Keeping Content in the Forefront: Standards- Based Grading in Project- Based Learning

November 13, 2017

by Andrew Larson

Through my Project- Based Learning journey, spanning ten years, I have been challenged in every conceivable way. Whether the “Defi du Jour” (Challenge of the Day) is a workshop that fell flat, a community partner that had to cancel, or students that struggle to collaborate, there is always something to bemoan, “If only I had thought of…_____________” . Most of these struggles work themselves out with experience, while others cannot be controlled.

Other, bigger, issues are truly never done. For me, in PBL, the biggest challenge I dwell on is assessment. For several years I admired the practice of Standards- Based Grading from the sideline, with the view that it seemed like a clear win for students. I hesitated to jump in with both feet because what I had seen and learned, in graduate- level coursework and at conferences, made me feel like I “knew just enough to be dangerous” with the practice.

Nonetheless I was convinced once and for all that SBG was a practice I needed to adopt by my friend and mentor Michael McDowell at New Tech Annual Conference 2014 (memorable conference and World Cup games.) He showed me how teachers in his district had successfully adopted proficiency- based rubrics for secondary content areas. These rubrics, which correlate to the key concepts and skills in a discipline (biology, in my case,) are the basis for all content- related assessment.

For several years I took what I absorbed in Michael’s one- hour talk on the last morning of a three- day conference and tried putting it into practice in class. I started developing rubrics for each standard for Biology I and putting them in front of students. During this trial period, many truths surfaced. I did not know how to set up my gradebook to reflect SBG and a “mastery” approach. Nor did my students know how to use the rubrics I was giving them to drive their learning forward on their own. Predictably, I ran out of time to develop SBG- based rubrics for the entire curriculum, so when we exhausted the ones that were made (let’s be honest, not that many) we reverted to more traditional assessment practices.

Nevertheless, I persisted. As one who takes the “slow cooker approach” to new ideas, I kept dabbling. A breakthrough, though, was what was needed. In one remarkably productive day this past summer, I managed to “finish” the job started with SBG rubrics many years past. I sought feedback from many colleagues and along with my co- planning instructor and friend Cinde Wirth, was ready to give Standards- Based Grading a proper trial run.

Now nearly a semester in to an immersed “SBG in PBL” approach, many lessons have been learned. Here are some of the big takeaways from this semester.

  1. While the SBG rubrics we created remain a work in progress, their creation was essential and invaluable. It is essential because it grounds us in the Depth of Knowledge progression that we know students must move through (i.e. one must know the definitions of words before making the quantum leap to analyzing the related complex concepts and applying that knowledge to other contexts.)  Finding the time to revise rubrics, once one has the insight that they need revised, is obviously challenging. Alas, there is no doubt in my mind that the time spend on SBG/ master- based rubrics is time very well- spent. These rubrics will be used until the standards inevitably are changed (does that sound cynical?) and even then, the changes are not likely to be all that profound. Sure, biology is one of the most dynamic disciplines on Earth, but core content knowledge is not going anywhere. Contrast the creation of SBG rubrics for project- specific ones and you will see that the context of each project changes each year. Teachers that struggle to implement Project- Based Learning do so in part because they report that the focus on content gets lost in the necessary process pieces (collaboration, presentations, and more.) SBG keeps the focus on content in the forefront. I can use these rubrics every year. And, lest we forget– SBG works in any modality, traditional, Project- Based, or other, because it is grounded in the content. That makes it immensely flexible.
  2. Students’ mindsets have changed in light of SBG. Because they have a path forward to learning the content that is transparent to them, they are empowered to follow that path. The first thing I do when we dig into a project or benchmark is give them the rubric and I make them physically embed that slip of paper in their notebook with pages reserved for accumulating notes, journal responses, data tables, etc. We set a date for an assessment. How they progress through their understanding of the content is more flexible than it ever has been in the past. Re- assessment and revision is always an option. Some students rarely need it, others do every time. Sometimes students ask, “do I have to retake it?” At first I would reply, “If you are content with your grade, no.” Now I reply, “If you have not demonstrated proficiency yet, then YES.” It cannot be understated how transformative the culture of revision that goes along with SBG can be as students are given a path to move forward and come to accept the mantra that “failure is not an option.”
  3. The gradebook changes are challenging for all of us. Parents need an education in SBG. They are used to seeing tasks like Homework 11/12/17 and Test Unit III with scores attached. In SBG every entry in a teacher’s gradebook shows up as a concept/ standard instead of discrete tasks. That grade is fluid to the end; if a student demonstrates just “emerging” knowledge in one project or unit, but later moves to “proficient,” the original, lower score will be replaced with the higher score. It remains a challenge to know what specific tasks are associated with each standard; we hear this from our counselor, Special Education department, parents, and students. The current approach we are trying is to use more descriptive tags in the gradebook (for example, “Std. 1.1 Developing Evidence for Gardening Research Paper” and “Std. 1.1 Developing Evidence for Climate Change Research Paper”) and simply exempting the original (presumably, lower) score at the end of the grading term. The philosophy centers on where a student ends up, and we do not expect them to be proficient until the end of a course. Another adjustment has to do with grading scales. We were told that we could implement SBG, but would be required to adhere to a traditional grading scale. However, it is well argued by experts in instructional practice that there is little value in a 0% – 100% grading scale. Our approach is to set the grading scale from 50% to 100%. We all know that if a student is sacked with an 11%, they are unlikely to demonstrate anything even close to hope or optimism about recovering. And at the end of the day, is there really any difference between a “high F” and a “low F?”  Sure, some students might not pass a term. But they can recover from a 50% far more than the 11%. However cliche it might sound, it is, after all, our job to help students learn to grow and, if need be, bounce back.
  4. Grading is far more manageable. My students know that there will be fewer grades in the gradebook. After all, it may take 1-3 weeks to completely unpack and show mastery of a standard. We still have as much homework and assignments as before; it is understood that those are necessary tasks for achieving proficiency. We do spot- checks for homework completion sometimes and that can go in the gradebook, but not as a content grade. Instead, if all that I am looking for is evidence of effort, I will assess it as such (see New Tech Network Rubric for Agency: Using Effort to Practice and Grow.) When we do presentations, it is almost always the case that I am assessing Oral Communication and not content (that will have already been done by the time presentations take place.) While it may be true that I have to grade and re- grade assessments that my students take, it is also true that I am more able to see the development of their knowledge through such an approach.

There are certain changes one experiences where the lasting sentiment is, “I’ll never go back.” In my career, there have been two. The first is Project- Based Learning. PBL creates rich and authentic learning that creates change in students and communities. Is there a better way? I personally do not think so. The second is Standards- Based Grading. When paired with PBL, this approach to assessment helps us all manage the tricky balance between focus on content, while developing workplace and life skills. I’m glad I finally leapt, and I’ll never go back.

This blog originally appeared on Magnify Learning.

Tags: ,