What Standards-Based Grading Has Shown Me

For the past year and a half, my principal and I have often engaged in conversation about grades and grading practices. As this school year started, I wanted to find a way to attempt a standards-based grading system in order to get a more detailed description of how my students were performing.  After using the system for two weeks, I’ve seen the holes in the current system we use and am very happy that I started doing it. So, what do I do?

First, I grade each part of my assessment in terms of what my learning targets were for the week. For example, one of my learning targets this week was: “I can simplify exponents with the same base.” So, the first two questions of my assessment covered this target and were each scored out of two points. One point if the students knew to add the exponents and one point if the students knew they could only add the exponents for the same bases. I then continued this practice for each of my targets this week. Finally, I grade each target separately and then total it up to give students a letter grade because, let’s face it, that’s what most parents want.

Speaking of parents, I share this standards-based grading system through a “report card” with parents each week using the Google Sheets script autoCrat. This is a mail-merge script that allows me to send each parent and student their grade along with how they did on each skill. I put all of the information in a Google Sheet and, after running the script, each student gets something that looks similar to the following:

Screen Shot 2014-08-31 at 11.58.56 AM

I used this as an example because it was a standards-based report card similar to this that drove a great email exchange between a parent and I. The parent was worried about her daughter because she usually got A’s and B’s and she wasn’t sure what was going on with the daughter. What I find funny is that her daughter was still getting a B, but the word “emerging” had her confused. She didn’t know how her daughter was still getting a good grade when she didn’t know how to do two of the skills on my assessment. I pointed out that she knew how to do three of the skills really well, one pretty good, but two she needed to work on. Before, the mother would have seen a B and been happy. Now, she realized her daughter needed to work on two skills.

Another parent emailed me, thanking me for sending her this detailed report because it gave her some relief after talking to her daughter.

Screen Shot 2014-08-31 at 12.16.56 PMHer daughter had told her that she bombed her quiz and was worried about her grade. In reality, she knew three of our five skills really well, one she did ok on, and one she needs to work on. The reason she thought she bombed her quiz is because she earned a C+. The last target involving the distributive property and combining like terms held more weight than the rest of the questions, skewing her grade. When the mother emailed me she said, “So it really wasn’t terrible after all was it? She just needs to work on one skill and maybe get a little better on another?” That’s exactly right. Before, her and her daughter would have had no idea that she knows how to do three things really well.

Although it has been extra work for me, I’m really glad I started using this system for grading in my class. The students, parents, and I are getting higher-quality feedback than we did before. I’m also thinking of linking each target to a Khan Academy video in order to give students a means of learning the material in a different way before they retake their assessment.




My Focus this Year: Curiosity and Creativity

Each year, it seems as if I focus more attention on something I feel is lacking in my classroom. In previous years this has been things like technology, cooperative learning, and assessment. This year, I tried to think of something that I thought was of utmost importance for the success of my students in light of the Common Core. So, I’ve decided this year’s focus is fostering creativity and engaging students through curiosity.

I first started thinking about how to engage students in my classroom through curiosity after I had the opportunity to listen to Ramsey Musallam speak at the Chicago Tech Forum this year. Here is a short TED talk from him, similar to the one he gave in Chicago:

So, the first day of school this year, before I introduced myself or talked about class or anything, I put up this picture and asked students to estimate the weight of the soap. (This was taken from the website Estimation 180 which has 180 different things to estimate, one for each day of the year.)


After approximately 1 minute, I moved on to my next slide introducing myself, without telling students the actual weight of the soap. In each class, some students looked around at others or got weird looks on their faces. It always led to a conversation something like this:

Student: Are you going to tell us the answer?

Me: Why? Does it really matter to you to know whether or not your answer is correct? Does the weight of soap really affect you?

Student: No! But Knowing whether or not I’m correct does bother me!

Me: Of course it does! You’re curious!

I then explained to students that I was going to try to use this to my advantage throughout the year. (For those of you feeling uncomfortable right now, the 16 bars of soap weighed 4 pounds.)

Another strategy I am using is to try and not give students the question I am asking. I achieve this through pictures and videos, often from the website 101 Questions. Here is an example of one from last year.

When the video was finished, did you ask yourself, “When are they the same height?” I feel this is mathematics in its truest form-looking at a situation and trying to use mathematical concepts and properties in order to find when they are the same height. (Again, if you are curious, it occurs when there are 7 cups in each stack.)

Activities like this lead me to my second focus: creativity. When I propose this situation, I allow students to find the answer however they would like. I give them all of the dimensions they need, but I don’t give them cups. The reason for this is that if we just stack them until we see at 7 they are the same height, there wasn’t a whole lot of mathematics occurring. Instead, students use lots of different strategies in order to solve the problem. Some draw pictures, others subtract lengths lots of times, and yet others use a system of equations in order to find the answer.

I also see student creativity in my algebra class this year when we have to come up with a scenario that would fit the graph of a linear piecewise function. We first watched this Dan Meyer video and graphed his elevation vs. time.

I then gave students this picture and asked them to write a scenario that would fit this graph. Screen Shot 2014-08-24 at 11.06.30 AM


The students exceeded my expectations on this. There were so many scenarios from slides to short roller coasters. One of my favorites was a man rock climbing, getting stuck twice, falling, hitting the ground, and then rolling down a hill. It was so great. The kids were laughing and competing for the best story, and, in the end, very engaged in the lesson.

Now comes the daily challenge of finding a way to make as many mathematical concepts as I can encourage curiosity and creativity in my students. So far, students seem to be having a lot of fun and even talk about the things they see outside of my class that make them think about mathematics. Until next time, stay creative and curious.