Getting Started with Standards Based Grading, part 2

Yesterday, I wrote about the steps for setting up standards based grading in the classroom before giving instruction.  Today, I want to look at how to take the knowledge gained from unpacking the standards, writing a guaranteed viable curriculum, and defining performance levels can be used during our daily instruction time.

When I started with standards based grading, one realization that I had during instruction was how much more focused on the standards and learning targets my lessons became.  I found it so easy to focus on the standard and what exactly I wanted students to do with that standard.  I love the focus that comes from the standards based model.

A Word from Ms. Frizzle

Ms. Frizzle

On the hit show The Magic School Bus, Ms. Frizzle says on more than one occasion,

Take chances! Make mistakes! Get messy!

This is fantastic advice to teachers of all stripes, but especially those who are entering the realm of standards based grading.  The standards based grading classroom seeks to be a place of optimal learning, which requires that students feel safe and comfortable taking chances and messing up.  In order to foster that kind of trust, it is important that the teacher cultivates relationships with students and delivers effective, immediate, and honest feedback in non-threatening, constructive ways.  The key to standards based grading in the classroom lies in creating the culture of trust and mutual respect.

Build and Deliver Instruction

When approaching standards based grading from an instructional level, consider the following bits of advice:

  • Focus on learning experiences:  One thing that has changed in my room with the advent of standards based grading is that I seldom have students complete traditional assignments.  I focus more on learning experiences for students, which means they are working together, solving problems, discussing ideas, and thinking critically.  Not only does this increase engagement exponentially, but it also makes it easier to explain to students why every activity isn’t completed for a score.  The focus of class activities is to learn material, concepts, and skills, not just to earn a grade.
  • Chunk and scaffold:  Teachers do this anyway, but it’s always a good reminder to break up learning into bite-sized bits.
  • Your rubric is your friend: When preparing to teach concepts, it is important to remember that students will be assessed using the rubric that you have already created.  Be sure to use it liberally in your instruction.  Break down the descriptions of achievement in the rubric for your students, and make sure that they understand the vocabulary.
  • Offer lots of opportunities to try and fail before giving an assessment: This is a key component of standards based grading.  Students should have lots of opportunities to learn, make mistakes, relearn, and reassess.  As teachers, we need to consciously build that into our instruction, or it will get lost in the day-to-day chaos of the classroom.
  • Change the “Game of School” mentality: Students become adept at manipulating their grades by lobbying for points, proposing interesting and irrelevant extra credit (“I’ll clean your classroom, Mr. Winget”), and selectively skipping assignments when they won’t negatively affect their grades too much.  I call this “the game of school,” and the standards based teacher will have to work daily to change this mentality.  It is a cultural battle that we must win in order to be successful.

Assess Understanding

Probably the most important part of the standards based grading classroom is assessment.  How do we know that students are proficient at the standards we are trying to teach them?  I believe that teachers need to write their own assessments because assessments need to be intimately tied to classroom instruction.  When I write assessments, I create “assignment sheets” for students that clearly and explicitly explain what the student is supposed to do and what constitutes an acceptable level of completion.  Here is a link to my template.  Each section helps the student understand what is expected.

I approach assessment in the same way as I do building instruction: create learning experiences.  Because of this, the vast majority of my assessments are performance based or project based.  I believe that this is the best way to get authentic data about students’ abilities.  While other types of assessments have their place, I believe that projects give the best data as summative assessment.

Make Instructional Decisions Based on Assessment Results

The best assessments will give the teacher a valuable understanding of student learning.  The best teachers will take that understanding and make changes to instruction in order to best serve the students.  Standards based grading makes teachers be more flexible and more amenable to the instructional needs of their students.  If we focus on what they need, not a schedule or a pacing guide or a “we need to get this done this week” attitude, we will be able to make clear decisions about instruction and use the data that we collect to improve the lives and learning of our students.

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