Introduction (feel free to skip if you just want to learn about the grading system)My school has been talking a lot about grading practices lately to really make sure that we are grading based on content mastery (with maybe some percentage on organization, turning things in on time, etc). It was a common problem (that definitely appeared in my class) that a larger than necessary “chunk” of a students grade was based on organization and the ability to turn things in. Of course, both of these are important, but if a student fails physics is should be because they don’t know physics, not they can’t keep a binder straight. If an assignment isn’t turned in, that results in zero points (usually) even if the student understands the content. This takes a drastic toll on the students because getting a “0” on an assignment really pulls the whole grade down and can be hard to recover from. This system can be a trap that prevents student success in the first few weeks of a semester, before they realize how important assignments are.
My school had an open discussion about how to fix these problems, which was awesome. While I don’t have experience with how many open discussions other schools have, it seems like this practice is rare (I think I’m getting spoiled). It was really interesting to hear ideas from different departments about possibly having a content grade that is separate from a promptness grade, along with many other ideas. In all this grading discussion, I thought back about the idea of standards based grading, which I had read about, experienced in high school, and attended a workshop session on.
Standards Based Grading Explained
The basic idea is that students are assessed based on the curriculum standards. This should be true in normal systems, but often standards tend to blur and students are assessed on their percentage “correct” regardless of what standards are involved. A given question may ask you to multiply, divide, add vectors, solve a system of equations, know the definition of three different key terms, interpret a word problem, etc. In a normal system, you need to be able to do all of these to get the correct answer, and may get partial credit for getting some of them. Typically, a student doesn’t see which skills they got right. They simply see “7/10” or whatever grade they received.
Standards based grading looks at mastery of one particular standard. If we are assessing a student’s ability to multiply, we don’t care if they can’t add (obviously we care, but not as far as grading). The gradebook is just a list of standards, and students get to check them off once they have achieved mastery. Once a standard is mastered, that “check” doesn’t go away. Here, mastery is an A level understanding. Standards are assessed on quizzes and tests. All other work is practice to help achieve mastery on the quiz/test. Students work to master certain content, and standards that are not mastered are then focused on more and additional opportunities to master those standards are provided. In the end, a student’s grade follow the following formula:
Semester grade = 50 + 50*(# mastered/total #)
For those who don’t like formulas: If a student masters half of the standards, they receive a 75% in the class, which is a “C.”
My System with Differentiation
I built on this idea of standards based grading and added some of my own ideas to help students succeed. I broke my second semester content down into 7 units of 5 standards each. Since I have found that slowing down is necessary to avoid loosing everyone, I anticipate only being able to get through 6 of the 7 units with the quickest of students. In case my students rise above that pace, there is another unit waiting for them. In my system, students will stay within a unit until they master all 5 standards within that unit. This is a big change because it means some students will not access some of the units. I think this built in differentiation will help students achieve greater understanding of the content, while allowing the vanguard students to move on and not get bored.
At first, I worried that this might do some disservice to the students that don’t get to work with all content standards. After all, classes build on each other and if some students never learn some material, they may be doomed in future classes. To compensate for this, I designed my units into foundation level concepts, and advanced concepts. Students who master standards quickly will move from a foundation level to the advanced level of a single unit in that order (ie, heat 1 -> heat 2). Students who move more slowly will skip the advanced units and move straight through to the next foundation unit in a different content domain (ie, heat 1 -> waves 1). This allows students to access all domains of the physics standards and master them on a foundational level, even if they never get to attempt much of the advanced problems/topics. I believe this will be more beneficial down the road because they will have a strong foundation that other classes can build on. Also, I think having mastery of some material will help students see that they can learn and do well and master something if they keep working at it.
Overall, this is quite a paradigm shift. Students grades are based on percentage mastered, rather than percentage correct. It can be hard to see the difference when written out, but a “C” student now has an “A” level understanding of half the content, rather than a “C” level understanding of all of the content. They actually have to learn something, and master it, rather than just be pushed along with a weak understanding. Students are able to move at their pace and are not punished for having a pace that is different from what the teacher (somewhat arbitrarily) sets at the beginning of the semester/year. Quizzes and tests are not something to be feared, and could even be put off if a student knows that he/she is not ready, because they are just opportunities to move on to the next unit or assess what areas to focus on. Now, getting a “0” on a quiz, then working hard and getting a “100” the next week results in an “A”, rather than an “F.” That sounds fair to me.
There will be some difficulties. Students will work on different material, based on their pace. In a given classroom, there may be different activities going on. My overall plan, is to come up with many activities for each standards that draw on different learning styles. Students work through as many as they can in class. Paces may differ, but if a student finishes something, they get another assignment so that they are always working. Getting through more assignments (as long as they are done well, not rushed through) will tend to lead towards better performance on a quiz. Since classwork isn’t graded, there is no incentive to rush through and finish something, so students can work on one assignment in the whole period if they need to. Student’s not doing work will get after school detention and do work then. I am very optimistic about this policy and I think it will make it easier to get higher grades, without lowering the standards for content mastery. Students can’t get trapped in the beginning of the semester/year. As long as they have time, they can continue to work towards mastery and every standard checked off is one step closer to their desired grade.