied, read, and evaluated my methods.  I began to differentiate my instruction and felt like my students were changing along with me.  Relationships were formed, trust was established, and a learning environment conducive to growth was created. 

Once I had successfully implemented differentiated instruction, I still felt like I was missing something.  I started to reflect on my assessment and grading practices.  Why was I still demanding points, due dates, and compliant behaviors in my grading policies?  Back to researching, planning, and implementing new strategies all over again.  Now standards based learning, assessment, and grading drives my classroom experience and my students excel.  Students go above and beyond my expectations on a daily basis.  They are learners first and foremost.  They seek knowledge, understanding, and new skills over points, scores, and grades.

Matters of proficiency

Proficient or not proficient…that is the question.  In learning, that’s all that matters, right? If you are proficient at something, move on.  If not, continue to practice and improve until proficiency is achieved.

In my standards based classroom, I use a 4 point / level scale for summative assessments.  Formative work is never graded or scored, I just give feedback for growth.  But should there be just two levels instead of four? Proficient on my current scale is a three.  A four is distinguished, while two is approaching proficiency and one is emerging.  But why do I need all these descriptors when all that really matters is whether they can do what I am asking them do to in the language?

I have thought about this long and hard the past few weeks and here is my answer.  Because I have to give letter grades at the end of the grading period, I need these different levels.  I must use the standard A, B, C, D, and F to communicate proficiency no matter how I would share it in a perfect world.  Now, my scale does not perfectly correlate to these levels, but I do need a way to determine whether the student is performing above, at, or below the expected level of mastery of the standards.  The part I am unsure of is whether I like it or not.

Is proficient not enough? What does proficient mean to you? I define it for my students as the level of language production / interpretation I expect from a Spanish 1 or 2 student.  To achieve the level of distinguished (4) you would have to go above and beyond what I expect.  Is this right? If distinguished is where we would ideally like all kids to be, should that be the level of proficient?  If so, does the standard need to be rewritten to elicit the optimal responses?  I realize I will always have some students that go above and beyond my expectations, so is this additional level necessary to show their achievement?  Furthermore, do I need the lower tiers to show when they are approaching the proficient level rather than just emerging?

My mind will continue to ponder these questions as I make standards based grading work within a traditional system.  What are your thoughts? Leave a comment and let the discussion continue!

Kids and success

In order to succeed, your desire for success should be greater than your fear of failure. -Bill Cosby

Inherently kids want to be successful.  They don’t show up to school thinking about how wonderful it will be to fail at school.  No matter how tough they are on the outside, they all show up wanting to be themselves, grow, and achieve.

This has been very apparent at school in the past few days.  My students are getting to a milestone in Spanish class – the first round of summative assessments.  This week, they will show me what they can do in the four skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing.  They have been working for weeks, and it is show time.  There are nerves, excitement, and a lot of apprehension.  For many of my students, this is their first time taking an summative assessment in Spanish, and for all of my kids this is their first time taking one from me.  Little do they know just how prepared they are.  We have been working very diligently.  The students have been practicing all four skills, and they have been given tools to practice additionally at home.  Yet any time you take a risk and try something new, there is a possibility of failure.

I must be realistic.  Even though I feel that these kids are well prepared to assess, some will fail.  Some will fall below the line of proficiency.  Some will do it out of nerves (the wonderful test brain freeze, anyone?), some will not have done enough practice.  But standards based learning and grading will save the day.  It will swoop in to help these students find their way to proficiency.  More practice will take place, formative feedback will be given, and they will reassess.  Why? Because it is important that they learn it, not when they learn it.

Some of my students are arriving at the point of retakes and are finding success.  The smiles that light up their faces when they know they improved is one of my favorite parts of teaching.  They appreciate a second chance, and are ready to move on and learn more language.  Success breeds more success, and that is what I want to spread in my classroom.

Be a champion for your students.  Demand that they learn, show them how to get up after they fall down, and lead them to success.  We will create a class of students who are excited about learning, and who know how to seek and find knowledge.

Moving toward September

As I work through my third week of school, I finally feel like things are settling down a bit.  From the whirlwind first three days, to the introduction of genius hour, and time spent getting to know my kids, we are ready to get into a bit of a routine.  This week, I am introducing my learning contract for our first thematic unit.  I enjoy giving my kids a contract for each theme to allow them to drive their learning experience, find good practice and resources, and gain essential feedback prior to our summative assessments.

I love to see the student responses once I show them that the ownership is theirs.  Fear and anxiety always appear – concerned that they won’t make the right decisions about practice or pacing.  I remind them that this is my role.  I will help them when they feel stuck, guide them when they feel lost, encourage redos and retakes whenever necessary, and further them on the road to autonomy in their learning.  That is our job in high school, is it not?  Before we send our kids on to colleges, universities, the military, trade school, or the workforce, don’t we want to make sure they know how to learn on their own?

The first theme/contract is always a precarious one.  I need to give them autonomy and control while showing them all the resources, practice, and feedback available.  What I usually end up doing is meeting with small groups of kids to offer suggestions and give some feedback not only about their Spanish, but also their decisions on practice and assessment.  I talk to them about practicing until they feel ready for an assessment, and remind them they should be retaken until they reach the level of proficient or distinguished.

I also want to make sure that I infuse some incredible learning experiences for my kids this year.  Experiences that we share together no matter where each individual student is on their journey.  This is something I struggle with as I need to let my kids grow, improve, and learn at their own pace, yet want collective experiences as well.  I do have deadlines for my assessments each theme (although they can retake after the deadline to improve their mastery) so I am thinking I could capitalize on the days following those deadlines to create some unique adventures where we apply what we have learned.  Stay tuned for those, creative ideas take time to develop!

Here’s to a routine, but holding a few tricks up my sleeve to keep them on their toes!

Why standards based grading?

Standards based grading is something that has transformed my classroom into a true learning environment. Points have disappeared, as well as grades on formative assessment.  We simply learn, practice, apply, connect, assess, rework, revise, and reassess.

This may sound wonderful, and it is a huge improvement over what I had previously done with grading, but let me be clear…this was not an easy road!

But despite the challenges of writing standards, developing scales, working with (and at times against) our computerized gradebook program there was this excitement.  I felt that this new system would be a game changer for my students, and I was right.

No longer did my students and I discuss points, extra credit, homework, or the value of assignments.  The conversations were centered about learning – where they were in the process, what our goals were, and how to achieve those goals.  We replaced percentages, numbers, and letters with meaningful feedback for growth.

Sometimes my students struggled with the new system, having spent their elementary school years with a traditional grading program.  In the beginning of the year there were a lot of questions and some push back.  But when we got to the end of the year, I read my students reflections and talked with them during the last weeks of school.  Things had changed!  They enjoyed a year without the high stakes of grades infiltrating every assignment and assessment.  They sought learning over grades, with the assurance that once you achieve the former, the latter will follow.

Why standards based grading?  I believe it is imperative for the future of our children.  It teaches them perseverance, responsibility, and to focus on learning.  We are in this business to create lifelong learners, right?  Then the time is now, we cannot wait.  Our students deserve more than just a letter or a number.

My journey of change

You must be the change you wish to see in the world. – Mahatma Gandhi
When I started teaching, I was taught that you do a bell ringer, check in homework, take attendance, go over the homework, teach the lesson via a lecture, do a whole class guided practice, and then assign homework for the next day. Repeat 170ish times (to account for exams and such) and that equalled successful teaching.  This way all students stayed in their seats (in nice clean rows of course), kept quiet, stayed at the exact right point in the curriculum (which was basically prescribed per day), etc.  The textbook dictated the curriculum, so that we could all teach the exact same vocabulary and grammatical constructions and turn out little Spanish language robots.
Robots for so many reasons.  I didn’t know who these kids were.  I never fully found out, either.  I knew little about their previous experiences.  I didn’t know much about what they were involved with at school or outside of those walls.  I didn’t know them as learners.  And quite frankly, I was never taught or shown that this was important information whatsoever.  It was safe…much safer than getting to know those 150 kids who graced my presence.  Much safer than discovering the hardships that so many of them bring to school each day.  Much safer than knowing how my kids were truly gifted and when they needed more from me as their instructor.  Robots because the curriculum was predetermined and I never challenged it.  Everything was set, easy (although beginning teaching is never really easy), and safe.  
I did this and received good, even great evaluations of my teaching.  Things were going swimmingly!  Or so I thought…
About 5 years ago, my teaching world was turned upside down.  I had been feeling restless lately, why?  I was a tenured teacher, doing what I was supposed to be doing, following all the preset plans and assessments, and getting good results on them.  I had been evaluated time and time again with the same stellar results.  What could be wrong?
I felt like there was a huge hole in my teaching.  There were so many reasons that I chose teaching as my profession, but what were they again?  Oh yeah, I wanted kids to become lifelong learners.  I wanted kids to go out and be productive citizens.  I wanted the kids that moved on to post secondary education to be prepared and succeed in their endeavors.  Was I doing any of this anymore?  Was presenting the prescribed teacher centered lessons on the right day and keeping my kids in strict seating assignments teaching them anything about the real world or encouraging sustained lifelong learning?  Nope.  I was missing it in a big way.  It was my midlife teaching crisis, time for a change.
Luckily for me, I had an administrator in my district that was always looking for what we could be doing better, a true instructional leader.  He gave me the opportunity of my educational lifetime, even if I didn’t recognize it at the moment.
I am not going to say that the workshop I attended was so mind blowing or wonderful, it was good.  What was life changing was the fact that it challenged the way I was doing things, the way that had been previously celebrated and promoted.  It made me think.  It was a spark in my teaching world.
I was challenged to get to know my students on all levels.  To plan my lessons for them instead of the curriculum pacing guides and quarterly assessments.  To RESPECT them.  That was my biggest revelation.  Over the first few years of my teaching career I had unknowingly disrespected my students.  I had disrespected their individuality, their interests, their backgrounds, and most importantly their ability to contribute to my classroom.
From that point on, I vowed to make changes in my teaching.  I knew it would be difficult, chaotic, and that I would make many mistakes along the way.  However, I also knew that my students deserved better.  Here began my adventures into differentiated instruction, formative and summative assessments, a student centered classroom, standards based learning and grading, and technology integration.  It has been a crazy ride so far, but if I could go back I wouldn’t change a thing…well, I wouldn’t change much.
It has been (thus far) a journey of extreme highs and lows, of success and failure, of support and collaboration along with distrust and solitude.  I have taken this journey with my students, their parents, my administration, my colleagues, and even my family at home.  But to this day it has been worth it, and I will continue to look for new, better ways to reach my students.  I will be the lead learner in my classroom, constantly growing with my students.