Growing SBAR School-Wide

A year ago, when my colleague and I decided to jump aboard the SBAR express with our honors physics classes, it was a substantial effort but manageable. This year, when my team (four people) decided to integrate SBAR into another physics class, it was more challenging and more frustrating. Now, we are trying to move the entire school to an SBAR philosophy. I expect this will be extremely challenging and extremely frustrating. If there are only two people who share a common philosophy and passion, it isn’t too hard to create an SBAR framework for one class. However, as the number of people increase, the degree of agreement on philosophy and passion for implementing a change of this magnitude decreases exponentially. To be clear, this isn’t a slight on my colleagues in any way, but rather a reflection of the diverse philosophies and passions that we have.

The purpose of this post is two-fold. Primarily, I’m asking for your advice and experience if you have tried to grow a SBAR philosophy to encompass an entire department or, ideally, school. Secondly, in the process of writing it, I will refine a couple of ideas that have been idling in my brain.

So, for those of you who have tried to grow your own SBAR reform to an entire department or an entire school: How general are the guidelines? How do you balance the consistency desired by students and parents and the unique structure and characteristics of very diverse subject areas? How do you provide teachers who thrive on autonomy, flexibility, while providing teachers who desire it, structure? Have you agreed upon a one grading scale to rule them all? I appreciate that many educators are pursuing even more progressive ideas than my implementation of SBAR. However, I would rather my school take a step in a positive direction rather than fall flat trying to take too large a step.

One immediate challenge focuses on grading scales. When faced with a several different SBAR implementations, each with different methods of scores and calculating grades, parents and students are confused and frustrated. This is completely understandable. However, to be fair, while in a traditional grading system each class may appear to be the same since it consists of a percentage converted to a letter grade, each teacher may derive that percentage in a completely different manner. That is, it is an illusion of consistency since it is superficial.

Consistency is important. For example, if everyone uses a 1-4 grading scale, each number should represent the same idea. I think this is achievable; most teachers could probably agree to something along the lines of:

  • 4: Clear demonstration of understanding (with minor mistakes being allowed).
  • 3: Significant understanding is demonstrated, but a key aspect of the solution is not.
  • 2: Partial understanding is demonstrated (you are in the right ballpark, but misapplied some key information or concepts).
  • 1: No demonstration of understanding.

I think this level of consistency is most important. However, we still have a long way to go to change the conversation from grades and GPAs to student learning and understanding. Most likely a series of 1, 2, 3, and 4s needs to be converted to the same letter grade at the end of the semester.

While I agree that a consistent grading scale is important and I believe that agreeing upon one is feasible, I don’t know what it should be. However, upon reflection, I’ve formed the following high-level ideas.

If multiple things appear to be the same, there will be confusion if they aren’t. This applies in multiple ways. It applies to traditional grading scales that appear to be the same but aren’t. It applies to SBAR grading scales such as 1-4 that appear to be the same but map to different letter grades at the end of the semester. However, most importantly, if we select an SBAR grading scale such as 50-100 that appears to be the same as a traditional percentage grading scale, it will be problematic because students and parents will assume that the scales mean the same thing and, when they don’t, they will be confused and frustrated. Parents and students will understandably expect that a 70 means 70% of questions were answered correctly and not that “partial understanding is demonstrated (you are in the right ballpark, but misapplied some key information or concepts).”

If you want to clearly communicate that something has changed and means something different, make it obvious by making its initial appearance very different. I think this is why explaining a system where understanding is scored with “mastery (M)” and “developing mastery (D)” indicators is easier to explain than a 1-4 grading scale that appears to be based on a percentage of 4 points or a typical GPA.

We have to be proactive in our communication of change to teachers, students, and parents. The conversation about SBAR is significantly easier and much more likely to result in a positive outcome if the participants are starting from a position of curiosity. Even starting from a position of confusion or skepticism is better than starting from a position of hostility. The burden is upon the SBAR advocates to initiate these conversations proactively instead of reactively. The first time a student or parent hears about SBAR needs to be from a passionate educator who can clearly explain its purpose and goals.

When you are evangelizing a significant change in an organization, frame the conversation in your terms. In my previous career, I spent a lot of time and effort evangelizing wide-spread change. I quickly learned that I had to set that stage for the discussion, not the detractors. This applies to education reform as much as software development methodologies. Advocates for standards-based assessment and reporting need to frame the conversation in terms of the primary focus of student learning and not a letter grade; opportunities to demonstrate understanding, not retakes; feedback, not scores; standards-based assessment and reporting (SBAR), not standards-based grading (SBG). Choice of language is critical in framing the conversation.

I’m looking forward to your ideas and advice. I have to help our school figure this out before next year!

Update (Sun Oct 17 21:00:40 CDT 2010):

After reading Matt’s helpful comment, I realized that I didn’t present the steps that we have already taken throughout the school. During the last school year, we developed the following enduring understandings about SBAR:

  1. Grades communicate student achievement of learning standards; students’ grades should not be reduced or inflated due to student behaviors outside of the standards.

  2. Standards are clearly communicated to students with clear indicators of proficiency and exemplars.

  3. Grading policies are consistent among teachers of a course and common assessments are utilized to measure student achievement.

  4. Students learn at different rates and will have multiple opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge of standards; students are expected to take steps to correct errors of knowledge, understanding, or skills before they “reattempt” to demonstrate mastery of standards.

  5. Formative assessments are used to provide timely and descriptive feedback in order to allow students to utilize feedback to self-assess progress towards a standard.

However, just because these have been defined, doesn’t mean that everybody is on board or that everybody interprets them the same way. Perhaps, as suggested in Matt’s comment below, we need to reach philosophical agreement first. Or, maybe we have to work on philosophical agreement and implementation details in tandem.

8 thoughts on “Growing SBAR School-Wide

  1. Matt Townsley

    Start grassroots. Here’s my story: ~2 years ago – I gave standards-based grading a try with nine weeks left in the school year with a single course. ~1.5 years ago – Co-worker (@ThinkThankThnk) and I have a conversation in the parking lot about his grading system. He decides standards-based grading is worth a try. Shawn gets really excited and starts talking to his science department colleagues about it. ~1 year ago – My student teacher drinks the SBG kool-aid and tells me I should do it my other course, so we do. Shawn continues to pester his science colleagues. I drop a few grading questions in the teachers’ lounge over lunch. ~0.5 years ago – ~8 colleagues, including Shawn, and I spend 10 weeks discussing grading, assessment, etc. after school for 1 hour/week. Our area education agency offers up renewal credit for this study group if we meet certain requirements and document the work. (Similar to the workshop described here ~2 months ago – entire science department, a business teacher, a spanish teacher or two, and a health teacher (all part of the study group) decide to give standards-based grading a try for 2010-2011. The day before school starts, an English teacher decides to jump on board, too.

    My take: It is a philosophy. Get your colleagues on board with these ideas ( and then worry about consistency later.

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  3. geoff Post author

    After reading Matt’s comment, which offers really good advice about agreeing on the philosophy first, I realized that I completely failed to present what we have done as a school during the last year. I’ve updated the original post to include our school’s enduring understanding about SBAR.

    Now, more ideas and questions are forming (more questions than ideas at the moment). Thanks @mctownsley!

  4. Ian H.

    My entire science department is moving to it, but only one class at a time – we’re taking time to unpack curriculum goals and outcomes, so we know that we’re all interpreting the language in the same way. Then, we’re devising common rubrics for skills, knowledge and understanding, so we all have a common reference point for a 4 point grading system. After that, I suspect we’ll have to map the four point system to a percentage, since in the end, that’s what parents want to see. It’s a ton of work, but in the end, I think the consistency between different sections of the same course will benefit teachers and students.

    My big problem is that I only have one out of eight classes as that particular course. Some of my other ones, I’m the only teacher in the school teaching it, so that’s not an issue, but I can’t see having the time to sit down to 2 or 3 one-hour meetings a week to sort this out for all the classes I have in common with other teachers.

    1. Jim Ellis

      Ian, Have your cake and eat it too.

      I issue both sets of grades. I do talk about the value of both to my students so they get the idea.

      The SBG or SBAR component stays in class. In fact, its a huge board in my class where, upon mastery, students receive a die cut construction paper star that is placed on the board to represent that skill having been mastered. You can see a few pictures of it at my blog

      So, skip those meetings with you peers, fire it up in your class and they will (hopefully) see what you are doing and begin to ask a little about it. Ball rolling.

  5. Jim Ellis

    Sounds like you have a full and complete understanding of how to assess students based on skill mastery using SBG or SBAR or whatever you wish to term it. I’m totally into what you are doing in this regard. I do, however, feel that there are a few stones left unturned.

    You have a wealth of data in front of you that either you are or are not looking at. For example, you give some sort of assessment that likely has many distinguishable skills that you want students to master. For me, it’s a simple math test, nothing strange and rather traditional.

    Now take your assessments in physics or whatever it is and spend a few minutes disaggregating the information in front of you. Perhaps you might want to start with the total scores on the assessment. Graph that. Then, perhaps, you want to look at each skill and see how many students mastered that skill. Graph that too.

    You now have two graphs. From this, you can look at trends in a very micro level in your class. They may tell you something about your teaching, but it tells the students so much more about their learning.

    This is where I suggest that BEYOND the SBG assessment you are giving your students, you should provide students a look at this data so they can see how they are performing in their peer group so that they can make some sense out of what ‘this all means’ to them.

    I do this with my middle school students, and have done so for years. Check out my blog for a little more.

    1. geoff Post author

      Jim, thanks for sharing your ideas about leveraging the data gathered as part of SBAR. I hope that my school’s new gradebook software will provide more options. I’ll explore your blog for the details!


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