Why SBG?

Though others have written far more convincingly and elegantly about why they use Standards-Based Grading (see dy/dan’s “How Math Must Assess”, Think Thank Thunk’s SBG ManifestoFAQ, and Parts I & II on this post from Take It to the Limit, among many others), I figured I should at least have some explanation for my halfway jump into it this year.

A discussion over in the comments at Sam’s blog got me thinking, and this post was inspired by writing a response there.

Standards-Based Grading means two things to me:

  1. A way of decluttering grades: simplifying them, while at the same time making them more specific. Usually a student might have a grade for homework, a grade for attendance, a grade for Quiz 1, a grade for chapter4 test, a grade for daily classwork, and several attempted extra credit opportunities, all floating around to give a number like a 78 on the report card. Instead, students are only graded on what they know, via skills or topic assessments. [Or, in my case, half of their grade is what they know and half is how they apply what they know through projects.] Furthermore, rather than grouping an assortment of skills together in quiz/test grades, grades are reported out separately by skill or topic. So instead of seeing a 55% on Quiz 3, a student sees grades reflecting complete mastery on calculating area but only a very limited understanding of identifying lines of symmetry.
  2. A system of re-assessment built in. At our school, we have long had a mastery re-do policy, where students are allowed to re-do work and re-take asssessments to demonstrate mastery of course content. Details of this policy’s implementation are left up to individual teachers, so we may set late penalties for work not turned in on time, while still accepting it for a grade, or say that a student retaking a test failed the first time around may not receive more than a 90, or just allow their new grade to supersede the old. The whole idea of allowing re-assessments and the mastery re-do policy is to recognize that students might not always learn according to our schedule, but if they do learn and successfully master the content in a class, their grade should reflect that. For example, a student may be totally confused by rotation symmetry after I first teach it and give a quiz a couple days later. But then we spend a week creating tilings of the plane and examining the types of symmetry found therein, and the student gains a better understanding of the topic. In a standard class, the quiz has gone by, and the student didn’t learn it in time, so too bad. With SBG, topics/skills re-appear on assessments. A student’s new grade will replace an older grade, so their current grade will better reflect what they currently know about that topic. Additionally, within some reasonable limits, students are allowed to re-assess individual skills after school / before school during coach class.

While meeting a constant flow of deadlines is a key life skill, even more important in my view are the following: independent self-directed learning, setting your own goals on your way to a deadline, and keeping trying until you have reached a goal. A math professor I studied with in college would always say that failure is the only way we truly learn anything. Making a mistake (using what we know and failing) opens our eyes and prompts us to learn a new way that will succeed. And this skill: the skill of persistence in the face of failure, and learning from your mistakes, is perhaps the most important skill I wish to teach my students. Even though it’s not on my SBG skills list 🙂, the very nature of SBG and re-assessment seem to promote this continual striving to get better instead of being satisfied with mediocrity.


I believe this will be my last SBG-details post for a while. I’m hoping to get back to posting more about the content of what I’m teaching in Geometry and Computer Integrated Manufacturing, describing some of the projects we’re doing, and reflecting on how things go. But, for those of you who have liked my last few posts, I do plan on continuing to update my folder over on Scribd with weekly skills quizzes and other relevant documents from my foray into using SBG in Geometry.


Filed under math, teaching

6 responses to “Why SBG?

  1. Re-assessing makes some sense, but I worry about those who take only the latest grade or the highest grade on a standard as the “true” measure. See my post at http://gasstationwithoutpumps.wordpress.com/2010/08/29/sustained-performance-and-standards-based-grading/

    • nyates314

      I enjoyed reading your post; thanks for linking it.

      I agree that neither the highest, nor the latest, nor the average grade is a ‘true’ or perfect measure of student knowledge. I think the latest is better than the highest grade, because as you argue, students who achieve the highest (or high-enough) grade would stop practicing and lose what they have learned after cramming for one test, instead of working to build sustained performance. I think the latest is also better than the average, since it reflects and encourages student growth instead of assuming constant knowledge. Which is why that is the plan I chose.

      Your idea of a hybrid (“moving-window average”) sounds interesting but impractical due to the number of times each standard would have to be assessed. This would be difficult to do without giving hours each week to continual re-assessment of dozens of skills, leaving little time to teach new skills.

      I actually believe some level of sustained performance is, or can be, promoted by SBG and re-assessment. Students will see each of my 32 skills about 3 times on weekly quizzes (and possibly more if they re-assess after school to improve their learning and grade). So, even if their usual quiz strategy is cram-and-forget, having crammed three times will make it more likely to enter long-term memory than if they are only tested on it once. Additionally, I will be administering midterm and final exams.

      However, I would also reiterate that measuring student performance (sustained or otherwise) is not my entire goal. To some degree, it’s ok with me if the skill of completing the square does not become sustained and automatic, if a student learns but then forgets it. [Insert Algebra 2 teachers across the country going ballistic here.] I have chosen to use SBG not only because I believe it more accurately (though not perfectly) reflects student knowledge, but also because I believe it promotes persistence and self-guided learning. Now, to see those two skills become sustained and automatic in my students, I would give my all.

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