Monday, June 4, 2012

SBG: The Rich Get Richer

If you run an SBG classroom your inbox likely looks a lot like mine, right now. Lots and lots of students are suddenly realizing that they want to reassess skills. And it's a pain. And it feels like a game. And occasionally it's great, and and sometimes there are great conversations that you just wouldn't have if you were unit testing without reassessment. Fine. But I'm interested in another aspect of SBG:
What sort of students will initiate a reassessment?
In my classes, it's almost always the students who are going to be just fine. Honors students love reassessing. Students with 83 averages love reassessing ("I really need a 90.") Sophomores reassess more than freshmen.

For me, strong students are way more likely to initiate reassessment than weaker students.

Duh, right? Of course they do. But there's a strain of teachers who promote SBG with success stories about students who would have traditionally been given a 70, but because of reassessment they received a grade that more accurately reflected their mastery of the material. "Isn't a shame that students who should be failing, now are being duly rewarded for their learning?"

That's just not my experience with SBG. My experience is that the students who are in serious danger of failing remain in serious danger of failing until I drag them into my classroom for some tutoring and reassessment. My students who struggle are (usually) harder to motivate, and that lack of motivation is also reflected in how likely a kid is to reassess.

In short: SBG is not good at making sure that students who have bad grades end up learning the stuff and getting a better grade. Kids who are hard to motivate, are still hard to motivate in SBG. We need to be more careful when we talk about SBG to be clear about what sort of things SBG will help with, and which it won't.

So what is SBG good for? More and more, I think that the big benefit* of running an SBG classroom is that SBG is a coherent, logical system that makes an attempt at fairness, and students respect and appreciate a fair system that they understand. It's having a system, more than its implementation, that really makes a big difference.

My prediction: If you came up with another fair, logical and well-thought-out alternative to traditional grading, it would have the same impact as SBG even if it didn't allow for student-initiated assessment.**

* There are little things along the way that are nice about SBG, but there are little things that are annoying about it also. For example, it's nice to have a skills checklist at the beginning of the semester. It's nice to be able to give detailed feedback to parents when they ask what their kid should work on, or what their kid is struggling with. But SBG also takes time. SBG does exacerbate certain problems with point-grubbing. SBG is reductive. 

** I'm actually a HUGE fan of teacher-initiated reassessment and of cycling through concepts constantly in my regular assessments. My weekly quizzes can include anything from any point of the year, and this has really tremendous payoffs in my classroom. But you don't need SBG to do that. You do need more regular assessments that cycle through old concepts, though.

[Related: This earlier post of mine.]


  1. SBG is a framework to use for feedback. I think as soon as you expect it to motivate your students or plan your class or find strengths and weaknesses automatically... you're asking too much of it.

    What I like about SBG is that the feedback you're giving is in terms of the knowledge the students have gained. Without SBG, you can say "You got a 75% on the last test." With SBG, there's no way to communicate without mentioning the subject that you're trying to teach - the subject is always central.

    The benefit to poorly-performing students is that you can say, "You know how to add, but it doesn't look like you know how to subtract yet. Come in after school so we can work on it." Without SBG, you say, "Your score is low. Come in after school so we can work on it."

    1. >"With SBG, there's no way to communicate without mentioning the subject that you're trying to teach."

      I hear kids communicate about their assessments all the time without talking in terms of knowledge.

      "I did well on almost all of the skills."
      "I really messed up that skills quiz."
      "I got two 3's on that quiz."
      "Mr. P, I need to take some quizzes."

      SBG gets rid of one particularly summative way of talking -- averages -- but there are still others. We can't use SBG to force our students to talk about what they know.

      On the other hand, with SBG students do say things like this all the time:

      "I need to meet to go over exponents."
      "I don't even know what sinusoidal modeling is, but I need to reassess it."
      "I want to raise my grade. Can I requiz on logs?"

      Is that the sort of talk that you like, Riley? If so, I agree, there's more of it with SBG.

      In short, I guess my point is that when SBG hits reality things the results aren't clean, and when all is said and done the major way that it impacts a classroom is by just making sense. I contend that everything else has mixed results.

  2. You wrote, "SBG is reductive".

    Maybe you wrote about the point I'm about to raise earlier, and I'm way behind on blog reading. So forgive me.

    How much of the concern you raise here is due to "Standards-Based Grading", and how much is due to "grading, based on standards"? I hadn't spent much time considering the difference between these two formulations before reading these posts of yours.

    "grading, based on standards" doesn't have a laundry-list of entailments. You can base your grading on standards and use points if you like (although, I think you and I both agree that points are toxic). You can base your grading on standards and have teacher-initiated reassessments. You can base your grading on standards and do pretty much anything you like.

    My own struggles that this distinction helps out with is the grain-size of a standard. In math, SBG seems to suggest "skills-based grading" more than "standards-based" from what I can see. In that sense, I agree wholeheartedly that "SBG is reductive". But grading, based on standards, need not be reductive. It depends on the size of your standards.

    As an example (esoteric, I'm sorry to say, since I only have my most recent teaching semester in my mind), consider a Calc 2 standard I had last semester, "Evaluate challenging definite integrals exactly" (there's also one about estimation). This included by u-substitution, trig substitution, partial fraction decomposition, etc. The whole litany of integration techniques was under that one standard. In a more conventional math SBG scheme (from my understanding), there would have been a standard for u-substitution. And another for trig substitution, etc.

    That larger standard size is really important to me for a bunch of reasons (which this comment is too small to contain). So I say lose the shackles of "Standards-Based Grading" and adapt your system to be a really good "grading, based on standards" system.

    1. Point well-taken.

      As I try to figure out why my standards are reductive, and not meaty like yours are, here's what I come up with:

      1. I worry about the Regents, and I don't want anything to fall through the cracks.
      2. I don't want to mark a kid as proficient in "Difficult Integration" if I only have evidence of u-substitution and not of trig-substitution.
      3. I want kids to know exactly what each standard involves, so I want the standard to be as self-explanatory as possible.

      While there's nothing about SBG that forces me to have reductive standards, I do feel as if allowing student-initiated assessment creates the need for clarity, fairness, and cleaner assessments. These needs encourage standards that are more reductive, in my opinion.

  3. I am doing things similarly in my class. We have a few short quizzes each week. Some are newer concepts, and some are old. In fact I try to cover all old standards at least every 2 months. Some don't retain the info. so they relearn and reassess on their own time. Those that truly mastered the concept, still do well.

    I also have the last minute students trying to raise their grade at the end of the grading period. I have a mix of students...not all high students. But it bugs me that they wait to do all the retesting at the end! How do you deal with that?

    1. Hey Kristin,

      The deadline rush is something that I think all SBGers who allow student-initiated reassessments deal with. Honestly? I just suck it up and end up giving a lot of reassessments in the last few weeks. I know that's not the answer that you're looking for, but that's what I do.