Three Realizations about SBAR (Start of Year 1 vs. Year 2)

Now six weeks into the school year, I’m reflecting on how standards-based assessment and reporting (SBAR) is impacting my students and colleagues this year compared to last. There are a number of significant changes. Last year, my colleague and I were two of only a handful of teachers who were implementing SBAR into their classes. Last year, I only integrated SBAR into my honors physics class and not my regular physics class. Last year, I used SnapGrades to report learning progress to students and parents. Last year, I jumped aboard the SBAR Express with both feet. Last year, I was a neophyte. Last year was the best year ever.

The most important realization is that standards-based assessment and reporting is a philosophical change made by teachers, students, parents, and administrators. It is not simply a function mapping a traditional grading scale to another set of numbers and symbols. If any participant; teacher, student, parent, or administrator; fails to realize this, the benefits of SBAR will not be realized. Even worse, the SBAR movement will suffer as misguided or half-hearted efforts labeled “SBAR” fail to improve learning. If the teacher doesn’t make this philosophical jump, there is no hope that students or parents will. An administrator recently shared with me that the term Standards-Based Grading was a bit of a misnomer since grading is only a small part of what SBG encompasses. I shared the Standards-Based Assessment and Reporting term (which you’ll notice I’m using exclusively in this post) as a more apt alternative. Last year, my colleague and I did not set out to implement SBG or SBAR or any other acronym. Rather, we set out to change students’ perspectives on their learning and the role of grades in our class. SBAR was simply a tool that helped us achieve these goals. As more and more teachers and teams integrate SBAR practices into their classes, I’m very worried that they see SBAR as the end goal as opposed to the means to much more important ones.

The second key realization is that clearly presenting the rationale behind SBAR to my students is critical. Last year, I made a very conscious and deliberative effort to explain SBAR, it purpose, and my rationale for integrating it into our class. My colleague and I received feedback that our students had a very clear understanding of SBAR in our class and our rationale for integrating it. I expect that I haven’t made enough of an effort this year to communicate the rationale. While I may be more familiar and comfortable with SBAR, many of my students are not. Until this year, I didn’t fully appreciate that the manner in which grades are reported to students and parents affects my ability to change students’ attitudes about learning and grades. Last year we reported learning progress with SnapGrades. The “report card” had no percentages and no letter grades. Just a list of standards and a note of which the student had demonstrated mastery:

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This year, SnapGrades is not an option and we’re using our aging and soon-to-be-replaced online grade book. When students are parents look online, they don’t see any description of standards or clear indication of mastery. They see misleading percentages and letter grades:

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How can students focus on developing their understanding when they are confronted with “0% (F)” and a “C” in bold, red type? This year, I’m fielding more questions from students and parents about improving their “grade” as opposed to their understanding. I have taken some steps to mitigate the negative impact of our online grade book and will be doing more shortly. More importantly, now that we’ve been together for six weeks, its time to discuss the rationale for SBAR again in each class.

The third realization is that taking small steps to integrate SBAR is actually harder and less effective than jumping aboard with both feet. In my regular physics class, my team agreed to a more conservative approach. We are not measuring student understanding in terms of “mastery” and “developing mastery.” Instead we are using a 1-4 grading scale. The challenge with a 1-4 scale is that students and parents (and some teachers) see it as points or A, B, C, and D. I know that many students see a “2” and think, “that’s a C” rather than “there’s a major concept here that I don’t yet understand.” I’ve had multiple conversations with students who ask why if they only missed one part on an assessment they have a “2.” They are thinking in terms of percentage of questions answered correctly and not that they failed to demonstrate a major concept that is essential to understanding. In order to help students breakaway from their grade-centric mentality, I have to create as large as possible disconnect between symbols used to provide feedback and grades. Since I don’t see the 1-4 grading scale going away in the future (and actually fear it becoming required), I need to work extra hard in class to tie my feedback to their learning and not to their grade.

Despite the challenges that I’m facing, I want to be clear that I’m pleased and hopeful about where we’re heading this year. The best indication that I’m on the right track is that I can’t imagine going back to teaching my regular physics class like I did last year.

This reflection has helped me realize how much work I have to do this year if I want it to be as successful as last year. If you are new to SBAR, hopefully my perspective of two years of introducing SBAR to my classes will help make your efforts more productive. If you have any suggestions, please do leave a comment!

8 thoughts on “Three Realizations about SBAR (Start of Year 1 vs. Year 2)

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  2. Frank Noschese

    Great reflection! I agree with you completely on all points. I would even add that the SBG shift must come from within, rather than top-down. Only once you’ve grappled with the big ideas of learning vs. grading will you be ready to make the change and do so effectively.

    Question about SnapGrades: Did you use the the regular report card with special symbols and no averages or did you use the SBG-style report card?

    1. geoff Post author

      We used the standards-based report card configured to only show grades/rubrics. We really found SnapGrade effective and efficient. I had to contact customer support on a couple of occasions and they were extremely responsive.

  3. Frank

    This is only my 5th week of SBG, but so far… “standards-based assessment and reporting is a philosophical change” YES “taking small steps to integrate SBAR is actually harder and less effective than jumping aboard with both feet” YES “I can’t imagine going back to teaching my regular physics class like I did last year.” OMG YES

  4. Diane

    The problem students seem to have is understanding what mastery means. Not surprisingly students ask, “…. why if they only missed one part on an assessment they have a 2”. Do they need 100% to master something? What is a small, trivial error versus a small, critical error? I am working hard on identifying mastery in biology, and even I struggle. It only seems manageble when there is a right or wrong answer, something fact based or repetitive in execution (ex: naming body parts and functions in anatomy). As you have more integrated, complex concepts, mastery is harder to assess (ex:bioenergetics exemplified in cellular respiration). Lastly, why do formative grades count towards a final grade at all if Mastery is the measure. Poor students having to figure out what we mean by mastery, when no 2 teachers seem to think alike. I am all for SBAR, just struggling along with my students on making it work. Talking to lots of teachers with the same dilemma.

    1. geoff Post author

      In my honors physics class, students’ demonstrations do not need to be perfect to demonstrate mastery. My colleague and I decide which types of errors are critical and which are not. What is critical for one standard may not be critical for another. For example, if one standard relates to solving dynamics problems and focuses on free-body diagrams, an error related to the use of a kinematic equation would not be critical. However, an error related to the use of a kinematic equation would be critical for a standard involving kinematic equations. In general, calculator errors are not critical if sufficient work is shown such that the nature of the error is clear. Is this somewhat subjective? Sure, but less so than traditional grading, in my opinion, and much more authentic. Honestly, I feel that we need to trust our professional judgement and experience in assessing students not a detailed rubric that we created. While it took some time to become comfortable with it, after scoring with Ms and Ds for over a year now, I can definitely say that I find it more efficient, consistent, and authentic than grading with points.

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