Sunday, June 3, 2012

SBG In Practice

I have been reading a lot of the blogs lately and maybe it's because it's the time of year when grades are given out so naturally there is a lot of talk about tests, but there seems to be a lot of chatter about assessments and making sure kids are prepared to move on to the next course or (gasp) life itself.

Exhibit A: misscalcul8 describes her End-of Course (EOC) exams and the way her school uses them as a bar to see who moves on to the next course and who does not.

Exhibit B: John Scammell opines: "Raise Your Standards. Don’t Give Zeros. Expect More" and "School Isn't Like a Job."

And of course Shawn Cornally bangs his drum on the issue fairly often as well.

These along with my recent tangle with the school board, the subsequent fallout, two recent one-on-one conversations with individual members, our recent grading and reporting committee meeting, and me giving my own finals and dealing with kids still trying to demonstrate some level of competency for our trimester learning targets...all of this compels me to say a few words relating to Standards-Based Grading (SBG), how it should work, and how it relates to comprehensive finals.

The top question I get when I ask critical question of others' grading systems is this: "OK wiseguy, if you're so smart, how do YOU do it?"  So here's how we do it.  These are things we live by.

1. Learning targets must be clearly defined and manageable in number.
Way back when we started this process of defining learning targets, we had 30+ per trimester.  That's around 100 per year!  Absolutely unmanageable for the teacher and barely manageable for the student.  We spent a good deal of time this year combining, condensing, and cutting learning targets to make our teaching and assessing more efficient.  What we came up with was a list of learning targets (LT's - about 10-12 per trimester) with embedded skills that relate to the LT.  Here's an example of what we did for trimester 3. The amount of testing we are doing has dropped dramatically and we still feel that we are getting an accurate measure of student learning.

2. A student must meet a basic learning goal for EVERY learning target.
The basic learning goal generally simply asks the question, "Do you understand the concept at the most basic level?"  If a student does not demonstrate basic understanding, they need to retest until they can demonstrate some basic understanding.  At no time will a student be allowed to pass the course without demonstrating that basic understanding for every single learning target.  Students struggling to meet a basic learning goal are funneled into special intervention time for extra help.

3. Use a "BUILD" approach, not a "SNAPSHOT" approach.
Traditional tests/assessment systems take a Polaroid of what a student knows at a moment in time.  A good SBG system should encourage an ongoing development of skills and continual learning throughout (even beyond?) a course.  We scaffold a student up from the basic learning target to the advanced learning target.  We have three levels: C (basic LT), B (LT), and A (advanced LT), and students must work their way up.  There are no D's.  We have multiple versions of each test and students have multiple opportunities to demonstrate understanding at each level.  [For example, here are some of our tests for using scale drawing: C Level / B Level / A Level.]  We have "test-up" time built into the schedule.

4. The final test is deemphasized, but still important.
Because all students have demonstrated learning for each LT along the way, it isn't exactly "mission critical" that we assess them again at the end.  Yet, retention is important and should be measured.  This final test score causes a shift upward or downward of 1/3 of a grade if someone does considerably better or worse than they have all trimester.  This is certainly not the only way to do it, and I really believe there is more thinking to be done on this issue.

There are definitely other pieces to this: I consider a student tracking sheet critical, and how to deal with homework is a whole other conversation (although I will say it's really important that HW be used as a vehicle for feedback of some sort).  There should be an "opportunity cost" (remedial practice) after failing a test and attempting to pass again.  And good parent communication is super-important too.

Current ideas to make it even better: measure the advanced learning goal (A Level) in a format other than a test and use computer testing to generate an unlimited amount of retests for the basic learning goals.

To me, what we have represents something that is very close to what we are aiming for.

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