Testing the SBG waters

One of the changes I'm experimenting with this term is the introduction of Standards Based Grading. I've never really been satisfied with the systems I've used in the past for assessment. I really hope and believe that SBG could be what I've been looking for.

I've seen people claim that Australia's had SBG for a long time, but either I'm really slow to pick up on trends or it's not all that prevalent (I'm certainly not ruling out the first option). In Victoria at least, we've got what could be described as Standards Based Reporting, but I've never seen SBG implemented explicitly within a classroom setting.

Which is a pity, because AusVELS* seems to match well with SBG. Our standards are based on "Levels", which is a subtle distinction from Years. The Levels match with where students are expected to be at the end of a given year. For example, at the end of Year 7, a student is expected to be at Level 7.

But the system recognises that students can be above or below these levels. Teachers are expected to give students opportunities to progress regardless of the level they are currently at. And our reports don't show grades; students are given "progression points" indicating the level of the standards they have achieved. If a student is halfway through Year 8 and are at the expected level, they get a score of 7.5. If a student at the end of Year 3 is a year ahead of the expected standards, they get a 4.0. (Parents don't actually see these numbers - they get a chart of dots showing their child's current and previous progress.)

And helpfully, in maths there's an extra level above 10 called "10A", so high acheiving students are less likely to "run out" of standards to work towards in Year 9 & 10.

So this has been my dilemma: How do I write assessment tasks that both give my lower students opportunities to succeed and give my top students opportunities to demonstrate the higher standards? A number grade doesn't work. Even though our system's been based on progression for a long time, students can't get the idea of "pass/fail" out of their heads, and if you don't tell them what a passing grade is, they just assume it's 50%.

Which means I end up either writing an easier test, which everyone is capable of passing but doesn't let top students show their progression; or I include harder questions which challenge the top students but drops the score of the lower students below 50%, even though they may have progressed well to get to that point.

Over the last few years I've experimented with a few different marking systems, but have never really been satisfied. At one point I tried a "star" system, where I gave each question a rating from 1 to 3 stars based on its difficulty, and gave each student a seperate grade for each star rating. As you can imagine, that was convoluted, messy and confusing for both the kids and me.

Other times, I've written up to three different tests of different difficulties for the same unit. But then I need to decide which students do which tests. So I need to know what level the students are at before they do the test. But that's the information the test is supposed to give me. Either that, or I let the students choose themselves, which inevitably leads to some students being overconfident and choosing a test harder than they should, or some top students feeling lazy and choosing the easy test.

So instead I fall back to using the simple number grade. But I find the numbers I give were only ever for the kids' benefit, and never really provided useful feedback anyway. When I came to writing their reports, I've always had to pull their tests out again so I could check where their responses fit within the AusVELS standards. I often wondered why I bothered marking the tests in the first place.

I realised that I need a way to assess students against each standard seperately, using a grading system that easily lets me match students against the AusVELS levels. Luckily, I stumbled across SBG shortly after this realisation. I started planting some of the seeds for the idea of SBG with my Year 9 class at the end of last term, giving me the opportunity to start it properly this term. The school holidays were very useful for more research and planning into SBG (this Global Math Department presentation was very conveniently timed for me!). After one week, the students have understood our new assessment system quickly and seem to be on board with it.

Originally this was going to be a post about how I'm implementing SBG, but all I've really talked about is why. I think this was still good, just for me to make my own reasoning clear to myself. But it does mean the post I meant to write now still isn't written. So, hopefully I'll get to that in the very near future :)

* Australia is currently in the process of developing and introducing the Australian Curriculum. Maths, English, Science and History are already implemented for F-10. In my state of Victoria, we use the term AusVELS to refer to our current mixture of the new Australian Curriculum for completed subjects, and the old standards (VELS) for subjects that are still a work in progress.

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Shaun used to be maths, IT and ocassional physics teacher at a small P-12 school (primary and secondary) in rural Victoria, Australia. He is currently in the process of starting his career again in the United States.

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