SBG with Seniors

Here’s the problem with Standards-Based Grading (SBG) and seniors: their first quarter grades matter.

In my usual approach to grading, the quarter grades are just snapshots. Since they weren’t (at my old school) and aren’t (at my current school) put on transcripts, I have felt free to use them as moments for students to check in with themselves, get themselves up to date (especially on core objectives), and keep themselves on track for the real (grade) goal (the exam at the end of the semester). For seniors, though, quarter grades will be sent to colleges, and the end-of-year grade isn’t of as much consequence. In fact, my new school only has exams at the end of the year, so there’s actually no exam in my senior course. My usual grading system will work for my three sections of sophomores, but I was going to need a new plan for Advanced Physics.

This xkcd comic seemed applicable to how I was feeling about my favorite way of doing assessments and grading when it came to my Advanced Physics course.

Luckily, I have been planning my fantasy Advanced Physics course for a few years now. The only wrinkle is that the plans I had been scheming for SBG with seniors were plans for students who had already taken a physics course using SBG (that is, for my own students, take 2). The good news is that I think the seniors I have this year, even though they’ve never had anything like SBG before, are going to be fine with this SBG 2.0 plan that I’ve made. I just think it’s going to take them a little longer to wrap their brains around it than it otherwise would have.

So. The Plan.

First up, here’s the description I gave to my students on our course website. (For this class, I didn’t make them binders. So I didn’t print out a course handout (aka syllabus), instead just putting that sort of information all online. I think it’s working well.)

Each major skill that we seek to develop this year will be associated with a major objective (see the list per topic (link to a future post with the list will eventually appear here)). On our weekly assessments, rather than giving you a numerical grade or a percentage, I will instead give you feedback on those skills and a temporary score of 0 (no mastery has been shown), 1 (developing mastery), or 2 (demonstrated mastery—use of the skill must be perfect).

Objectives will be tested more than once throughout the term, and scores can go up or down—only the most recent score counts. You will also have some opportunities to request that you be tested on a particular objective during a weekly assessment.

At the end of the term:
0 = 50 points
1 = 65 points
2 = 85 points

Through non-mandatory out-of-class work (one homework slot per 6-day cycle will be considered a protected time for this sort of work—nothing else will be assigned for that time), each objective can be enhanced by adding a piece of excellent, polished, relevant work to your physics portfolio. Some examples of portfolio work include screencasts of interesting problems; compelling video analyses; identification, explication, and correction of misconceptions and errors in found work; and other extensions that show depth, creativity, and mastery. I am eager to talk with you about your ideas for portfolio work and to advise and support what you do.

Adding an excellent piece of work to your portfolio will add a “+” designation to each relevant objective. Submitting a piece of work for your portfolio does not guarantee that it will achieve that “excellent” status. In that case, I will give you feedback and advice about how to bring that work to the next level, and you will of course be able to continue that work. There are no deadlines for portfolio work, but because I will need time to review it, work must be submitted at least one week before the end of a grading period to be considered for that term.

A “+” on any objective is worth 15 points at the end of the term, and you keep the “+” designation, even if your score goes down on a particular objective through in-class testing. That is, as you go through the normal process of making and correcting mistakes, you will not have to repeatedly add work for the same objectives to your portfolio. Each objective can only garner one “+”, even if you show many examples of excellent work for that skill.

Your numerical grade for the term = your total current (cumulative) score / (total # of objectives so far)

It will be possible, but not recommended, to calculate an interim grade during the term. As you learn new material, your scores will fluctuate as you gain mastery and consistency. Only where you are at the end of the term really matters, so try to allow yourself to make mistakes and to learn while you are “in the middle of things”. If you approach the task of learning physics with commitment and in earnest, your first attempts will not resemble your final, masterful work.

Notable differences between this plan for seniors and my approach with the sophomores: (1) There are no leveled objectives (that is, no A or B objectives); (2) 0s and 1s do count for something; (3) Mastering all of the objectives is an 85 rather than a 90; (4) Portfolio work (see below).

The one thing I don’t really like here is that there sort of are points and averages in this plan, though neither the points nor the averages are used in the traditional sense.

Portfolio Work

I’m really excited about the portfolio work that my students are going to build this year. I’m also a little nervous, since I don’t fully know what to expect,  but I’m mostly excited. It will be great for them to walk away from the class at the end of the year with some solid, cool pieces of work that they’ve produced.

Portfolio work shouldn’t necessarily mean huge projects every time (again, a link to a post that hasn’t been finished yet should really be here—eventually I will update this with a link to that future post about Exhibitions). It should be more of a journal, really. Maybe it should be slightly more polished than a journal, but just slightly. I also wouldn’t necessarily expect students to do portfolio work for every objective (especially since this school uses letter grades, so cementing 100% for the class isn’t as significant as at my last school).

The students also seem both nervous and excited. Here’s a sample of what’s been suggested so far (for kinematics) by students:

  • A vpython program that lets the user choose initial conditions for motion and produces graphs of the motion at the end (I think this one is even finished already, but it hasn’t been sent to me yet.)
  • A study (probably including video analysis) of real airplane take-off motion compared to idealized motion based on data published about the planes
  • Investigating the motion of a runner on the road as perceived by someone in an accelerating car
  • I’ve also had a student take home a motion detector (I forgot to ask what he plans to do with it).

We’ve also talked about how what I’ve termed “excellent work” (that is, work that would earn a + for one or more objectives) should really be “brag-worthy work” (© Andy Rundquist). So, for a piece of work to earn a +, it has to be something I could brag about to other physics teachers. If I tell other physics teachers about it and they say, “meh”, then we (the student and I) need to talk about how to take what they’ve done to the next level.

Of course, nothing has been turned in yet (we’ve only had two weeks of school so far, and we’ve only practiced two objectives so far). I’m sure some of the brag-worthy work will make its way to this blog over the course of (or maybe at the end of) this year. I mean, I’m going to want to brag about it, you know?

13 thoughts on “SBG with Seniors

  1. Kelly, can you say a little more about what you see as problematic about using your traditional system with seniors? Why would you expect the first quarter grades to not reflect their performance in the course?

    I’m curious because I’ve rolled out a more traditional system with my AP class, and I’ve been excited about how it’s working so far. But your comment makes me think there are things I haven’t anticipated…


    1. Hey Joe—

      Basically, my quarter grades are pretty meaningless (at least, in a summative sense, which is how I think they are being interpreted by people “on the outside”). They can be cherry-picked away; or the kids are in the middle of going up and down in objective scores because we are in the middle of things, not at the end; and there’s nothing there to show depth, synthesis, and creativity (like the exam with its goal-less problems or the portfolio work in Advanced). I routinely had students over the past few years who had semester grades of 10 points or more higher than their quarter (mid-semester) grades. I just wouldn’t expect students to be at an equivalent mastery level of the material so far at the quarter point as I would for the total material at the end of the semester. Does that make sense? I can try to explain it some more, if not.


      P.S. That you are (I think) calling any flavor of SBG “a more traditional system” is actually pretty awesome… 🙂

  2. Kelly,

    I am loving all the information you are providing on SBG, and I want to implement this next year in my physics classes. I have a question on the grading that I have seen on your site. I see that when you hand back a test, they have the objectives on the front page and you list if they have a 2, 1 or 0 score based on each question. When I found your goal-less problems for some of your test examples, I saw scores of 6, 4, 1’s. I am confused at how you are scoring. Are you grading a test as if part a has 6 things you are looking for, and then you translate that score into a 2, 1, 0???? Also, for labs and homework: you said that you dont grade it or give it, so the only way you assess them on the objectives is quiz or tests??? Could you please enlighten me a little more?

    I am going to visit a local school that does modeling physics, biology and chemistry soon so I can get my first hands on look at modeling. They also have physics first, so that will be interesting to me, since my school has physics as a junior and senior level. I understand what you are saying with the seniors and grades for college. I want the students to focus on learning and not the grade, but they have been in the system for 11 or 12 years and focused only on their percentage for so long, that learning is always pushed to the back, unless they have a good grade 😦

    1. Hi Ryan,

      The goal-less problems are only on the exam, and the points don’t really count for anything. They are just a way to help students see where to focus their efforts (on diagrams that they annotate and use, rather than simply formula calculations). It’s a totally separate thing from scoring the objectives. Hope that helps clear up the confusion! (Sorry about that!) 🙂

      I agree that it is difficult to get students to shift their mindsets about learning and grades after so many years of school. I’ve found that it does take time every year, but that many (if not most) do find the challenge to their ideas about learning to be welcome (by the end, if not at first). It takes a while to wrap their brains around it, but they tend to appreciate it once they understand it.

      Good luck with whatever you decide to do (and keep me in the loop!) 🙂


      1. Thank you very much!!! I will let you know how it develops. The modeling workshops look great but the only places I see hosting them are mid to far west. I live in Pittsburgh, PA and dont see many workshops that are local. Any ideas on how to get a modeling workshop started in my area??? Also you have talked about the workshops being 3 weeks long. Is that overnight, stay at a college campus…..or is it at a local high school from 9-5 each day?

        1. There have recently been some in the Philadelphia area at least, and I’m betting there will be one again next year in NYC. Some have cheap places to stay on a college dorm, and I know there were several out-of-towners at the Chem workshop I took this past summer in NYC. Getting one started in your area can be a little more involved, but there are definitely some on this coast that might be more manageable. The info will be on the AMTA site in the spring as the workshop locations/dates/etc are announced.

          1. Hello,

            I am currently organizing a modeling workshop this summer (2014) at my alma mater: Saint Vincent College, Latrobe PA. It is about an hour from Pittsburgh and the college is offering rooming for people that need to travel. I was wondering if you are someone that runs workshops and would be willing to teach one this summer. I have 2 other modelers that are willing to work this summer. I am looking to get instructors and participants. If you could help in anyway, it would be appreciated.


  3. Hello, I am a preservice teacher. I went to the Mansfield University, PA
    Workshop in summer 2012. There were a few NY state teachers there, but I
    don’t think they were planning on actually teaching by way of modeling
    instruction because they felt that it did not allot enough time to teach
    all of the required learning objectives that NY state requires. I am now
    currently preparing for an interview for a teaching Chemistry position in
    NY state. I have said I plan to teach using this method. I need help
    proving that this method will work in NY state and meet NY state Regents

    Do you know of a teacher that has been successfully teaching using this
    method in NY state that must meet the NY state curriculum requirements
    (NYS Regents)?

    Do you have a successful timeline and NYS Standards and CCS Stadards

    I would greatly appreciate your help if you could just send me some contacts.

    Thanks for your time
    Rebecca Hourihan

    1. Hi Rebecca,

      I think your email to the Modeling listserv has been passed on to the NYC listserv, and one or two chemistry teachers have replied there (which I hope are getting forwarded back to you, too!). In any case, my understanding is that it would be all but impossible to use the Modeling Chemistry curriculum if you’re expected to meet the Regents standards because it is too slow. :/ Maybe you can do some sort of hybrid, or maybe there are other research-based methods that are a bit faster but effective (I’m not as familiar with chemistry teaching, but I know there are many good physics methods outside of Modeling Instruction). In any case, good luck! Let me know if I can be helpful with anything else.


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