Gas station without pumps

2010 June 28

Standards-Based Grading

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 08:48
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Several of the blogs I read have been discussing Standards-Based Grading (abbreviated SBG) lately.  Perhaps the strongest proponent of this approach as been Mr. Cornally in his blog Think Thank Thunk.

The key ideas of this pedagogic approach seem to be

  • Break your course down into the small, testable ideas: the “standards” you will base your grading on.
  • Tie every assessment to one or two of the standards, so you know exactly what the assessment is measuring.
  • Give the students access to evaluation separately for each standard, so they can see where they need to improve.
  • Allow students to reassess on any standard where they are not satisfied with their performance.

The standards passed down from the state for school teachers are far too vague and far too broad to be usable for SBG, so teachers have to come up with their own.  This is probably the main strength and the main weakness of SBG: teachers structure their courses around what they want the students to be able to do, but they get almost no help from textbooks, curriculum committees, and colleagues in designing their courses.

SBG is based on assessments that test only one thing at a time, which is marginally possible in a reductionist view of math, but almost impossible in other subjects.  I’ve thought about applying the ideas to my college courses, which are mainly senior and graduate courses, but I’ve had no success in coming up with assessments.  For example, one topic I teach is Markov chains: I want students to understand them well enough to be able to write a computer program to train a Markov model from data, then use the model to analyze other data.  The assignment I’ve come up with to do this depends on several programming and writing skills (program design, familiarity with the language used, documentation skills, debugging skills, …), in addition to their understanding of Markov chains.  I know no way to separate these skills to test them independently, and weakness in any of the skills can make it difficult to determine ability in the others. Many of the skills I want most for students to acquire are inherently intertwined with other skills.  Being able to program a computer requires algorithm design, data structure design, coding, documenting, and debugging, none of which are easily isolated from the rest, and I’m not interested in the skills in isolation, but in their combination, since I’m teaching a class that assumes the programming skills are already there, rather than teaching them.

SBG requires that students be frequently informed of their progress in each standard.  Since I have had hard time creating assessments that look at only one thing, I have a hard time informing students of what they do and don’t understand.

Reassessment is the aspect of SBG that I have used for years—I allow students to redo any assignment if they are not satisfied with it.  I do hold students to a higher standard on a redo, though.  It is not enough to fix small bugs or grammatical problems that I have pointed out to them—they must show better understanding of the underlying concepts, generally improved writing, or improved programming skills.   This is not quite the reassessment that SBG expects, but SBG assumes that it is easy to generate multiple independent tests for any standard, and that an assessment requires very little time of either the teacher or the student, so that reassessment is cheap.  When the skills to be assessed are complex, a single assessment may take 10–30 hours of teacher time to create and 10–20 hours of student time to do, making reassessment a fairly costly endeavor.

In short, while Standards-Based Grading seems like a good way to structure a course, I’m not convinced that it is feasible for any of the courses I teach, and is probably only applicable to a small fraction of elementary and secondary-school courses.


  1. While SBG is not the end all be all to assessment or teaching, it has many valuable aspects. While I see your dilemma and am not smart enough to provide solutions, I do have a few comments. To me, the heart of SBG is breaking things down clearly to avoid confusion. Also, giving students clear feedback so that they can improve and learn from mistakes. I think that you can do that without necessarily doing all the things you already said you can’t do.

    And because you are giving the students the chance to re-assess, you are still in tune with the spirit of sbg grading, which is an accurate description of the what they know now.

    I think if you continue to read and question and ponder, then you will ultimately find or create ideas that work for you and your students. And if you decide you really want to do sbg, I think you could make it work.

    Comment by Elissa — 2010 June 28 @ 14:53 | Reply

    • Elissa, Thanks for the cheering thoughts (I’ve been following your blog even longer than I’ve been following Think Thank Thunk), but I don’t think that what I do qualifies as SBG. I can’t link my grading to standards (except in a very loose way) and my “reassessment” is re-doing the original assignment after feedback, which is not an independent assessment at all.

      I do think a lot about what I expect students to learn in my classes (indeed, in all the classes our students take, not just the ones I teach or the ones taught in my department). Our department has not yet gone through the ABET accreditation process, but it is coming in the next couple of years. It will require all the faculty to do a detailed listing of the expectations of what the students can do before taking each class and what they’ll be able to do after the class, as well as detailed explanations of how the whole 4-year curriculum hangs together—what its objectives are and how we measure the outcomes. Last time I was involved in an ABET accreditation, it took substantial cooperation from all the faculty, plus one faculty member working on it full time for a year. I don’t know how the department I’m currently in will manage.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2010 June 28 @ 16:24 | Reply

  2. There’s no reason that each assessment has to cover only one standard. Just grade them according to the standards: maybe your programming assignment will give them scores in Markov chains, arrays, matrix multiplication, I/O, and documentation. Just give those scores, NOT 85/100. Just record those scores (updating old ones, if need be), NOT “Markov Program”.

    Comment by jg — 2010 June 29 @ 04:53 | Reply

    • It can be hard to disentangle the reasons why a student turns in a non-functional computer program. Is it because they didn’t understand the concept, don’t know the programming language, can’t debug, didn’t bother to put in the time, … ? Even spending half an hour reading each badly written program often results in my only being able to see that they have produced a hopelessly muddled program which is basically beyond hope of fixing. The students who are doing well I can help by finding the slight misunderstandings that make subtle bugs in their programs, but those who are hopelessly confused produce work that is hard to interpret.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2010 June 29 @ 10:12 | Reply

  3. […] first post on SBG looked at some of the assumptions and guiding principles of SBG, concluding that it looked like a […]

    Pingback by Sustained performance and standards-based grading « Gas station without pumps — 2010 August 29 @ 09:16 | Reply

  4. […] schemes more meaningful, so that students will care more about learning. Currently fashionable is Standards-Based Grading, which is good for a reductionist analysis of topics, but not so strong on synthesis. SBG also has […]

    Pingback by Experience Points for classes « Gas station without pumps — 2010 October 23 @ 22:51 | Reply

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