Assessing Skills in a Standards-Based Classroom

How do you approach a skill that you will work on all semester? How do you take a Standards-Based Grading approach to skills while still allowing for feedback, formative assessments, and without going insane from the workload or record keeping it creates for you as a teacher?

The truth is: you have some options.

As a social studies teacher, I am responsible for teaching a boatload of skills. Maybe not as many as an ELA teacher but when you have content standards and literacy standards combined, it can feel very daunting and overwhelming to take an SBG approach and often it can feel like something will fall through the cracks.

First of all, there is a difference between what you teach and what you assess. You can probably teach it all, but where do you most need to focus your time and energy for assessing and grading?

Second, something will probably fall through the cracks so wouldn't it be better for you to make a decision on what? Even Marzano Institute, the education research giant, says teachers cannot possibly teach all of their standards so it is best if teacher make choices knowing that before starting their year. What are the essential skills they absolutely must master before they move on? When you determine that list then you know where to focus your assessments.

I know, I know, you want to yell right now "IT IS ALL ESSENTIAL!!!" And my heart agrees with you, but until there are some radical changes in education as a whole, it is impossible for a single teacher to teach and assess every skills standard assigned to them each year. This is especially true when most of us in secondary classrooms have 180+ students. So let's start by picking 5-10 you can focus on the most and remember, you can still teach everything else, these are just the ones you will assess fully. To be honest, this process works best within a PLC but I know not every teacher has the luxury of a PLC at their school.

In California, we have our State Standards for history and then we have our Literacy Standards (as you can see above) and we also have a framework on how to teach all this but that's for another post. What I want to focus on right now are the skills standards.

When I look at the writing standards, the first big one to tackle for the grades I teach is this:

WHST 9.10.1. Write arguments focused on discipline-specific content.
  • a. Introduce precise claim(s), distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and create an organization that establishes clear relationships among the claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.
  • b. Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly, supplying data and evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both claim(s) and counterclaims in a discipline-appropriate form and in a manner that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level and concerns.
  • c. Use words, phrases, and clauses to link the major sections of the text, create cohesion, and clarify the relationships between claim(s) and reasons, between reasons and evidence, and between claim(s) and counterclaims.
  • d. Establish and maintain a formal style and objective tone while attending to the norms and conventions of the discipline in which they are writing.
  • e. Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from or supports the argument presented.
This is just one standard but it would be unreasonable for me to approach this standard as a one and done lesson. This standard has 5 complex components that need to be taught and assessed. Additionally, students will need to work on these standards multiple times, I'll want my students to grow and develop these skills over the course of a semester so I have two main options for how to approach putting this skill standard in the grade book but before I can decide how to assess them, I need to do the first step of all SBG work, I need to start with the standards.

Step 1: Make it student friendly. 

This is a time-consuming process and some out there will say you can have upper-level students do the exercise of rewriting the standards themselves. If you choose to do that, I suggest doing it as a whole class. When it comes to what do these standards actually measure and ask students to do, you don't want there to be any room for error in how students understand the standard.

Here is my student-friendly version of WHST 10.1.A:
  • I can write using a precise claim and distinguish that claim from counterclaims. My writing presents the claim, counterclaims, reasons, and evidence in an organized manner that shows a clear relationship between all parts. 
There is a lot to teach here, and as I said before, it cannot be taught in a one and done lesson. Additionally, if I want my students to become life-long learners who value a growth mindset then I need them to experience the process of returning to skills over and over again in order to improve upon that. That means I need to assess this skill more than once, but how do I do that with SBG and keep my sanity?

Your Choices 

Option 1: Measure the skill-based standard multiple times through the semester.

How does it work? In a normal history class students will write argumentative essays and short responses all semester so each time they do we review the skill and they are assessed again on where they are at with that skill.

How would that look in the grade book? Each time an argumentative writing piece is assigned the components aligned to WHST 10.1.A is assessed and measured on its own. It might look something like this:

  • Enlightenment Values Essay WHST 10.1.A - 2
  • Revolutionary Period Essay WHST 10.1.A - 3
  • Industrial Revolution Essay WHST 10.1.A  - 3
  • Imperialism Around the World WHST 10.1.A - 3 
Now, my reality is we don't write this many essays in my World History class (because this skills really can be measured in other forms of non-traditional writing) but for the sake of creating an easy to read example you'll see that there were four different assignments here and the skill was assessed each time. As a teacher, you could either use the average (because even Marzano Institute says it is okay to average the scores when they are summative scores based on standards on a 4 point scale) or you could use the mode. This is one of the choices that the teacher of PLC group will need to determine based on the needs of their students and how they run their class.

What is important to note though is that the score in the grade book is not a score for the essay as a whole, instead, it is a score for the priority standard that was assessed within that essay. In reality, the grade book in this hypothetical class would look something like this:
  • Enlightenment Values Essay WHST 10.1.A - 2
  • Enlightenment Values Essay WHST 10.1.B - 2
  • Enlightenment Values Essay WHST 10.1.C - 1
  • Revolutionary Period Essay WHST 10.1.A - 3
  • Revolutionary Period Essay WHST 10.1.B - 2
  • Revolutionary Period Essay WHST 10.1.C - 2
  • Industrial Revolution Essay WHST 10.1.A  - 3
  • Industrial Revolution Essay WHST 10.1.B - 3
  • Industrial Revolution Essay WHST 10.1.C - 4
  • Imperialism Around the World WHST 10.1.A - 3 
  • Imperialism Around the World Essay 10.1.B - 4
  • Imperialism Around the World Essay 10.1.C - 4

Where I will actually grade in this format is in my AP World History class. This is how I will assess the writing standards for my AP World History Students second semester. You can see the proficiency bands here and you'll notice it's a lot of stuff I'll need to grade and give feedback on but by breaking it down into smaller components instead of essays as a whole, I can give students more specificity on their strengths and weaknesses and we can focus more on growth over time.

Now, if you are using a traditional grade book to report there is also a break down of options for how to put this is the computer system that measures grades. I am going to do a whole post on that next so if you can't wrap your head around how do you report these scores to parents and students and post to a report card while maintaining a Standards-Based Classroom: I got you. Just come back in a couple of days. 

Option 2: Break the Standards Down Throughout the Semester

This is the method I have used with my summer school students and my college prep World History class. Here, you take the standards and break them down into more measurable goals. This works well when the standards as a whole are too complex for students to really know and understand where they are at and where they need to be. 

So again, you start by breaking it down but you break it down a little differently:

Here is my student-friendly version of WHST 10.1.A:
  • 1. I can write a precise claim.
  • 2. I can write a precise claim and distinguish that claim from counterclaims. 
  • 3. I can write a precise claim and present the claim, counterclaims, reasons, and evidence in an organized manner that shows a clear relationship between all parts. 
So now, throughout the semester we work on one component at a time. Again, this works best for those meaty standards. Part of the purpose of going Standards-Based is for students to better understand what they know and can do and where they still need to grow when the standards are too complex this process allows for students to better take autonomy over their learning. 

How do these look in the grade book? Just like this! 
  • WHST 10.1.A.1
  • WHST 10.1.A.2
  • WHST 10.1.A.3 
Now, this does not mean you only assess each skill once, you still want to do formative assessment and give feedback but with this method, you aren't reporting the same skill every time a student writes, instead the skill is being assessed at greater and greater complexity or rigor throughout the semester. 

Continue Exploring Standards-Based Grading 

While there are some components of Standards-Based Grading that are essential to its success there are still areas where teachers have a lot of freedom to determine what will work best for how they teach and what their students need in order to promote learning and growth. 

If you want to know more, you can read all my blogs on grading here but what I really suggest is checking out one or more of the following books. All of these books I have read and have influenced the work I do in my classroom on a regular basis. 
If you need more book recommendations just let me know! I've read a lot of grading, assessment, and motivation over the past few years and these few are just some of the ones I always find myself recommending or referencing. 

How do you approach skills based assessment? Share in the comments or on Twitter


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