Standards Based Grading: Step 5 - Stop Grading Everything

I've talked about creating learning objectives from the standard. I've talked about starting with what evidence of learning you'll accept for each objective. I've talked about aligning your lessons. And I have talked about formative assessment and why it should not go in the grade book.

Today I am going to explain how I don't grade anything. Kind of. 

Grading for compliance hurts our most in need students and creates a game of points instead of a focus on learning. To be completely candid and honest: if you make this shift in isolation (as I have) you will still be fighting the culture of points with many students until the very end of the semester. But I cannot stress enough how much the benefits of a standards-based classroom outweigh the challenges.

When we assign points to every single worksheet, activity, bathroom pass, kleenex boxes, etc, we make the culture about how many points you can earn, not how much you have learned. I know it may seem impossible to motivate students without the game of points. You probably have students who refuse to comply or turn in work and you make every single thing worth points! How could you ever get them to do the work if you took the points away?

Well, they will. And they won't.

I'd like to take a minute to share with you a little story about college: In my Intro To Political Philosophy class I remember reading hours and hours and hours of Plato, Machiavelli, Locke, and Hobbes. I had 4 notebooks full of copious reading notes. I highlighted, underlined, and should have bought stock in post-its. We had daily roundtable discussions (benefits of a small liberal arts college) where I participated every single day. But the thing is, we were only graded on 4 papers we wrote throughout the semester.  He didn't write objectives on the board each day, he didn't give us quizzes, he didn't check our notebooks or notes. He did make clear the first day that we would have four papers based on our readings and discussions in class. He made clear what the papers would be about and would need to include. The readings and discussions all aligned with what those papers asked of us, so it was self-sabotage to not do them.

At this point, you might be thinking, "But you were a college student so of course, you did what was assigned!" But I would like to counter with this question "Why do we hold our students to any less than that?"

When you stop assigning points to every single aspect of your class, students will still do the work if they find the work is valuable in helping them succeed. Students cheat and copy because they find earning points valuable to their success in a traditional classroom. If students are scored only on their ability to meet or master an objective: they will do what they need to do to get there. They will do the work if they believe it will help them get to their goal.

This does mean you are going to have to let go of a lot of stuff. But it does not mean you are no longer holding students accountable.

This does mean you are going to have to let go of a lot of stuff.

Things I Don't Grade Anymore:
  • Homework 
  • Bellringers
  • Notebooks
  • Essays
  • Projects 
  • Worksheets
  • Discussions
  • Debates
  • Socratic Seminars
  • Packets 
  • Quizzes 
  • Quick-Writes
  • Graphic Organizers 
  • Presentations

I do not put any of the above items into the grade book but we still do all of them. Yes, we even still do worksheets from time to time because a worksheet in itself is not inherently bad (but that is a rant for another day.) For most tasks, I do check to see if they have completed it and check on their accountability and work ethic but at the end of the day, does it really matter if a student has done every single task I have asked of them if they can prove they have mastered the objective or standard?

Now, don't walk into your class on the first day of school and say "none of this matters if you can prove you've met the standard!" Because while that might work for a handful of students, most of your students need you to guide them to mastery and you do that through all the activities listed above. Most students need us to teach them: our job is still essential in a standards-based classroom but how we spend our time and efforts changes.

From the above list, I make sure all work is aligned to an objective and I make that objective clear to students. I will be honest, I don't write my objectives on the board because I am terrible at whiteboards in general so it is usually on the paper or in the presentation or on the hyperdoc we are exploring that day. But by making sure the work is aligned with the goal and consistently reminding students of their goal, they will see the value in the work and do it. Unless of course, the work is busy work and really doesn't have value to them. When I made the move to a Standards-Based classroom I was shocked by how much work I had been assigning that was busy work.

Then if I can automate feedback at all, I do. Because if the work is practice students still need to know what they did right and what they did wrong as quickly as possible but they don't need to lose points for getting it wrong or earn points just because they did it. This is an area I am constantly trying to improve upon because I know I can do better. It can be as simple as just going over the correct answers or discussing the different responses to an assignment and why they are valid (or why they are not valid.) If it is a complex task: use a rubric to give feedback. But do not put any of this work in the grade book unless it is truly a summative assessment for a standard or series of standards.

But it does not mean you are no longer holding students accountable. 

At first, I always have students who think they can do nothing and BS their reflections or assessments and pass my class. I monitor what they have done or not done and am never surprised by how stressful the first assessment is for them. Usually, I pull them aside and bring up Google Classroom or my spreadsheet and show them how they have not completed any tasks and they might say "but they aren't for a grade" and I explain (as I explain to my whole class multiple times those first few weeks) that the work I assign will make sure they are ready for the assessment, even if it is not for a grade it is important and valuable because it will help them learn what they need to know.

In my classroom, it used to be that at the end of each unit they would turn in a packet or notebook and I would go through and grade for completion. I would return the Unit 1 Packet and it would say "50/100 PLEASE DO YOUR WORK!!" or something like that. A parent would call and say "What can my son/daughter do to improve?!" and I would say "They just need to do the work." If they got 100% on the assessment that comment to parents would barely change, "They do well on assessments but they just need to do the work!"

In both versions of my classroom: not doing the work hurt the students who needed the work to achieve mastery but in my old classroom not doing work also hurt students who had already mastered the standard. In my old classroom, my response was always the generic: you just need to complete the work! And in my old classroom, the assessment was kind of irrelevant. It could help or hurt a grade in general, but conversations almost always went back to a very general conversation on whether or not a student completed their work.

Now in my classroom, I can explain to the student how each assignment helps them meet a specific goal. We can talk about alternative ways they could show me they've met that goal (which are rarely if ever assigned to students.) The conversation is about what the student is able to do in relation to mastery of a standard and not just work completion. Conversations about work completion or work ethic are separate conversations; it does not impact how I measure what a student knows or is able to do.

That conversation is really powerful. You will have students who need that conversation a few times before the process really clicks for them but you have to remember: their whole life school has been a game of points. They have either gotten really good at playing this game or they feel the game is rigged against them. This culture shift takes time, patience, and transparency with your students.

The other really powerful conversation is when you are sitting with a parent and can talk about participation, work ethic, and responsibility and how well their student is doing in those areas compared to their academic abilities.

Ways to Create Accountability in a Standards-Based Classroom 

It does matter if students do not comply with your expectations and instructions but it should not impact their academic letter grade. The bottom line is: what does that letter grade stand for? What does that letter grade represent? If you start listing soft skills before listing academic content and knowledge, I ask you to please consider if it would be more powerful to delineate these skills and measure and report them elsewhere? When we attach these skills to their academic grade, the conversations about knowledge versus work ethic become muddled together and compliance becomes most important, not knowledge. 

What are your thoughts on grading all tasks? Do you think effort, on time work, and completion rates need to be measured as part of their academic letter grade? Share your thoughts in the comments. 


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