SBG: On Point With Assessment, Behind The Times With Grading

But first…earlier this week, I shared a recent post on using portfolios to grade equitably, and some dude characterized me as a cowardly idealistic privileged and overeducated white savior who claims to have some solution to problems that minorities face. That’s a lot to unpack, and I’ll leave most of it alone. It’s true that I’m a college-educated white man, placing me in one of the highest privileged boxes possible. No one, though, is claiming to solve society’s inequity with a handful of grading practices in school. Perhaps more importantly, though, it’s downright naïve to think that teachers have no influence and suggest that they can’t do something about a broken system. Grading is a systemic problem, it’s broken, and we’ve known about that for over 100 years (Rugg, 1918). Many teachers should feel empowered to do something about it in the space they have control over: their classrooms (and possibly school).

I now just feel sad for that dude of so many words who wrote such uncalled-for ad hominems. I hope he finds a way to deal with whatever pain he’s going through. I’m gonna stick to using this admittedly privileged platform to share what I’ve been reading and learning about with a just-as-admittedly privileged background in education and a current Ph.D. pursuit. Hope you get as much out of it all as I have, and can use it to enact change wherever possible…

Standards, Assessment, Grading
We’ve been hearing about standards-based grading (SBG) for decades. It’s a massive improvement from whatever was going on in most classrooms prior to the 90s. Thing is, though, some educators have already moved beyond SBG in terms of grading. Ironically, standards-based grading is no longer the best option for grading! But that doesn’t mean it’s useless. We’ll get to that.

What’s been replacing SBG, though? It’s known as “ungrading.” But even in an ungraded system, teachers are still assessing. Assessments might not look what you’d typically expect. Or, they’re pretty much the same just with no points. Regardless, they’re certainly part of instruction as teachers and students focus more on learning content (and not points, scores, or grades). And a big part of that is standards.

Focusing on content probably involves standards in every case, even if a teacher doesn’t formally have a system of standards. That is, whatever the teacher expects of students, and whatever it takes to learn the content, could be and probably already is expressed as a standard, somewhere. Standards are a good way to organize learning. Within this framework, then, standards have a big role to play, just not in grading…

SBA & SBE
I’ve begun thinking in terms of standards-based assessment (SBA) and standards-based experiences (SBE). When a teacher plans a learning experience, they don’t necessarily have to assess it, and certainly don’t have to grade it. This holds true in an ungraded system as well as SBG, but let’s focus on teachers still new to SBG.

For example, a science lab could be a learning experience with nothing else attached to it. The teacher could walk around and monitor groups, itself an assessment, but nothing is forcing them to make kids write up a lab report, provide feedback on it, and/or grade it (or have them self-grade it). At least, nothing should be forcing the teacher to do that.

The big takeaway here is that NONE of the learning experiences, assessments, feedback, or grading mentioned above require the other, though teachers often assume they’re inseparable. Complementary, sure, yet no state standards I know of mention grades at all. This is important. The freedom and flexibility to choose when to assess is uncharted territory for most, but it’s one of the first steps towards really shifting focus to teaching and learning (vs. assigning and earning points, scores, and grades). Choosing when to grade, or grading as little as possible—like having students self-assess and self-grade at the end of a grading term—are the next big steps towards an ungraded system.

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