20: Standards-Based Grading in the Science Classroom

October 24, 2021

In this episode, Erin Sadler interviews Vanessa Wentzloff from Out of the Box STEM about Standards-Based Grading (SBG) in the Science Classroom. Vanessa is passionate about equitable grading practices and has presented about this topic at various conferences. Vanessa explains what SBG looks like in her own classroom.

Standards-Based Grading – Changing the “Game of School”

Vanessa explains that most high-achieving students have learned to play the “game of school”. There are rules to the game, and if the student follows the rules, they do well. The biggest rule is that students must complete and turn in assignments on time.

But, Vanessa argues that traditional grading systems don’t measure what students know and understand. Instead, they measure compliance. In fact, the students with the highest grades may not be the students who have the best understanding of the material. And, this doesn’t sit well with Vanessa.

What is standards-based grading?

With standards-based grading, everything that is put into the grade book is directly linked to standards. These standards are either content-based standards or skill-based standards.

SBG also looks at a progression over time. For example, students may not understand the content in their early work. But, that isn’t the goal. The goal is for students to meet the standard by the end of the unit (or the end of the school year). Therefore, only summative assessments count toward final grades.

The role of Formative Assessment in SBG

SBG allows you to use formative assessments as they are intended, as feedback. In a traditional classroom, formative assessments, even informal versions like classwork, get put into the grade book. But this doesn’t allow students to learn and grown from their mistakes.

With SBG, students receive feedback on these assignments. However, they aren’t entered into the grade book. This allows students to learn from their mistakes without fear of penalty.

What else is left out of standards-based grades?

Anything that doesn’t reflect students’ mastery of the standards is left out of the grades. In addition to formative assessments, classwork, participation grades, extra credit, and similar activities do not count toward a student’s final grade in the class.

How do you get students to do the assignments if they don’t count towards their overall grade?

Vanessa believes it’s important that students understand why assignments are being given. She spends a lot of time in her classroom talking about the mindset shift that comes with a standard-based grading approach. She focuses on the mastery of standards and is able to show her students how each activity will help them meet the standard.

However, she acknowledges that it takes some time for students to fully understand this shift. Some students struggle during the first unit or two. Most often, it is the students who are good at the “game of school” who struggle most.

Students who aren’t good at the “game of school” tend to see the earliest payoffs. They quickly realize that small missing assignments won’t derail their grade. And, Vanessa says, this usually leads them to participate more in the classroom.

The Role of Self and Peer Assessment in SBG

Vanessa explains that it’s important that students assess their own understanding of the standards. Also, she provides students with the opportunity to assess each other. Because these assessments aren’t being counted toward the final grades, this is a low-stakes environment that encourages students to drive their own learning.

Vanessa provides her students with a standard sheet that explains what students are expected to do. They have multiple opportunities to practices alone and with peers throughout the unit. None of these pieces go into the grade book.

What happens to students who are poor test takers?

Vanessa explains that re-assessment is built into everything she does in her classroom. She gives her students the opportunity to retake any assessment that she offers in her class.

Also, she notes that it’s important to change what your assessment looks like. Students in her class are involved in the more authentic engagement. Each assessment is related to a real-world scenario. And, students use the Science and Engineering Practices in their assessment. Finally, students are allowed to work on the assessment out of class. This allows them to take as much time as they need to complete the assessment and feel happy about the final product.

To learn more about changes in 3D assessments and how to prevent cheating on assessments, click here.

Creating Buy-in for Standards-Based Grading

According to Vanessa, students are usually the first to accept the standards-based grading approach. Because she emphasizes the importance and reasoning behind the shift in class, her students are willing to make the shift.

Quote: Students will care if they understand why - Vanessa Logan Wentzloff, Season 2 Episode 5 on Standards Based Grading

However, it can be more difficult to get support from other stakeholders. Vanessa suggests talking to your administration before making the shift to SBG. It’s important that they understand why you are making the change. Their support is essential.

Also, Vanessa spends a lot of time talking to parents about SBG. Often, this is the most difficult group to gain support from. But, Vanessa talks about the shifts during back-to-school night and sends information home at the beginning of the school year. She says that when students start to see the benefit, parents start to come around as well.

About Vanessa

Vanessa Logan Wentloff is a physics teacher in Auburn Hills Michigan. This episode was recorded during her 6th year of teaching. Her district was on year three of NGSS integration.

You can find Vanessa on her blog, or on Instagram.

Other Episodes and Resources Related to Standards-Based Grading

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