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.


11 thoughts on “SBG Framework

  1. Just to make sure I understand…
    If a student doesn’t attain mastery on all the core standards and ends up with (say) a 67, whatever that student has done on any goal-less problems will have no affect on their grade (similar to whatever he/she has done on advanced standards), which will remain a 67. However, if a student assesses at mastery level on all core standards and a little bit of the advanced standards and ends up with (say) a 74, then whatever the student does on the goal-less problems will be added to that for (say) a 77. Am I reading this correctly? I was uncertain as to whether a student had to have a 90 for the goal-less points to kick in.

    I’m not critiquing, just trying to get clarification.

    • In my experience, a student who hasn’t mastered all of the core objectives (which are mainly just drawing diagrams and don’t require any algebra skills at all), they won’t have been able to do anything meaningful on a goal-less problem (yet!). So the goal-less part is sort of a non-issue. The immediate issue is getting the kid to master the kinds of skills necessary to start doing some serious problem solving (that is, being able to consistently draw correct and useful diagrams).

    • magisterwarren, yes, you’ve pretty much summed up my thinking regarding the grade determination (and thanks to Kelly who chimed in with some experience in these matters!). Kelly seems to confirm my thinking that it would be pretty difficult for a student to show much for goal-less problems if they do not have a mastery of the basic skills of the course. I saw this last year too when I used goal-less problems, but still graded using points. My thinking at this point is that a student without the basic objectives mastered will really be using the assessment time to show mastery on any missing objectives and to try to pick up any advanced objectives that they can. For students who have mastered all of the basic objectives, but only some of the advanced, their work on goal-less problems could certainly be used to earn them an advanced objective that they might be missing. Could their work be used to raise their percentage grade from say an 86 to ??, I’ll be honest and say that at this time, maybe. I don’t want to state categorically up front that a goal-less problem for a student with missing advanced objectives couldn’t still help a student’s grade. If a student does some exceptional work on a goal-less problem, then that should be reflected in their final grade. Continuing with my honesty theme, your questions touched upon an area of my plan that I am rather uncertain about (translating the work on goal-less problems to a student’s grade). Being new to SBG, I really think I’m going to have to see how the whole process plays out throughout the first grading period. Kelly, I know that you devise a points system and cutoff with your goal-less problems (as described here Could you perhaps speak a bit more specifically about your process? Any advice you could offer based on your own experiences?

      • The final grade process is a little fuzzy, for sure. It is pretty clear-cut for grades that end up being below 85, just a tiny bit fuzzy for grades that end up being above 85 (because they were probably influenced by goal-less problems on the exam), and fairly fuzzy for grades that end up being > 90 (because they were definitely influenced by the open-ended part of the exam).

        I do the point thing (on exam goal-less problems) to help my own thinking, but it isn’t how I come up with the final grade. I don’t use that number to determine any part of their grade. Sometimes a great response to an exam question doesn’t earn as many points as a good response (usually because they ran out of time to do more, but were more creative and deep in the analysis that they did do).

        That’s probably not that helpful, but there’s a lot to say about how I come up with final grades. :/

  2. This post is awesome! And I’m not just saying that because I am such a huge fan of the ideas you’re using for your class. 😉

    Seriously, though, it’s not too long of a post. It is a careful, thorough description of your thought process about how you are going to assess your students this year. It shows how thoughtful and intentional you are being about this process, and I’m sure your students will be able to see the care you have put into giving them good, useful feedback (as well as creating a structure for them that will help them improve their understanding, their grade, and get the support/help they need along the way). I will eagerly read more of this kind of thinking! 🙂

    Do you have any outside-of-class way of helping with intervention for students who haven’t yet mastered core objectives at the end of a term? When we get within a couple of weeks of my having to put a number down on paper, I start putting the students who aren’t yet ready to be passing in “academic detention”. They go to a classroom in the afternoon instead of to sports, and I usually meet with them there (if they are ready to test—otherwise, I have them just go there to practice). It helps me “chase around” the kids who need chasing, and it helps me insure that every student ends up with a passing grade (a grade below 70 would be very atypical at my school).

    Here’s my first question, after reading this post—Do you plan to generally try to assess the objectives in isolation from each other? I was trying to infer that from something you said about splitting the kinematics graphing objectives.

    • Thanks for the encouragement and kind words! I’ve been looking at multiple different ways to implement SBG in my classroom for quite some time, but your approach with conjunctive based grading and the use of goal-less problems just seemed to resonate the most with me and seemed to be the best fit for my situation. In terms of intervention time, I am fortunate to teach in a smaller public school (we graduate between 80 and 100 students each year) and my first year physics classes rarely top a combined enrollment above 45. I intend to use this smallness to my advantage in terms of tracking down kids with missing core objectives. I can catch them in the morning during the homeroom time or we also have a half hour allocated at the end of the school day for students to stay after school to get extra help. Additionally, our schedule sometimes works to my advantage too. Physics is a seven period per week class, so on the three days a week students don’t have a lab period scheduled they sometimes have a study hall instead. This usually overlaps with my planning time or, as was the case last year, I was assigned study hall duty during this time so many of the students I monitored were my own. This was especially useful for remediation/make-up labs, etc. last year, so I can use that time as well. As the grading period nears the end, if I still have a few “holdouts,” I can see maybe dedicating a class period for students to work on any missing objectives (perhaps having groups of students working together that all need similar objectives, i.e. a CVPM group, or a CAPM group, or even a group that just wants to practice goal-less problems) that I could then monitor and provide some targeted assistance to. I could also see having the last few weekly assessments target objectives based on individual student (or teacher) choice. In the end, I’m not really sure just what strategies will be necessary, but these are some advance ideas I have that I can put in place as needed.

      In answer to your question regarding isolated objective assesments, in general, no. For most of the objectives, especially as the year progresses, I don’t see how I could separate them on assessments, especially if I intend to assess each one multiple times throughout a grading period. However, I may need to be open to the idea of strictly isolating a few core objectives if there are some students who are really struggling. In reference to the kinematic graphs, I elected to split the objectives for motion maps and position, velocity, and acceleration graphs. My students really seem to struggle with the graphs early on, and many of them end up having compartmentalized skills (i.e. they can interpret pos. vs. time, but struggle with motion maps or vel. vs. time (particularly area/displacement determinations even in CVPM). And since the kinematic graphs are some of the first things the students encounter, I wanted them to be able to see some success early on in the process, so a student can achieve a pos. vs. time objective, while still working on their understanding of vel. vs. time. So, early on, I can see just having an assessment question dealing with a position graph while a separate question assesses velocity graphs. This way both the student and I can really target specific weak points. Now, that being said, by the time the end of CVPM comes along, I would expect students to be able to translate from one representation to another. In that case, the assessment questions will not separate those objectives anymore. In fact, the more I think about it, I could see combining the individual graph objectives following the first nine week grading period. By that time, we are through CVPM, CAPM, BFPM, and some of UFPM, and students should be more fluent with the kinematic representations.

      I hope that helps to answer your question. I may find that having the separate graphing objectives, even early on, just doesn’t seem to work. I think that one thing I’ll need to stress to my students is that SBG is a new process for everyone, and if we see something that isn’t working, we can work together to change it with the knowledge that any changes are made in the interest of what is best for the students and their understanding of physics.

      • It sounds like we’re totally on the same page with respect to testing objectives (not in isolation except at the end of the term for students who need it). I’ve thought about collapsing objectives in the second semester, too, but it seemed like it would be adding in extra confusion. I don’t think it makes a huge difference whether to combine them or not (especially if they are core objectives since having them separate won’t skew the grade at all, anyway).

        I don’t think the split objectives won’t work, though you might end up finding them more annoying than they’re worth, or just not necessary for testing purposes. But, of course, you might also find them just right. 🙂

  3. Very thought provoking. I really like where you are heading with this and can’t wait to see the “next chapter” after the school year starts.

  4. I’d like to talk to you more about this. i’ve recently switched to SBG as well, and had hopes for Modeling Physics – but got caught up in the SBG. I’d like to know how things have gone for you, maybe we can swap some ideas? Contact me soon

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