Standards-Based Grading in a Points-Based World

My last post (Bundled Objectives, etc) had a comment from Joe Morin this morning with great questions and ideas about how to create an SBG system when you are required to average quarters and exams. I replied to his comment (see below), but I am also hoping to get Joe some more responses with other ideas, so I am pasting his comment in here, too.

Hi Kelly,

Our school has a policy where semester grades are calculated as 40% for each of the two quarters and 20% for the final exam. So I need to have quarterly grades. (I do have some flexibility in changing some of the quarterly grades). I am struggling with my desire to implement SBG in a way that provides consistent feedback to students and parents on students’ progress. I feel that I’m stuck with a “points” system to report progress.

I tried using the two dimensional conjunctive style grading (that you described in an earlier blog) in the CVPM and CAPM units this year, but ran into trouble keeping track of which students were mastering which objectives but I muddled through the replacement testing.

In the later units I gave more focused quizzes. Sort of like targeting one quiz at level A objectives for that unit, and targeting the next quiz at the level B objectives. I can make the level A quizzes worth more points, which can have the effect of making it necessary for students to master the level A objectives. In a way this is like bundling the objectives by level. I’d like you to comment on this, please.

Also, if a student begin to demonstrate B level mastery of, say, the CAP during the UBFM unit I am thinking about having that student take a CAP B level replacement quiz. I’d like your comments on this also.

To qualify for taking a replacement quiz, students had to make corrections to the original quiz, get help from someone to gain understanding or the material, and do a practice worksheet to demonstrate that understanding.

I still give the modeling worksheets as homework, but we also do quite a few of them in class. If homework is more than a week late, it expires and the student is required to do a replacement worksheet.

I want to improve upon what I did this year, and I’d like your comments (and comments from others also).

Thank you


My response

When you were describing the idea of having A quizzes vs B quizzes (with A quizzes being more valuable), I was thinking about how to make students think of points more in the way that they think of objectives. Here’s the first idea I have (this is centered around using a system that mirrors my conjunctive-style grading, so please imagine it with other tweaks that make it the way you’d want it to be):

  • Figure out how many A objectives are in the first quarter. Divide 70 by the number of A objectives for that quarter. That is the number of points that each A objective is worth during that quarter (may vary by quarter). Each A-level quiz is worth a number of points equal to (the number of A objectives in that bundle) * (the value of each A objective for that quarter).
  • Do the same thing with B objectives in the first quarter, but this time divide 20 by the number of Bs for the quarter. That is the number of points each B objective is worth that quarter.
  • Create a tree structure where each bundle is dependent on bundles beneath it. So the B-level quiz for that model would be above the A-level quiz for the same model. The B-quiz for projectile motion would be above the B-quizzes for CVPM and CAPM. The central force quizzes would be above the UBFPM quizzes (both A- and B-level). Etc etc. Actually, even cooler might be to have your students decide on how to construct the tree as it goes along, so that you are building a concept-mapping activity right into the assessment structure and giving the students more control and ownership in the process. It would probably be helpful to give them an example tree of skills at the start of the year from some other arena that they would be able to understand by analogy (even if they don’t create the physics tree themselves).
    This wasn’t included in my original comment, but I drew up the quick beginnings of an example physics tree to make the rest of this post a bit more visual. Here you go—
  • You need a way of keeping track of each student’s score specifically in each part of the tree structure (I think this could be accomplished without too much trouble in either AG or BH). So. Here’s the conjunctive-SBG part snuck into points clothing (bear with me, this will take a few bullet points of setting up): In order to be eligible for any particular quiz, they must have mastered all of the bundles on which it depends (per the tree). So to take a CVPM B-level quiz, they must have current mastery on the CVPM A-level quiz. To take a PMPM quiz, they must have current mastery on the CAPM B-level quiz (and the CAPM/CVPM A-levels, and maybe others, depending on the specifics of your tree).
  • B quizzes would necessarily involve A objectives. It might be possible to show some holes in A-level understandings on a B quiz. That should affect the score for the A bundle, since having the score go up and down throughout the process of gaining deep mastery is a pretty essential part of SBG. With the point system, that can be a little rough (especially if parents are seeing grades constantly reported). Here’s the idea, though—if a student later regresses on a previously mastered A objective, it changes the score for that A-level bundle, but it just freezes the scores for all of the bundles dependent on that A-level one (that is, the other bundle scores still count as part of the grade, but cannot be improved yet). In order to test at any higher level in the tree in the future, the student must go back and regain a mastery-level score on that older A-bundle. Once they have, the other bundles are now unfrozen and can be tested on again. So more than just because of a higher point-worth (something that is sometimes too abstract or far-off-feeling to teenagers), the A-objectives (and even the earlier B-objectives, like solving kinematics problems) are very clearly essential. And lacking mastery on a core skill requires immediate attention and remediation.
  • It might be necessary to be a little more forgiving about what triggers tree-freezing when it comes to B-level bundles. It might be a certain number of Bs in the bundle that must be mastered to test at a higher level, or it might be that particular ones in the bundle must be mastered in order to advance. Solving problems with UBFPM should be a B-level, not an A-level objective (since it is about problem solving and not a conceptual skill or diagram). It still must be mastered in order to have a chance at solving problems with the central force model.
  • I’m leaving the final 10 points of the grade (how to get above a 90) up to what you do already (or would like to do for that piece). Capstone project? Goal-less problems? Etc. Or, if those don’t make sense for a particular class, maybe the Bs can get you all the way to 100?
  • Throughout the quarter, the grade could be constantly reported since the total number of points available that quarter is 100. It will take quite a while for the students to get a grade that doesn’t sound ridiculous (“I have a 13 in Physics right now!”), so it would keep a bit of the feel of the your-grade-does-not-exist (until I have to turn it in at the end of the semester) aspect that I really like in my own system.
  • Which maybe leads to another piece to consider—whether the grade should start at 0/100 or 50/100 at the start of a quarter. If it makes more sense to start at 50, then each A would be worth 20/(number of As) points each quarter.
  • The old objectives (from a previous quarter) would still be relevant in future quarters, so they may continue to be tested (and may required being tested if they result in freezing the higher parts of the tree). At the end of a new quarter, it might make sense to update the grade for a previous quarter. Same after the exam.
  • Even if you ultimately have to do some averaging of an exam and quarters, the day-to-day business of learning physics would probably be rather SBG-like with this type of system. Also, they’d be really, really ready to crush an exam since they’ve been required to keep testing on old skills until they internalize them.

Anyway, that’s just the first draft of an idea that I’ve had so far about how to make SBG live within such a constrained points system.

One other thing—I really like your requirement of getting help from someone before being allowed to take a new test. How do you check for that? I’m imagining that they must have another person (a classmate, someone from another section, an older student who has taken the class before, their teacher, another physics teacher, etc) sign off on their practice. That could be really neat.

Your response?

So what do you all think? Other ideas? Let’s hear it.

21 thoughts on “Standards-Based Grading in a Points-Based World

  1. You could make the hierarchy-o’-requirements happen in ActiveGrade with tags and a conjunctive grading policy, but we don’t have a tree visualization piece. Khan Academy has a pretty good version of this skills map, though – I wonder if you can plug in your own tree.

    I think it’d be really neat to hand out copies of the tree so that students could mark their own progress. At the end of the year, they could revise the tree for the next class – or even at the end of each unit. Then AG or BH (or even just your excel spreadsheet) could keep track for YOU, while the students keep track on their handouts. You can email parents a percentage every week – points earned by a student so far over points you expect them to have earned, for example – and it’s still clear to students what standards you’re after.

  2. I’m new to this. The students’ last day was Friday and I’m starting to plan what I want to do differently next year. (Geometry and/or Algebra 2). I know I want to do SOME sort of standards or concept based grading. Thanks for all you’ve written. My questions this morning before reading this this morning were on this very subject. I’m not in exactly the same situation as Joe, but I am definitely under pressure to have my grades in the school’s online gradebook. The percentages that we’re encouraged to use are somewhat similar: 20% final exam, 60% other assessments, 20% classwork/homework/participation etc. I’m trying to re-imagine what I’ve done previously within a new framework that stresses mastery.

    I really like the idea of planning ahead which standards/concepts will be assessed when and planning that out ahead and backing into the points. That’s very helpful. And I like the idea of the tree. That’s helpful for the debate that our team constantly has: do we want to assess them on little pieces so we know what they do and don’t know or do we want to assess them on larger, more complex things because ultimately, that’s what we want them to do. The way I understand what you’ve said, A is the former and B is the latter (comprised of specific previous A’s).

    The part that I think would be overwhelming to me, just venturing into this AND the hardest to justify to parents/students etc. would be to ‘take back’ credit for previous A’s. I’m thinking that’d be more overhead than I could bear the first year. Would it work to let them keep the credit for the A’s, but if they struggle with the B’s, then just recommend and request evidence that before they re-attempt B’s, they review on the A-level concepts to prepare to re-take the B?

    There will also be some assessments from our department and district. So I’m thinking that the standards/concept based scheme that I develop would need to make up not the entire 60%, I’m thinking that beyond the 20% final, I’ll have to play with the remaining percentages a bit.

    1. Hey, and welcome! 🙂

      Your description of A-vs-B objectives seems about right. As are the core conceptual tools that they need in order to solve problems. Bs are everything else, but generally tend to be about solving problems. My final 10% of the grade comes from the depth and creativity they show on open-ended questions on the exam.

      When it comes to “taking back” credit for the As, I know that it sounds just crazy and scary before venturing into SBG. For a lot of the year, a lot of the students grumble about it, too (and they all of course find it annoying for all of the year). When pressed, though, they realize how important it is (and their scores can go up and down on any objective in my class, As or Bs). If you find out that they haven’t completely mastered something and you don’t keep a record of that information, it is actually much less compassionate and much less helpful than if they can never “lose” objectives. Basically, when you know that they haven’t fully mastered a skill, but you don’t require them to keep working on that skill, you’re not sending them into the exam (or even into the next unit which might rely on that old skill) prepared. Well, actually, it’s worse. You’re sending them in thinking they are prepared (they have a mastery-level score, right?), but knowing that they aren’t. You can tell them to go back and practice, but when it comes down to it, only a really exceptionally mature student would do so (for a lot of reasons, including the massive amounts of homework being assigned to them and the sticky mindset issues with admitting to yourself that you don’t know something).

      I think the real discomfort comes from the unspoken idea the student (and possibly parent) has—that they won’t actually ever learn any physics (or algebra or geometry, etc). As the teacher, I completely believe (and I’m basically always right about this, except in extreme cases of unwillingness to try) that the student is going to get to full mastery of the skill (definitely with the core, diagram-drawing skills, but also with the problem-solving ones). I know that we are in the middle of the story and that there is a lot of time left, and I’m not worried about the kid getting all the way there. From the student perspective, they often don’t think they will ever learn anything (and maybe just feel like they got lucky when they get a mastery score on a particular skill), so if their score goes down, they do a quick calculation about the odds that they will luck out on the next test, and they despair. Happily, almost all of the students I’ve had that have used SBG have gotten past that (there are always a few holdouts) and are simply annoyed that they hadn’t truly mastered something they thought they had. Each year it is still going to take a lot of work to get the new crop of students to that point, though.

      Anyway, back to the original question about what you can do if you feel like you won’t win the battle of lowering scores on old skills. There are definitely a few alternatives that might feel more comfortable to parents and students. Here are my first few ideas that might work for you. Let me know what you think! 🙂

      • If you are following something like the tree system above, showing that you haven’t completely mastered something could just result in freezing the tree above the problem point without actually lowering the problem bundle’s score. It would be essentially the same process for the student as before, but their grade and progress is basically just frozen until they can fix the old skill and start moving forward. So it would be a requirement of re-demonstrating mastery without actually lowering their in-progress grade. It is a promise that you are always setting students up for success and will immediately help them remediate instead of ignoring any flaws or gaps in their understanding.
      • Another possibility, and I know some people do this regularly, is to only give feedback on initial assessments and require students to assess multiple times before recording a score. It’s not as good at fixing old issues that crop up unexpectedly down the line, but at least it has you taking several data points before committing to a measurement that you can’t easily change without push-back. Not having tried it, I imagine it would be a little tougher to keep track of the progress since you aren’t recording scores each time. Blue Harvest might be better for that than Active Grade, but I haven’t tried BH yet.
      • If you have to keep the online grade book up to date on a daily basis, this next one might not work, but another idea I like is having the kids take responsibility for putting together a portfolio that makes an argument for their mastery on each objective. This structure would be pretty far outside of the tree idea, but could be useful for making sure that there are multiple assessments of each skill, that they are critical of their own work (and making sure that what they are saving is exemplary), etc.

      Okay, that’s what I thought of right away. But I’ve also had great conversations with parents about the A objective requirement in my class and how it is a promise to my students that they will learn at least that minimum amount of physics. It is not in any way a trap to keep them from passing, but a tool to make sure that they are equipped for problem-solving. I expect every student to pass (pretty much a given at the school where I teach, though maybe not assumed in the same way at other schools), so the A objectives are a promise, not a threat.

  3. I like your first bullet point “freezing” idea. That would work, I think. And I don’t have to update the online gradebook daily, but on a ‘regular basis’. It’s accepted for it to be somewhere between every few days and each chapter/unit.

    I had thought I’d lump the As and Bs together in a gradebook category, but I’m thinking I’ll be VERY clear about As at the outset, but Bs will take some work, so it’ll be harder to back into them. I’m thinking that beyond the 20% final exam that’s pretty much dictated, maybe the A’s 50%, the B’s 20% (thinking that some will be ‘test’ type assessments and some will be more project-y), leaving 10% for Everything Else (I don’t think I can quit participation/notes/etc. count for something ‘cold turkey’.) This way I can open up all the A’s at the beginning of each chapter or grading period or semester all at once. But the B’s will be more as we get to them.

    BTW, I’m most likely going to be piloting Honors Geometry and the other teacher who will be as well teaches Physics, AP Physics and Geometry. I’m really hoping to collaborate with him on some good, meaty stuff and I think the AP model will serve these students well. Plus I’m hoping there will be some cross-over Physics infused into it. I’m super excited!

  4. I don’t think I necessarily like the “prerequisites” paradigm of A & B standards… Kelly, are you saying you think students would have to meet a certain limit for a given standard before they qualify to be retested on another? It seems like this de-emphasizes the idea that standards can be assessed for anything at any time. I like the idea of weighting some standards more than others, but these weights can be reflected in different point values.

    In planning my own SBG approach, I’ve been thinking less about retake opportunities for specific standards and trying to focus on the purpose of giving grades in the first place – providing students with the information they need to learn from their mistakes. SBG gives students more targeted feedback than a traditional grading system, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that students need specific “retake opportunities” in order to make use of this feedback. If multiple assessments of most standards are built into the curriculum as the year progresses, then students who respond to the feedback that’s given to them will improve their grade over time as they encounter certain standards again and again. Physics works is perfect for this approach, since most new concepts build on previous work!

    With regard to Joe’s question, it seems like you’d just need to assign point values to all the standards in the curriculum for the semester or year, perhaps weighting standards differently depending on their difficulty and significance to the course. Is it crucial to your admins that the “final exam” be worth exactly 20% of a grade? Would you be able to simply give a test that includes at least 20% of the standards for the curriculum? I imagine that your average final exam would include a significantly greater percentage than that!

    Joe (a different Joe!!)

    1. Hey Joe,

      You bring up some good points. Your insight about the exam covering only 20% of the material is an especially sharp one!

      –> Note added in at the end of writing the comment: Sorry this is so long. I got started and then just kept going and going. I guess your reply really make me have to think a lot about what I’m trying to do with SBG. Also, I’m definitely doing some mad procrastination on writing the exams for this week…!

      I don’t really like the prerequisite idea involved in the tree structure either. It was my first idea about how to retain the good effects and benefits of SBG while using points. I think that just creating standards and grading them with points is hardly any different from traditional grading. If you put a number grade on something that will be averaged with other grades (whether you get “retakes” or not), only exceptionally mature students will look at anything but the number. Few students would acknowledge written, non-numerical feedback just because they would be tested on the material again someday (look at students now preparing for final exams in traditionally-graded classes to see what I mean!).

      Also, I think I disagree with the purpose of grading. I think the purpose is to rank people, not to give feedback. As a method of giving feedback, a single number or letter is an astonishingly poor form of communication. In any outside-of-school situation where you are trying to learn a new skill for pleasure, interest, a job, etc, a grade would be ridiculous. Instead, you would essentially have a list (a real list, maybe, or an idea in your head, etc) of skills you want/need to learn, and your coach would give you feedback on those skills as you went along. If you later realized that you hadn’t completely mastered an earlier skill, you would need to go back and practice it more until you were satisfied that you could do it repeatably since other skills would likely depend on it. Etc, etc.

      In support of that, here’s a great course evaluation quote from this spring giving a concise description of the grading system we used this year: “The grading system doesn’t revolve around a grade. Students try to master objectives by taking quizzes and getting scored on a scale of 0-2 (2 showing mastery). The point of the class isn’t for students to consistently be trying to achieve a specific grade on a quiz but is focused on the depth of understanding physics from each student. The exam is the only time there will be a grade as students have the chance to show their understanding of the year.”

      I do definitely agree that multiple assessments on each skill are very necessary and should already be in place as regular parts of the class. I gave a quiz every week this year and very frequently included old material (sometimes even giving students a choice of quiz “flavors” with the differences being which selection of older material they wanted to test). I think it would be tough to do meaningful written assessments more frequently than that (unless you have significantly more class time). I just got my course evaluations back, and the students (who almost universally think SBG rocks) almost all urge next year’s students to take more advantage of extra testing opportunities. Many also write about regretting that they didn’t come in for extra tests more often, even those who did take pretty good advantage of it. They write that the extra tests are great for making sure they now understand the skills that tripped them up before, that they help with extra practice, etc. Here’s a quote from one: “yes [I took advantage of Sunday testing] even though I did not always get my objectives in these quizzes I ALWAYS walked away with a far better understanding of what needed to be done to pass each objective”

      At this point, based on my classes for the past two years and the feedback from those students, I think it is important to think about the more individualized (differentiated, if you will) ways that students will interact with the feedback system from the outset. Even though they will have multiple opportunities in class (and for some, especially for students with stronger math backgrounds, the in-class testing will probably be enough), each student needs different things to be able to move as far toward mastery as possible. There isn’t one right way that works for every kid.

      Also, a lot of students (at least at my school) come in with rather terrible ideas of what it means to study, to practice, or to learn. Here’s a money quote from the course evaluations this spring: “I learned this year through preparation for the extra tests as well of classes how helpful it is to practice instead of just read over the material–I didn’t totally buy into this concept originally but it definitely proved me wrong–I think about how we learned in physics when I’m in other classes now and think about actually trying a problem and learning from that mistake. I liked the way objectives worked and I think I was able to learn well from them with this structure.”

      And another: “The switch from just looking at problems to actually working on them on a blank sheet of paper had a big impact of my understanding of physics. I learned that physics, though it may be really confusing in the first couple of quizzes, will get better with continuous practice.”

      Some sparks from a student beginning to build an understanding of learning: “I had more oportunity to manage my own progress than I took full advantage of. However, simply knowing that it was my own initiative that would improve my grade made things much less stressful and just makes sense to me. It made class seem more personalized and less industrialized.”

      The much less common type of response: “I have managed to complete most all of the requirements for this class in class. So generally I just show up with a pencil.”

      Of course, I am thinking pretty specifically about the students at my school, and I know that the culture and expectations of teenagers is going to vary a lot depending on where you are, what year you are teaching physics, etc.

      Okay, I’d better stop now before I get even more carried away. Curious to know your thoughts!


  5. Have your school district get pinnacle. I can not only use sbg, I can even mix grade scales. I usually just do points for completion work ( Classwork and home work). I see what you have to do and I am not sure I would ever sbg if I had to come up with a system. With a mix able scale grade book, all the teachers have the same set up too. Good luck!

  6. What a great discussion! I have never done SBG before but am inspired to take the challenge next year so I went to my department chair and told here about to get her approval and ideas. Like many of you we have an online grading system that both the students and parents have access too so the idea of keeping two grade books just is not reasonable for me. Admin wants and parents expect the grade book to be updated on a regular basis.

    I really like the A&B standards idea and am going to modify Kelly’s system to meet the needs of our system. What I propose to do is to post the individual objects in the grade book and keep track of their individual assignments in a spreadsheet posting the 0-2 score in the grade book for the object. I can give the category a name and but not have it count toward their average. We also have the capability of putting the notes that appear so I’m going to post what the 0-2 means and how the grade is calculated. I will give each unit a summative grade. I will need more objects that Kelly’s limit of 5 for units but I am okay with that.

    Kelly considers mastery of each object to be a 90 and I really like that idea. I think what I probably do is have the other 10 points come from their knowledge model (a group of linked concept maps with linked resources) which will be their portfolio for the class and act to further demonstration of their understanding of the connected of concepts and cross-curricular aspect. See

    We need to give a final and it is worth 12% of the final grade so I cannot budge their but since we do physics at the senior level there is an incentive that if they receive a 90 or better they are exempt from the final. So that means that the objectives are worth 78% of your final grade, 10% is from knowledge model, and 12% is from your final if there is one.

    I would love to hear everyone’s comments.

  7. I started doing the “start at 48/100 & every objective is worth 4 points above that” this year, but I definitely need to get better at ‘freezing the tree’ when students show me that they don’t actually, fully understand the core standards. We have to report ‘official’ grades eight times per year (4 quarters, each with a progress report at the halfway mark and a report card at the end), plus students and parents have access to an online gradebook, so there has been some freaking out about the fact that everyone is ‘failing’ when we’ve only worked on 6 of 12 standards (3 core, 3 advanced) for a quarter and most students (suffering from procrastination) have only mastered 2 of the 3 core standards…

    I really like the tree model, btw…

  8. Hey Kelly, thanks for the long and thoughtful response!! Sorry if I’m making it easier for you to procrastinate during crunch time!!

    I definitely see your point that giving retakes on various flavors of standards can keep the short term goals for students manageable. The promise of a reassessment on some seemingly unrelated topic a few weeks down the road is much less tangible than a retake on Monday afternoon. I haven’t used SBG in my own class yet, but I’m hoping to find a happy medium between retakes and multiple assessments. I’m coming from a Physics First perspective, and priority is on developing skills. Do you think that you’d differentiate at all between skills-based standards and content-based standards? For example, “I can interpret the physical meaning of the slope of a graph” is going to show up again and again in different circumstances. I don’t think that a retake showing successful position-time graph interpretation is necessarily indicative of mastery of this skill. Wouldn’t I need to see a student interpret a graph they haven’t seen before? Hmm… this seems dicey. Hopefully, having feedback on interpretations of previous graphs would help develop this skill, but you’re definitely right that this long term view is pretty sophisticated. If our goal is to give students an incentive to do whatever they need to do to achieve mastery in a given skill or content area, maybe retakes are most realistic way to go about doing this.

    I was using “giving grades” to refer to the general process of evaluating student work, not just assigning a letter. If the primary feedback to students is all standards-based, I think that the assignment of the letter grade is more clerical than meaningful – less about helping students than about ranking students, as you said. That said, letter grades are a part of most of the systems we’re working within, and I think it’s important to have a quantitative system to back up any grade that’s given. Rather than assigning points and averaging within each standard, I’m suggesting that each standard would count for a certain number of points toward the total. I could choose to make the “slope interpretation” standard worth 10% of the total points for the quarter, and a student who achieves mastery would earn all those points. A student who only partially meets that standard would only earn half those points.

    More later…


    1. Hi

      Just to clarify … when we use the word retake, retest, reassessment, replacement test, etc. I interpret that to mean a new test/quiz, not a retake of the original test/quiz. Is this the standard interpretation of what SBG means by having multiple chances to achieve mastery?

      (the first)

      1. Hey Joe,

        I think we’re on the same page. I don’t even let them use any sort of “re”anything in their language. They want to test, not to retest, their skills. If the extra tests are “retests”, then every test after the first week of school is also a “retest” since it also tests skills that were tested before using completely different questions.

        It is necessary to be really clear to the kids about that, though, because many of them expect the same problems, maybe with different numbers (or maybe not), because that’s the only kind of extra opportunity they’ve even heard of in the past. They can then feel really cheated when they get a brand new test that doesn’t look anything like the last test they took.


  9. Kelly, I really like the distinction you made in that last comment! It shifts the conversation away from “students have unlimited chances to get something right” (which can ruffle some feathers…) to “students have control over their assessment schedule.”

    Still, as you pointed out earlier, there’s a difference between a student asking to be assessed on a specific standard at a specific time and a student simply waiting for this standard to come up again on a future assessment of some kind. That is, the former of these is what we’re calling a “retake,” for lack of a better term. In light of this conversation, I’ve been thinking a lot over the past couple days about the extent to which these are essential to SBG. It’s clear that identifying individual standards (and flavors of standards) makes an effective retake policy possible – students have the feedback they need to prepare for assessments in a valuable way, rather than just crammin’ for a quiz. But SBG and “retake opportunities” are still separate ideas, I think. A system that gives feedback on standards without allowing for retakes would still be called SBG, right? I have definitely noticed that an overwhelming majority of SBGers have built a formal retake policy into their courses, but I’m still curious as to how these two ideas can be separated from each other.

    I think that my personal aversion to students sitting for retakes is pretty slight. It’s more based in an aversion to an overall focus on pencil-to-paper testing as a means of assessment. Kelly, you put it well when you said that “each student needs different things to be able to move as far toward mastery as possible.” Providing multiple varieties of assessments for the same standard seems essential, and it’s exactly this aspect that I’m trying to reconcile with the role of retakes. I don’t see how it’d be possible (time & energy-wise) to provide formal retake opportunities for every project or every type of assessment… Aren’t the students who show their mastery best on a quiz at an advantage in a system where retakes are central? Or maybe we just have to bite the bullet and say that this particular type of assessment is so deeply engrained that we might as well work with it, ie: use retakes to directly encourage students to prioritize achieving mastery in each standard.

    …am I making this too complicated for myself?

    Joe Jr.

    1. Hey Joe,

      Thank you so much for this comment. I’ve been thinking about it for a while. (It came right before my exam, so the reply got buried on my to do list when I was forced to stop procrastinating about the end-of-the-year business.)

      Anyway, here are a couple of thoughts in response—

      I think we’ve found the disconnect about multiple assessment opportunities—I think we have different definitions for the “retake” idea. You talked about retakes for projects/assignments, and I’m thinking of them as being for objectives. That is, in my class, students never take “Quiz 12” again on the weekend. When they come in for a weekend test, the objectives on their quiz might be a different set from any particular mix they’d seen on an in-class quiz. It’s honestly a brand new assessment. I try to be careful in choosing questions that I know will challenge the same difficulty they had before (when I have enough time to think about that, at least), but also making sure the problems I choose will look very different to the student from what they had before. It’s really not a retake at all, but a different chance to show some physics mastery.

      It might also be important to note that a student may come in to take a Sunday quiz and show that they haven’t completely mastered some skill that they didn’t specifically ask to show. Even if they had a 2 for the skill before, they might be back to a 1 based on the new quiz. And actually, that circumstance isn’t very rare. It’s especially common in the first half of the year when many are still thinking that SBG means they can just keep trying similar questions until they get lucky with the “right” one. Once they start to realize that they need to practice and be even more ready for a Sunday quiz than they usually are for the weekly ones, that starts to become more infrequent.

      But back to the idea of retaking a project/assessment—I think some projects might lend themselves to having students do them until they are passing. Others might not be worth the extra time or might be pointless to continue/redo once the conversation about what went wrong happened. Still others might need the student to finish the project in an acceptable manner even if it will not actually count as an assessment because it needed significant help from the teacher. I don’t really do projects in my classes (or when I do something project-like, I don’t use it as any kind of assessment), so I’m not really sure what I would do with them. I suspect, though, that a failed project might necessitate some sort of “failure report” before the student takes another try with a new assessment (in whatever form that new assessment might be). The student should be able to really analyze why the last attempt did not work once they are ready to show that they have really mastered the skill(s) now. I think that overall, it might need to be a case-by-case basis.

      I think that sort of project-based thinking might need to happen in a more formal way for humanities classes. My guess is that there would be some general objectives that would apply to every paper the students wrote and which would be continually assessed throughout the year. The next paper would provide the needed opportunity to reassess those skills, so rewriting the paper would not always be necessary (though I imagine it would sometimes be helpful and necessary). There would probably also be some content skills that might not be assessed on the next paper (knowledge about a specific novel or historical event, etc). Rewriting a paper might be excessive when the student needs to show the content knowledge by itself, so maybe there would be shorter (but still careful) ways to assess those kinds of understandings.

      Okay, now I’m going on too long, so just one more thought. I think that, while there are certainly lots of ways to assess student understanding and ability, if a kid can’t show the skill consistently on a quiz, then they haven’t really mastered it. I don’t really buy the idea of “bad test takers” (at least not in the mass quantities of students who claim that they are such). I’ve certainly seen bad (and exceptionally good) multiple choicers, but I haven’t seen students who were unable to answer non-multiple choice questions once they understood the concepts and skills. Often, students get “partial credit” for “silly” mistakes or “minor” errors. They “really know what they are doing” but “just made little mistakes” on a lot of questions. Those little things add up, and they end up with a B or a C for the test. When they get to the exams, though, they don’t get As. They didn’t really know what they were doing as well as they (or their teacher) thought they did. And here’s where SBG starts to really shine. It starts to isolate the areas where the student has difficulty. It requires them to keep working and testing their weakest skills until they have mastered them. It’s not about letting students fix their grades. It’s about requiring them to learn the material in the class. And until they’ve learned the material and reached the end of the class, it alleviates the judgement and stress that students usually attach to the numbers handed back to them with tests/papers/projects.

      What do you think?


  10. Hi Kelly,
    I’m a month into my first implementation of Comprehension Based Grading (or so I call it) and I love it. I can deal with most parent/student concerns but there is one thing that is getting difficult. I have the grades setup so that 40% of their grade is CBG. If they don’t have mastery of an ‘A’ category, their whole CBG category (40% of the grade) drops to a 0%. This drastic drop has been great in motivating students to get things fixed, and most have, but I feel like it is a roller coaster for parents and students. They’ll get a bad grade on an assignment, work all week to get it fixed, then soon after get dropped back down if they miss an ‘A’ category. Any helpful advice?

  11. I love the idea of having the kids make the flow chart. Should help them see why we keep saying that the course is a cumulative course, and they can’t just forget first semester once they take the first semester final. (Or unit one after the unit one exam or whatever). I plan to do some sort of hybrid between SBG and the total-points, 40/40/20 or 45/45/10 (Q1/Q2/final) weighting system that my school requires me to use. This has given me a good jumping-off point. Thanks to your and Frank Noschese’s blogs for all the inspiration and practical help you offer!

    1. Hi Donna,

      I implemented SBG this past year similar to how Kelly did it. I have A,B,C standards which worked out very nicely. However, I’m going to flip their order this year so that A standards are the toughest and C the easier steps. This way they line up better with my grading system.

      I have seniors who are very grade conscious so the transition was tough for them. I did not assign a grade until the end of the term and it made them very anxious and they got admin involved. Admin loved the idea but suggested I update the students grades more often… ugh. So I did and found that it motivated the students much more. Our students can go online and see their grade/ progress report anytime.

      We us iPass which does not have a standards-based grading system so I kept two books. A Google Doc similar to Frank’s which calculated their scores. So I just had to update a standard and it would update their grade (made my life easy). I would have to take that info and then input into iPass. Sometimes I would only update their grades since they had the standards updated.

      To avoid admin issues I also stopped their standards at the quarter mark. The students did not realize but they all started with a 50%. A standards were worth a total of 20 points. B standards were worth 20 points and the Cs were worth 10 points. To keep grading easier I stuck with Kelly’s system of only using 0,1,2s. Once the students got into the groove they really appreciated the system and liked that each week they had a quiz. They came to expect it and were disappointed if we only met 3 times that week because i would push the quiz off until the following Monday.

    2. Hi again Donna,

      I forgot to let you know that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has worked hard to develop strand maps (flow charts) for their science standards. This was an exhaustive review process which ended right before the National effort began. I worked to link the standards together for the physics, chemistry, and tech/engineering strands. These might help you when you are designing your own stand maps for your students.

  12. Josh,
    I enjoy following the comments. I have a question. Our school has switched from a traditional grading system to standards based grading this year. Students are assessed and graded based only on their level of mastery at the end of a grading term. If they have a low grade at the end of a term (usually for missing work or low assessment scores), they get to make the work up and have their grade for that term adjusted during the following grading term. There are three six-week terms to each semester. Then each term and the semester exam are each worth 25% of the semester grade. Now there are some who want to adjust semester grades after the semester is closed (by turning in late work or re-taking exams). The semester grade is the only thing that becomes a permanent part of the student record. Should they be adjusting that, or should the door be closed on changes at the end of a semester?

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