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…

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The More You Hold Onto, The Harder The Shift

For this post, I had my favorite education topics in mind: grading and second language teaching. Just like the language teacher shifting focus to comprehension and maybe communicative purpose (and away from grammar, drills, paired speaking activities without purpose, etc.), any teacher shifting focus to learning (and away from grades) must change at least some of their practices for a successful and smooth rollout. How much change and what kind? The title says it all, but let’s take a closer look…

Principles & Assumptions
Key to shifting practice is adhering to certain principles and letting go of some assumptions. Otherwise, there’s not much of a shift at all. In fact, the more a teacher holds onto their old principles & assumptions, the harder it will be to make any kind of move. For a few years now, I’ve been recommending overhauling a few key practices so that new ones run smoothly. This is against common advice to just try something new little-by-little, I know. However, while that sounds appealing, in my experience the results are almost never what anyone wants. Consider the language teacher who adds tiered texts and embedded readings, yet holds onto measuring how well students identify verb endings. Sure, more-comprehensible texts is a step in a different (and dare I say “better”—gasp!) direction, but those grammar tests & quizzes under old principles will hinder the new practice.

It’s the same with grading.

If a teacher wants to try something new but holds onto aspects of their old system, there’s likely a conflict of principles, even if the teacher wasn’t aware of the old principles (which most often the case because no one really teaches teachers anything about grading). For example, attempting to teach for “mastery” while setting the gradebook to average scores creates a problem: the student who eventually masters content still has their previous, lower scores in the mix. That doesn’t make sense. While on the one hand, it’s appealing for the teacher to shift their thinking in terms of having standards to master, on the other hand the shift won’t fully be realized without adhering to the principles that make the shift actually work. In this example, the teacher would have to truly evaluate student work to make sure the most-recent learning evidence does show mastery, and have the grade reflect that. The computer can’t do that. Sure, it can automatically update the grade with a standard’s most-recent score, but that’s not the same. The computer doesn’t know whether the student had a bad day, or whether a really high score was a fluke. That’s why teachers need to collect multiple pieces of learning evidence and really know their students.

Of course, that’s if you bother with grades and points in the first place!!!!

From what I’ve seen and read in the literature, ungrading is where everything’s headed. We’ll have to wait until SBG is the dominant paradigm first, though, but I do predict more educators will recognize the ineffectiveness of and harm that grades do, just like what will eventually happen with grammar and language teaching.

So, what’s something you’re holding onto that’s preventing a smooth shift to something new?

2022-23 Grading: Process & Growth

I began writing this post even before publishing last spring’s grading update, knowing full well that the year’s experience would result in some tweaks. At the time, I wrote how my system was “90% of the way towards equitable, time-saving grading that shifts focus to learning.” I’d say my latest updates have brought me up to a solid 97%. For example, the variety of standards and evidence I was collecting was good, but I found that I didn’t need separate standards introduced at different times. Thus, we’re back to something more straightforward: Process & Growth, every quarter, completely self-assessed & graded by students, plus the following details:

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Inequitable Grading Practices: Averaging

For my third poll in a large Facebook group of 12,600 language teachers in this mini-series on inequity and grading, I asked about averaging. A FRACTION of teachers responded this time, with a total of just 80. Compared to the previous poll participants of 585 for late work penalties, and then 625 for homework, I wonder if this is because averaging is something teachers let the gradebook handle without giving it much thought. Most teachers don’t question homework, but they still play a more active role in creating and assigning it, right? Even setting late policies is something teachers…do. Averaging, though? Looks like we might be in a “set it and forget it” situation. The thing is, the gradebook only does what we tell it to (or its default setting), so if we’re not thinking about that, well…

Poll results had the majority (60) doing some kind of averaging. Let’s unpack all that.

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Inequitable Grading Practices: Homework & Zeros

Like grades, homework in school is just as expected as yellow buses, questionable cafeteria lunch, rank & file desks, band, and of course, football. Homework is such a part of school culture that it’s hardly given a second thought by the teachers who assign it. I’m sure there’s the following definition somewhere, too:

teacher (n.) = Overqualified and underpaid professional who assigns homework over vacation

Unlike using the lens of standards-based grading (SBG) to illustrate the inequity of late work, the inequity of homework should be self-evident: we cannot monitor student learning, and the home environment—if there is a home—differs from student to student. Some of those environments are conducive to learning, and others not so much. When teachers grade homework, they contribute to keeping those with privilege soaring high while those without get hit with more obstacles. Most teachers not giving homework much thought at least understood how to play the school game (whether or not they did it as students, themselves). Therefore, I’m guessing that the thought of not having a quiet space to do homework, the freedom of not needing to take care of family members, or responsibility of working at the family’s restaurant is questioned by probably just 1% of teachers assigning it. And it’s quite possible that in some communities these situations are completely unheard of. Or, they’re just lurking in the shadows, still there.

For the second week, I polled a Facebook group of 12,600 language teachers, this time on their homework grading policies. After about a week, 625 responded. A little under a quarter (139) grade homework one way or another (e.g., completion, rubric, etc.), with the majority of them (109) dropping a zero in the gradebook if not done.

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Inequitable Grading Practices: Late Work Penalties

I polled a Facebook group of 12,600 language teachers on their late work grading policies. After about a week, 585 responded. A little under half (255) apply some kind of penalty, whether work is accepted through the entire grading term, within some window or not at all after its due date. If we look at this practice from the perspective of grading standards (vs. completion, or whatever else), it can shed light on how inequitable late work penalties are…

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Complete Standards Based Grading (SBG) Systems: Why not in a language course?

You may have read that my new “one grading system to rule them all” essentially has a single standard, Proficiency. This is because I am no longer convinced that students need to practice anything in order to acquire a language. If you believe students need to practice, SBG will work for you, but I don’t buy it, and neither does VanPatten. This concept is so utterly counterintuitive to traditional language teachers, you probably need to spend some time thinking things over before developing your teaching philosophy.

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A New Grading System: The last one you’ll ever need (once you’re ready)

**Updated Expectations Rubric**

This grading system is the result of my experience combining common weighted grading categories (e.g. Homework, Unit Tests, Quizzes, etc.) with Standards Based Grading (SBG), and a Classroom Management (adaptation of Robert Patrick’s D.E.A.). Despite overall positive outcomes, the combination had its drawbacks. Besides, the longer I teach, 1) the less explicit instruction I give, and 2) the more streamlined/simple my practices become. From what I’ve learned from veteran teachers, this is a normal progression for a teacher, but I seem to have skipped about 10 years of trial and error. This new grading system is extremely easy to use as a teacher and extremely clear to understand as a student.

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