Getting Started with Standards Based Grading, part 1

When I started with standards based grading 3 years ago, the one thing that struck me the most about the process was how much work there was to do before school even started.  While I genuinely believe that it doesn’t take great changes for most teachers to implement a standards based program in their classrooms because they already do most of the things that are required, I do suspect that most teachers will need to put in some summer work in order to get started.  This work is best completed by a PLC (Professional Learning Community), but, as my experience shows, can also be an individual project.

In this post and the two that follow, I want to walk you through the basic steps of getting a standards based grading program up and running.  I hope to give you an overview of what it takes to get going and some tips at avoiding pitfalls in the process.  Because I have been working on my standards based grading platform for awhile now, I feel like I have some thoughts that can be helpful.  To this end, I have divided my thoughts into into three posts: before instruction, during instruction, and after instruction.

Before Instruction

The first step to beginning a standards based grading program is to understand what is exactly in the standards.  Even though every teacher on earth has read the standards and understands what the standards require of them, not as many have really dug into the standards through a process called “unpacking.”

A snippet of my unpacking work.

Unpacking the Standards

Unpacking the standards means teasing out each individual concept and skill that the core requires.  For each standard, write down all of the nouns (concepts) and all of the verbs (skills); reflect on what the standard is asking; and think about what activities might be appropriate to use to teach the standard.  This unpacking work allows the teacher to really understand what the core is asking and to break it down into its individual components.  Since many of the standards are long and contain several concepts and skills, it is important to break them down first to truly understand what needs to be taught in class.

While it might be easy to go to Google and search for unpacked standards in your content area, I believe that is a mistake.  The act of going through the standards and unpacking them has immense value that will be missed if you skip it in favor of using someone else’s work.  Spending time understanding and reflecting on the content has immense value to a teacher, and unpacking the standards is the best way to approach that reflection.

The next step in the process of standards based grading is to create a list of standards for your classroom, or a “guaranteed viable curriculum.”

My Current Guaranteed Viable Curriculum for Sophomore Honors English

Guaranteed Viable Curriculum

The way I approach writing a guaranteed viable curriculum for my class is to take my unpacked standards and decide what are the most important skills and concepts that students need to know before they leave my room in May.  I see this list as the non-negotiables and the key focus of student success in my classroom.  While it might be nice to say that the whole core is non-negotiable, the reality is that time constraints and the vast scope of the core make narrowing the focus to the most important standards a necessity.  This doesn’t mean that teachers ignore the parts of the core that aren’t in their GVC.  All it means is that every student will be proficient in the GVC standards, there will be many measures of that proficiency, and students will understand the importance of each and every one of those standards.

In his book, Classroom Assessment and Grading that Work, Robert Marzano explains the importance of narrowing the standards down to a manageable number:

Given that one of the main barriers to implementing standards is that they contain too much content, it would be counterproductive to identify too many measurement topics. I recommend no more than 20 measurement topics per subject, per grade level, and ideally about 15.

These measurement topics become the key ingredients to the standards based grading program in the classroom.  Because of this, I would also suggest that the standards be written in clear, easy-to-understand language that students can clearly discuss and feel comfortable with on the first day of school.

The final step of what to do before instruction is to define achievement levels.

Part of my master rubric for Sophomore Honors English

Define Achievement Levels

Defining achievement levels is a vitally important part of the process of standards based grading.  What it means is that the teacher decides what each level of mastery (Emerging, Approaching, Proficient, and Advanced) looks like for each one of the standards.  For most content areas, this will mean creating a master rubric for their GVC.  This rubric can then be used as the main scoring mechanism for each standard in the curriculum.

In order to create this rubric, a teacher needs to first decide what proficient looks like for each one of the standards.  For instance, when I wrote mine for standard R2 above about citing textual evidence, I had to examine what was really important for my students to be able to do in their writing when citing textual evidence.  I decided that they needed to be able to provide context for their evidence and to be able to explain how the evidence supported their argument.  These elements of the standard became the basis for my described levels of achievement.

After deciding on what proficient looks like, the teacher needs to adapt that explanation to the other levels of achievement.  Ask the following questions to help in that process:

  • What can a student do to show that they are beyond proficiency?  What evidence shows an advanced level of understanding?
  • What gap in understanding shows that a student is near proficiency? What does the student who is approaching mastery look like?
  • What does a very basic understanding look like?  What does the emerging student’s work look like?
  • What is the minimum level of acceptable work?  What must a student show to register on the rubric at all?

Once the master rubric is created, the teacher is ready to begin instruction using standards based grading.  On Wednesday, we will discuss what standards based grading looks like during instruction.

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