SBG Framework

After a brief (well, 5 months) blog and twitter hiatus due to personal circumstances, my life is once again resuming some semblance of normalcy… just in time for school to start!  I’m now returning with some posts (and questions) about SBG in my classes this year.


What do these three years have in common?  For me, they represent the times that I have collectively been the most nervous, the most uncertain, and the most excited regarding the start of a new school year.  In 1998, fresh out of college, I started my teaching career.  In 2005 (a seven year itch, perhaps?) I adopted the Modeling Method of physics instruction.  And now, in 2012 (another 7 years, hmm….), I am about to embark on yet another fundamental shift in my teaching practices…. standards-based grading (SBG).

Standards-Based Grading
I spent the better part of the last school year thinking about the meaning of grades and how a standards-based grading system would help students to focus on actual learning rather than the accumulation of points.  I also spent a great deal of this time trying to develop a vision for how an SBG system could work in my classroom and in my school district.  After a lengthy and deep conversation with my principal in May, I got the go ahead to implement SBG.  Now, with less than two weeks one week before the start of school, it’s time to deliver.  The following post is as much for me to keep myself oriented and on track throughout the year as it is for anyone else who might be considering this approach.  I doubt that there’s anything really new here for SBG veterans, but I would welcome any feedback you might have.

Full Disclosure:  In typical teacher fashion, I have borrowed heavily from those who have gone before me (particularly the thoughts and practices of teachers like Frank Noschese, Kelly O’Shea, and Shawn Cornally).  For a more thorough description of SBG I recommend checking out their sites.

In researching SBG, I have come to realize that there are as many different ways to implement the process as there are teachers who do.  Everyone seems to create a system that will work for them within their classrooms and school districts, while still maintaining some of the guiding principles of SBG.

  • A focus on learning rather than the accumulation of points
  • Development of a growth mindset (effort creates ability, learning from mistakes, persistence)
  • A classroom atmosphere in which students are free to take risks and embrace challenges without fear of failure
  • Development of student metacognitive abilities (self-reflection and assessment)
  • Providing a summative grade which is reflective of a student’s true knowledge and abilities, regardless of when they achieved mastery of the knowledge and abilities

Learning Objectives (aka standards)
In SBG, there are no real points to add or subtract from a student’s grade and no final averaging of a student’s accumulation of points on things like homework, labs, quizzes/tests, and participation at the end of a grading period.  There is no extra credit, nor are their penalty points for late or missed work.  Instead, students are evaluated solely on the basis of their ability to demonstrate their understanding of the key learning objectives of the course.  Developing and refining these objectives was one of the first steps that I took on the SBG planning ladder.  Below are the final(?) versions of my objectives for the first few models of the school year.  In this case, I borrowed heavily from Kelly O’Shea and Frank Noschese but there are a few key differences.  I decided (perhaps to my downfall) that having one objective to deal with student understanding of position, velocity, and acceleration vs. time graphs, as well as motion maps, was just too much content to include in a single objective.  While I know that it may be difficult to assess these graphing objectives in isolation (and after the students have had some time to work with the graphs I probably will not want to) I have observed students who were perfectly capable of interpreting a position vs. time graph falter when it was time to interpret a velocity vs. time graph.  I wanted the opportunity to target my assessment and feedback, as well as their own remediation and practice on the key areas they were struggling with.  It might become a bit unwieldy when re-assessment time comes, but we’ll see how it pans out.  Another key difference is the separation of some of the objectives dealing with vectors into a broader general category as I don’t see these objectives as necessarily part of any one particular model.  You can also see that I decided to separate the objectives into two levels.  The core objectives (C-Level) are the basic physics understandings that I would expect my students to be able to demonstrate, while the advanced objectives (A-Level) require a somewhat deeper knowledge of physics and usually require the ability to understand the core objectives.

2012-2013 Physics I Objectives (Partial Listing)

Measuring a Student’s Level of Understanding
The next decision on the SBG planning ladder was exactly how I would evaluate a student’s level of understanding of each objective.  Some teachers choose to rate a student’s mastery on a numerical scale of 1-4 or 1-5, while others use words like basic, developing, proficient, and advanced, still others use a binary approach (either the student understands the objective or they don’t).  Since I wanted to distance myself and my students from points as much as possibly and avoid any possible confusion with a points-based system, I decided not to use a system involving numbers.  I also think that in the end, a student can either interpret a position vs. time graph or they can’t.  So I decided to use the following three designations:

M – Mastery
The student’s work clearly shows that they understand and know the objective and can explain the objective in detail.  Depending on the objective, this level of work could require the student to correctly and appropriately:
– Apply the relevant model
– Use multiple representations (pictures, diagrams, graphs, etc.)
– Show mathematical work
– Provide a detailed explanation with accurate and logical scientific reasoning

DM – Developing Mastery
The student’s work shows that they generally understand the objective, but still possess some degree of confusion regarding some component of the objective.  In other words, at least one of the components required for mastery are not present in their response.

NE – No Evidence
The student did not respond to the question or their response shows that they have no understanding of the objective.

Student responses on frequent short formative assessments throughout a model’s development (as well as a more involved assessment at the end of each model) will be evaluated on the basis of the above three descriptions.  Only the score on the most recent assessment (or re-assessment) counts.  In the end, only the objectives on which a student has demonstrated the Mastery level will be considered in the determination of their numerical grade.  Speaking of….

Determining a Numerical Grade
One of the issues created by the averaging of points in a traditional grading system is that a student’s poor understanding of a key topic can be masked by a higher level of understanding in another.  It all, well, averages out.  I felt that in order for a student to earn at least a C, they should be able to demonstrate at minimum a basic understanding of all the physical models we study.   This is why I separated the objectives.  Since the core C-level objectives represent what I consider to be the most basic and fundamental understandings a physics student should posses, a student must demonstrate mastery on each C-level objective in order to earn at least a 70%.  If a student fails to achieve mastery on each C-level objective (a regrettable circumstance I will work hard to avoid), their grade will be interpolated from 50-70% based on the percent of C-level objectives they have mastered.  For example, if no mastery has been shown on any C-level objective, the student will earn a grade of 50%, while mastery of half the C-level objectives will correspond to a 60%.

Assuming a student has shown mastery on all the C-level objectives, their grade will then be interpolated from 70-90% based on their mastery of the A-level objectives (i.e. mastering half the A-level objectives would correspond to an 80%, while mastery of all the A-level objectives would correspond to a 90%).  Uh, oh.  Why shouldn’t mastery of all the objectives earn the student a 100%?  This was something that I thought deeply about and struggled with for quite some time.  In the end, I was uncomfortable with the isolated conditions in which a student could demonstrate mastery of an objective.  In order to earn an A, I truly believe that the students need to show me they have the ability to synthesize and combine separate objectives, and to utilize multiple models and representations when confronting “messy” situations.

So how does a student earn a grade above a 90%?
Great question, and one I didn’t really have an answer to until recently.  I briefly toyed with the idea of some type of culminating project, or lab practical, or activity at the end of each grading period, but I just didn’t see a way to make it work.  The juniors in my classes have so much school related stress to begin with that I thought something along these lines would only exacerbate the problem and not really provide me with the information I needed anyhow.  At the end of a grading period, I want my students to be focused on mastering any lingering objectives without having the specter of some required project looming over their heads.  So, I once again decided to borrow/steal an idea from Kelly O’Shea and include goal-less problems on their assessments at the end of each grading period.  I used goal-less problems last year with some success and found that the really good problems allowed students to combine multiple models and representations together (exactly what I want them to demonstrate to earn above a 90%).  So, student performance on goal-less problems will translate into increasing their percentage grade above the 90% threshold.  Now, admittedly, I’m not quite sure how this translation will occur.  I think this will have to be something that is determined with some student input near the end of the first grading period and after I get a handle on how this entire process is working.

What about those grading periods?
Our school has 4 nine week grading periods, as well as a midterm and final exam.  At the end of the year, a student’s final percentage grade for a course is determined by the following weighted average calculation:
– 1st grading period    – 20%
– 2nd grading period   – 20%
– Midterm exam          –   8%
– 3rd grading period    – 20%
– 4th grading period    – 20%
– Final exam               – 12%

Yep, that means that I must be able to have an accurate percentage grade that counts at the end of each nine week grading period (I can’t easily go back and change prior grades).  This is another reason why I opted not to use a project for determining grades above 90%.  There just isn’t enough time between grades and I did not want students (and me) dealing with projects four times a year at nine week intervals.  It would all just be too much.  So, at the end of each nine weeks, students will need to take a final assessment on which they can demonstrate their mastery on all lingering objectives and goal-less problems.  I know that this will take away some valuable class time, but I have come to be at peace with this solution.  As it is, I still have questions regarding how I will handle the midterm and final exams, as well as how objectives should carry over from one grading period to another without diluting more recent objectives.  More things I’ll have to work out (and blog about) as the year progresses.

To be continued…
Well, if you’re still with me, I think that this is probably a good stopping point for this already too long post.  I still need to get my thoughts down in writing regarding some of the implementation aspects of SBG, particularly how I intend to handle homework, labs, the process by which students will assess and re-assess on objectives, and keeping track of it all.  But that will have to wait for future posts.  Until then, I welcome any questions, comments, or concerns you may have regarding the approach I have taken.  I know there are many of you who have gone before me with SBG and I look forward to any advice and guidance you can provide.