When my colleague and I started our standards-based grading journey in the Fall of 2009, we started with a list of objectives defined years previously by a now retired teacher. Since our goal was to make minimal changes to the curriculum and focus on changing the methodology for the class, we decided to use these objectives as the starting point for our standards (which we refer to as “targets”).

What I quickly learned is that I needed to know exactly how I would provide multiple learning activities and multiple summative assessments for each and every standard. Our first unit had 26 standards! While several were lab-specific, that was way too many! We immediately appreciated the importance of defining fewer and more general standards.

How many standards are right for a unit; how many for a semester? I think the answer is different for every class, but after a year of experience, I’ve found that seven or eight standards of which one or two may be lab-specific works well for our honor-level physics class and students.

I just finished revising the standards for the upcoming Fall semester for this class. I ended up with about sixty standards for the semester. This is a fast-paced class and that is reflected in the number of standards. In comparison, my regular-level physics class will have a little more than half as many standards this Fall.

Am I completely satisfied with the number and granularity of the standards for the Fall semester? It’s definitely a step in the right direction, but, no, I’m not completely satisfied. I think I did the best I could balancing the tradeoff between a manageable number of standards from an assessment perspective and sufficiently specific standards such that students are clear on what they need to understand.

I’m not positive how I’m going to improve this aspect of the methodology, but I think the eventual solution is to move to a two-tier system. The top tier would consist of fewer, higher-level standards that are assessed and reported while being manageable. The second tier would contain many more specific sub-standards (“targets”) that students can readily understand.

Please feel free to leave a comment and share your approach for defining standards.