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2010 December 18

Recent posts on standards-based grading

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There are  couple of posts on standards-based grading that I’ve been meaning to talk about.

One is a New York Times article by Peg Tyre that presents standards-based grading (in 8th grade math at Ellis Middle School) as a panacea.  “Knowledge grades” are based solely on averaging end-of-unit tests.  There is a separate “life grade” for things like work habits, effort, and citizenship.   While this is a positive change in many ways (no more extra credit for bringing the teacher school supplies), it misses the point of standards-based grading, which usually means splitting the “knowledge” into separately evaluable topics or skills and allowing students to keep working until they have mastered each topic, not just averaging their one-shot end-of-unit tests.

I don’t know whether Ellis Middle School or  Ms. Tyre is abusing the terminology, or whether Ms. Tyre simply left out the important part of Ellis Middle School’s change in order to meet a deadline.  Either way the article is not about standards-based grading, despite the prominent mention of “a new, standards-based grading system.”

More recently, quantumprogress had a post on “Perfectionism and SBG“, in which he (she? I’ll assume male for the rest of this post, as the odds are higher, given that the blogger is a physics teacher) comments on the behavior of perfectionists under SBG scoring schemes in physics classes.

He wonders why a student wants to have perfect scores on all standards going into the test, particularly when the student express it as “I would like to enter the exam having showed understanding on absolutely everything.”  He doesn’t believe it is because the student really wants to understand everything, but relates it to “conceptual consumption” in which ideas are treated like things to be acquired as status symbols (like some bird watchers’ life lists of species sighted).  He also relates the idea to video game achievement lists as described in “Conceptual Consumption and Kicks to the Head” (see also my posts Experience points for classes and Just scoring points).

He idealistically says

I want them to see to see learning as a process, I want them to see that just when you think you understand a concept, you realize how much more there is to understand, and that is a good thing. Precisely for this reason, it’s pointless to put together a list of “intellectual achievements” for you to achieve, …

Personally, I think that the video game designers have tapped into a good way to get engagement, and that we are better off as educators trying to exploit the gaining-points mentality than trying to fight it.  There is significant risk if the point system is poorly designed, both of students forgetting the material as soon as the points have been earned and of not valuing anything that does not have points.  But I believe that addressing those challenges head-on in designing the grading system works better than wringing one’s hands and wishing the students valued learning for its own sake (of course, a few will, and we don’t want to lose them in the point-chasing crowd).

So, as I see the challenge, it is not to magically instill a love of learning in students, but to set up a system in which continuous small rewards keep students attention on the learning and get them to push themselves to do things that previously they would have regarded as either impossible or not worth the effort.  The small rewards need not be “points” or “grades”, but they have to be observable by the students (changes in their knowledge and skills, which outsiders can easily observe, are not really accessible to student perception). Some larger rewards (like the “achievements” lists in some video games) can also be motivating for longer-term commitment.

I think that another point that came up in the comments on Conceptual Consumption and Kicks to the Head is important:

However given the short checkpoints, the challenge never felt insurmountable, and I generally (with a few exceptions) could tell where it was a flaw in my skills or tactics that had let me down—and so the fun was in trying to overcome that.

What do we have as educators that corresponds to the “short checkpoints”? What to do we have that tells students where the flaw in their skills or tactics that let them down, automatically, so that they immediately want to try again?

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