Monthly Archives: October 2010

Dealing with Unfriendly Gradebooks

Last week was parent-teacher conferences. As I previously mentioned, I expected conferences to be somewhat more challenging due to how grades are reported this year compared to last year. The bad news is that I was right. The good news is that since I anticipated this, I was able to mitigate its effect.

When sharing reports from our gradebook system with parents, I noticed that regardless of what I was saying, if they could see the grade sheet their eyes would start scanning it and their finger would involuntary point to the 0% (F) in a row. At that point, they weren’t listening about learning or mastery or their son or daughter; they were focused on this “zero” which may just mean that the student is still developing mastery of that specific standard.

To maintain focus during the conference, I created paper templates (one for regular; one for honors) to defer visibility of these “grades” until the appropriate point:

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This low-tech solution to a high-tech problem was very effective; my conversations with the template were much more productive than those prematurely focused on 0% (F). Since I didn’t always remember to use the template, I ended up with an informal qualitative study of parent reaction.

In addition, for Regular Physics, I displayed a spreadsheet on my computer that focused on the targets and the 1-4 scores on the weekly targets quizzes:

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Parents seemed to readily grasp the 1-4 scale and the target quiz structure when presented in this manner. Parents and I discussed this report first before I ever presented the official grade sheet.

I share these examples because I know that many of us struggle with clearly presenting student learning with our less-than-ideal gradebook systems. For me, I was fairly successful by focusing the conference on student learning with supplemental information and low-tech modifications to standard reports. If you have developed an effective way to deal with your less-than-ideal gradebook system, please share in the comments!

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.

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!