Dealing with the fear of being a boring teacher.

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In Soviet Russia, Standards-Based Grading Grades You!

I’m lucky to be a part of a study group of my fellow teachers that is discussing assessment for learning. That pretty much boils down to the intelligent use of formative assessment and Standards-Based Grading. I put together a mock assessment for the study group to get a handle on where they are with some key SBG-related ideas:

SBG Sample

The situation described therein assumes that you’re on the cusp of switching to SBG, but that your gradebook and classroom behavior haven’t quite made the leap, which is the status of the majority of the study group’s members.

I really can’t stress how awesome it is to have a time scheduled each weak to talk professionally with my colleagues. I knew they were good, but I had no idea how truly invested they are in the students; it’s inspiring.

If you want to see larger changes in your building, I would sincerely suggest scheduling a time each week or month dedicated to talking about something you’re all interested in (Assessment, Bullying, Curriculum, etc…). You could even use moodle, facebook, or whatever digital medium, if congregating is tough. A really easy model is simply to shoot everyone a relevant article, and then start the discussion with it when the time comes. We generally go 20 minutes over time, and it’s great! Here’s some more info from M. Townsley.

Did you take the sample SBG quiz, yet? Kind of hard isn’t it? Make whatever assumptions you need to in order to flesh out your answers. What I wanted was to model how an assessment can be short and sweet and yet hit mutiple clear answers without being linear. Each question really hits at more than one standard. Here’s the mock gradebook entries I made.

Sample Gradebook

Notice the switch. A normal gradebook would have had one entry, “SBG Concepts Quiz.” (an oxymoron to be sure) This gradebook has three, and they are the specific things that I want the students (you) to know whether you know or not. How do you think you did? Each question asks you to respond with a lot of different information, which, when playing the teacher’s role is great to know; however, in the end, these are the three things I (assessor) really care about the student (assessee, tee hee) knowing. (See Standard 3, which is like a meta-meta standard, or something.)

Also, if any one standard shows glaring student misconception, this becomes the clear choice for class-wide remediation (formative behavior). If students have randomly distributed proficiencies, at least they clearly know what to study for the next go round of assessments, which can erase any historically poor performance.

Here’s my quick and dirty treatment of the standards:

  1. Homework is practice. It should never receive a grade in a gradebook. It can be checked, reworked, poured over, or otherwise looked at, but in the end it is not a grade. Students should feel comfortable making mistakes and asking you for help to fix them on homework. Also, for those of you who feel that students won’t do it if it’s not worth a grade: Maybe they don’t need to in order to “get it” (that’s ok, as long as you get over it). Second, is your class challenging enough that doing homework should seem necessary at some volume for most children? (I hope so.)
  2. Standards Grades should be dynamic. Your gradebook should reflect the current status of a student’s abilities. Grades for standards should fluctuate based on assessments that you and the student have initiated. Student can much better self-assess this way, which, for me, is the holy grail of education. Also, a summative midterm and final become much more meaningful in this system.
  3. Entries in your gradebook should reflect content standards not assessment titles. Let the student know how well they are doing with common denominators and mixed fractions, because “Fraction Quiz 3″ is literally meaningless to them, despite it testing both of those standards.

Let me know what you think in the comments. I’ve been a little shy to introduce this in my study group, because it might be a little accusatory. I think I might just share it instead of giving it like a real quiz.

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14 thoughts on “In Soviet Russia, Standards-Based Grading Grades You!
  • Peter says:


    When you say that “anything can be an assessment, not just a quiz” can you please expand. what are some of the other assignments you allow to be counted towards a particular standard? I have some ideas about what they are but would be interested to see how you do it.

    Thanks for the great blog. As a first year teacher I am eager to improve my use of assessment and looking forward to implementing SBG next year.

  • John says:

    One point of clarification. I use a version of SBG similar to what Dan Meyer does—students need to show mastery (earning a 3/4) twice to earn a 4/4, while the highest score one can achieve on any particular question is 3/4.
    You mention that grades can go down under your system of reassessments—does this mean that you only count the most recent score in determining grades? i.e. if a student has a 10/10 on a concept, but later shows they don’t understand the same concept on a particular quiz (scoring 7/10), you reduce the grade to a 7/10?

  • Maddy says:

    I have A LOT of students who are way behind (some because they were behind before we started and others because of absences or whatever). How does that work? Does there ever come a time when nearly every student in your class is at a different level?
    My concern may be irrelevant everywhere but here, but I have a lot of students who don’t know their multiplication tables and can’t simplify a fraction in 9th, 10th, or 11th grade.
    For many of my classes, I wonder what would happen if we just never progressed past the first few objectives.
    I do allow students to re-take tests and replace the old grade. I do grade homework because I want them to see that they got 80% or whatever correct, but I don’t put a failing grade in my gradebook if they tried the problems.

  • Matt E says:

    I’m also having a hard time imagining how the students find out “how they did” on an assessment. If it was written work, presumably it would be handed back to them, with comments & whatnot written on it. Do they then look online somewhere to see their updated “grades” on the standards? If it’s more of an individual oral assessment, do you tell them right then and there whether they raised their score on whatever standard they were hoping to improve?

    So many questions, I know… but I’m just trying to improve my scores on your standards!

    • Shawn says:

      Matt E:

      The feedback portion is crucial, you are correct. My school uses a system called PowerSchool that lists every teacher’s gradebook online, and the students have accounts where they can see everything. I expect them to check this for the purposes of self-assessment. If you don’t have an online system you’ll need to run new “grade” sheets as often as you can stand it.

      When a student initiates reassessment instead of me, I generally tell them at the end exactly how it has changed their score on that standard (and then overall grade). I’m a lot less likely to lower a grade when a student has broached the subject (so as not to punish them for coming in), but when I initiate the reassessment, it’s no holds barred.

      A couple of other things that I will be adding to my class, and to this blog, are methods for having students prove that they’ve actually worked on an idea, and making sure they they can explain how their new understanding differs from their previous answer. This applies a lot to math where processes can be memorized without actually understanding them.


  • Elissa says:

    Another question I have…say Suzy gets a 3/10 on adding fractions. Will she keep seeing this concept on future assessments or is it her responsibility to prove to you that she knows more than a 3/10?

    • Shawn says:


      It lies in both your hands and hers. This depends on the age of the student, with high schoolers have the most flexible schedules, and elementary students having the least. You can work in pointed opportunities however often you would like to reassess a concept. (I hit about 2 new standards and 1 old standard per week on a quiz) These old standards keep returning in different ways. Your class is structured such that fractions keep reappearing. If suzy gets better during an activities, how is that not just as good as doing it on a quiz? Change her grade. Elementary teachers are the best SBG people out there. They’re always watching for improvement in multiple ways.


  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rob McEntarffer. Rob McEntarffer said: Another great summary of imp. issues in standards based grading by Cornally. Includes a quiz! [...]

  • Matt E says:

    Since I’ve been reading your blog (and those of other SBG proponents) I’ve been thinking about how I’d implement it in my courses. One thing that is not clear is how specific each standard should be. For example, in a Geometry course, there’s “Understands properties of parallelograms,” and then there’s “Knows that the diagonals of a parallelogram bisect each other.” There are more extreme examples, but it’s early. So how specific do/should the standards get? I personally feel like I’d rather err on the side of having too many/too specific standards.

    • Shawn says:

      Matt E:

      That’s a fantastic question, and thanks for the comment. The specificity of of standards is up to the individual teacher and the atmosphere of the class. I generally don’t follow the lofty general standards written in my district’s curriculum guide. Mine are a bit more specific, like:

      Student understandings the difference between kinetic and static friction – conceptually
      Student understands the use of kinetic and static friction – mathematically

      I then write problems or design activities based on getting at these moderately specific ideas. I just pick the most important ideas from each larger topic. So, if you think that knowing about parallelogram bisectors is important and fundamental enough, then it is your standard. If parallelograms aren’t the most important part of your course, then you could lump all parallelogram standards into a few more general ones like:

      Student can identify a parallelogram
      Student can use the properties of a parallelogram (this might include things about bisecting or area…)

      These are intentionally mildly vague so that you can wrap different assessments into under one standard. More standards specific standards are for more important concepts, because you want kids to have a finer understanding.


  • JimP says:

    When you say fluctuate do you mean they go up and down? Do students understand that? Did you communicate that with parents somehow? Or alternately do grade just start low and go higher? How low are you willing to start?

    • Shawn says:


      These are the most fundamental questions for SBG. Yes, grades go up and down all year. (Mostly up) It requires a lot of upfront reconditioning. Students have to know that you are throwing away the summative-obsessed model and adopting this new one that reports out current learning and rewards them for remediation. My syllabus details how this system works, and I leave it to those parents who will care to read it (This is our school’s global policy, you might have to do something different, of course).

      As far as gradebook administration goes, my gradebook starts off empty, and I add standards as we cover them. I make it fairly clear what the standards will be and how what we’ve done in class relates to them. This works pretty well. When the first quiz goes out, I then grade it on a 10-point scale and put that in the gradebook. I don’t have any fear of giving “failing” grades, because it’s clear to me and the students that a 5 or 6 means that there’s work to be done to increase understanding rather than being damned to having a 5/10 for the rest of the semester. The answer is, give the student the score that reflects their current level of understanding. It’s too bad it that’s a 5/10, they can always work on that (and actually have their grade indicate that!) Assessment can be anything not just a quiz. You can initiate reassessment of a skill, and so can the student. Generally, when a student initiates, it is for the better. When I choose to bring something back, it has generally positive effects, but some students will go down because they haven’t retained the information, which is super important for me to report in phyiscs.


  • Jason Buell says:

    I’ve got a group that meets once a month. The problem for me is that I’m the one that’s considered the leader of that group and am bringing them along. My problems are stuff they haven’t encountered yet so that’s why I end up commenting on all these Iowa math teacher blogs.

    There are 8 of us. I’m the only full blown SBGer but the rest are incorporating various strategies while they get the theory down.

    I’m big on the theory. I fear the day when/if my district tells us all to move to SBG and teachers just do the same thing they’ve always done but change 90% to 3 and 80% to 2 or whatever.

    They’ve felt the most comfortable/successful with breaking assignments/tests into separate learning goals (like your #3). A couple have started only leaving feedback, not grades/points, on returned assignments and have been really happy with the response from the students.

  • Jon Ingram says:

    Thank you for this, and for the site in general. I’m finding it particularly interesting to try to map your thoughts on grading to the UK context, where we don’t have pass/fail courses like ‘Algebra’ and ‘Calculus’, but just national tests at 16 and 18.

    How many grades would be in your gradebook at the end of a term?