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.

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!

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.

feedback…the ultimate learning tool

“Students can learn without grades, but cannot learn without feedback.” – Rick Wormeli

Over this past school year, I started to uncover the value of feedback over grades.  The truth is, feedback is everywhere in our lives if we would just look around. It is essential for our growth and improvement, but too many times it is missing or at the very best lacking in our classrooms.

There are many ways for everyone in the learning community to garner feedback. Teachers provide it for students and vice-versa.  Students give feedback to each other, and there is much to be said for teaching kids how to self evaluate and improve their learning on their own.

The book I am currently reading, Role Reversal by Mark Barnes, has wonderful information and insight on this topic.  I find myself agreeing with so much of what he says about feedback and grading.  Grades are competitive in nature, but feedback elicits growth.  Isn’t that what we are looking for?  Student growth and learning must be at the heart of what we do.  Barnes recommends using the SE2R method which is as follows:

Summarize and Explain what the student has done according to the guidelines or standards
Redirect the student to previous learning, additional information, or further practice
Resubmit tell the student how to resubmit the work for further evaluation and feedback
Feedback should fuel the fire to learn, unlike grades which in my opinion most times stop the process cold.  Once there is a letter or number on the paper, a student figures that the learning about the concept has stopped, no matter how high or low the grade.
Improving feedback in my classroom is a goal of mine for next year. I incorporate a standards based grading system in my classroom that eliminates the grading of formative assessments.  Rather than a grade, students are simply given feedback to improve.   I gave many less grades last year and my students definitely benefited from it.  I would like to use the SE2R method from the book to improve my skills and in turn be a better model for my students!  Hopefully they will start to give better feedback to me, each other, and to themselves.
Learn On!