Review of My First Year of Standards-Based Grading

I just finished my first full year of using Standards Based Grading, and the results were mixed.  I still can’t imagine going back to a completely traditional grading system, but the details of the implementation of SBG are difficult to get right.  I already talked about what I liked about my first term of SBG, so here I am going to focus on what went wrong so that I can prepare a solution.

It seems to me that the biggest benefit of SBG is that students are able to incorporate feedback and use it to improve.  To take advantage of this, though, you need to assess each skill multiple times.  This presented the biggest challenge to me because I had a lot of content to teach and only 10 weeks (with 50 hours of class time) to do it.  My solution to this was twofold: reduce the number of standards, and offload assessments to homework rather than in-class quizzes.  The difficulty with the first solution was that it required a good amount of prescience.  There were times when I designed a really good question only to find that there was no way of grading it since it wasn’t on the list of standards. The second solution didn’t work as well as I had hoped, either.  Scores on tests were always much worse than scores on homework, which means that the homework was not as helpful to the students as I wanted it to be.

Another major issue was the amount of time that was spent recording grades.  In each trimester, I used a different system of keeping track of grades.  Each new bookkeeping system was created to solve problems of the previous iteration, but each presented its own new problems.  The end result of all of this extra time spent bookkeeping was that we ended up shortening the assignments, which made it harder to revisit old objectives, which eliminated the main benefit of using SBG in the first place.

One more thing that is difficult to do with SBG is to have problems that require synthesizing skills.  The student may have no problem using Skill X and Skill Y individually, but combining them together is a different issue entirely.  Do I give two scores for that problem, one for Skill X and one for Skill Y?  Do I create a separate standard that says, “I can synthesize Skill X and Skill Y”?  That seems reasonable at first glance, but it quickly gets out of hand, as there are many possible combinations of skills.  Then we are back to the problem of having too many standards to address, which therefore makes it harder to revisit standards, which eliminates the main benefit of using SBG in the first place.

Proposed Solution

It seems to me that the best way of solving all of these problems is to have one standard for each model rather than having one standard for each skill required to implement that model correctly.  For example, the ability to properly implement the Forces Model requires that you be able to identify forces, draw a force diagram, break down forces into components, write down a force equation, and solve the equation for unknown variables.  Rather than score students on those individual abilities, I want to try assigning scores based on their ability to apply all of them together.  I was glad to see recently that someone else came to the same basic conclusion and even came up with a very nice list of big-picture standards.  One thing I like about the setup of that list is that each model is accompanied by a list of the individual skills needed to successfully implement that model.

The one-standard-per-model system also means that synthesis problems will be the norm rather than a challenge that is given from time to time.  While it is true that students often have trouble with synthesis, this is where the beauty of SBG shines through; they will improve with repeated assessment and feedback.


When coming up with plan, I find it useful to imagine myself in the future recounting all the ways in which the plan failed (If I remember correctly, I first heard of this idea from Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman).  So here goes:

  • focusing only on the models meant that students didn’t get enough practice on the more basic skills

  • synthesis is difficult, so grades were low

  • the fact that there were so few “grade columns” meant that a poor score on one particular standard dragged that student’s grade down too much

Are there any other reasons you can think of that my plan failed?  How would you solve these problems?


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