Specificity is Good. Right?

A central tenet of standards-based grading is that specificity is a good quality of feedback.  For example, “Timmy has an 50% in spelling and 100% in grammar” is better than “Timmy has a 75% in English” because the latter is less specific.  The relationship can’t hold forever, though.  Do we want this as part of our grade report?

Hey, you know, maybe we do want this.  I can come up with some rationalizations.  But what about this?

I’m going to take a stand here: this is too much information.  It’s overwhelming for the student – there’s so much to work on!  If I did this level of granularity on my class I’d have 400 standards for the first semester alone.  In a more subtle way, this is also a problem because we need our standards to be a little bit vague.  We actually cannot distill every piece of content in our class down to a standard and test it.  Maybe the one standard “spelling” is good enough.

Finally, a big part of SBG is letting go of the idea that you’re going to test everything anyway.  Or that a student will be able to do every single thing you taught her to do.  This has been a big part of me growing into a leadership role at school and at camp, too, actually.  Communication isn’t perfect, and people aren’t perfect, and they don’t need to be.  So, when you’re handing back Suzie’s essay, which had 45 spelling errors on it, maybe you mark eight of the spelling errors and don’t mention that she’s missing a comma on page five.

Which leaves us with a pretty big set of decisions: what will our standards be?  I’ve written a guide about how I decided in my classes, but of course there will be many situations in which it won’t help.

An idea cooking in my brain: what role can students play in deciding what the standards will be?  Maybe they can’t really know what’s important, and that’s our job as teachers to decide.  Maybe we could give them the list of 400 things we wish we could give them, and they choose 30 for the semester.  Maybe we just work up some directed inquiry activities and then talk  with the kids about what the standards should be after the fact?  Or maybe we have a base 15 required standards, and challenge kids to make their own after that.  Hmmmm.

12 thoughts on “Specificity is Good. Right?”

  1. 1. I was going to start off with the conversation and the state standards: At the end of the year, you need to meet these standards. I am here to help with that. It puts me on their side from the beginning.

    2. I would mark all 45 of Suzie’s spelling errors, but limit myself to working on spelling. I don’t want to discount their work by not assessing it, and accepting her essay after fixing the spelling is going to be a nice building experience.

    1. The hard part comes in when 1 conflicts with 2. Say “spelling” and “transitions” are both on the state standard list. Suzie can’t work on both standards at once (overwhelming), but on the other hand she’s not going to pass your class if she doesn’t. Oof. I’ve been in this situation several times in Algebra or Precalc, when I get a student who doesn’t have mastery of, like, ADDITION yet. What can I do in that situation?

  2. A fair criticism, but I don’t think purpose is to merely give the student as much information as possible; the information needs to be meaningful. For instance, I am homeschooling my five-year old and his spelling curriculum involves him learning certain families of similarly spelled words and then various modifiers (mostly prefixes and suffixes). While I don’t have to give my son grades, if I did, I could give him meaningful feedback about how he often forgets to double up his t’s when adding on suffixes like -er and -ed or how he has really improved on spelling words that have a silent k at the beginning.

    It seems that when your standards correspond to general rules, algorithms, etc., then the feedback can be meaningful. If they correspond to instances, then they won’t be.

    1. That might be a great criterion for a standard, but it leaves us wondering in some cases still. For example, “adding” is a general rule, but so are “adding two numbers” and “adding three numbers” and “adding two whole numbers.” It’s still hard to decide where to draw the line!

      And, on the other hand, a spelling list is a common practice that literally spells out (hah) the precise list of words a student should spell. When I was in first grade I remember going down the list one by one to study, and marking the words when I got them. So maybe word-by-word CAN be meaningful… or at least helpful.

      1. I see your point, but I’m struggling to find examples where I would have trouble deciding where to draw the line. For instance, in your example, “adding two numbers” is a core skill (although, in practice, I would break it down further). I would change “Adding three numbers” to “Adding three or more numbers” since there is a mathematical issue here they need to learn (associativity). “Adding two whole numbers” would not be a standard as it is an instance of a general rule that is not particularly enlightening (as opposed to say, “Adding 1 to a number”).

        The problem with spelling lists in schools (at least the ones I had) is that they are generally tied to words supposedly learned in that grade level, as opposed to some internally consistent standard (this is the origin of the famous example of yellow being a first grade word while yell and low are third and fourth grade words, respectively). To me a spelling list like:
        is far less helpful than

        I can give reasonable feedback to my son on the latter two lists, but very little other than “you got these wrong” on the first.

  3. I not only struggle with SBG, but with SBT (standards-based-teaching). While we are currently homeschooling, I am not opposed to formalized or group education in general.

    The concept I struggle with the most is this:
    > Ok, suppose I agree that standards A, B, and C are ‘worthy’ standards. I want to cover the material and somehow assess the child’s mastery.
    > The question I then am stuck with is “how important is it that standards A, B, and C are all mastered at the same time? is it really important in the big scheme of life if A and B were mastered in 9th grade, and C came during 10th grade?” Particularly a challenge in group environments, I know… but that is where it is also possibly the most useful. In a class of 20 children, you are likely to have a bell curve who can master all 3, but then again, have the outliers who can master 1 or 2 but not all… not due to any mental capacity issues per se, rather learning styles and/or emotional maturity.
    > and is it different when we are talking about english and social-studies type courses, which may be more ‘knowledge’ based vs math & science which are more ‘skills’ based (and some may suggest more cumulative in nature as a result)?

    Bleh, I’ve rambled long enough, but your post definitely got my juices flowing with the questions!

    1. Shirley, you’re hitting on a great point. By what deadline do we insist that students learn a particular set of standards? In my classes the deadline was always the end of the semester, with lots of chances to keep learning even after most other students had moved on. Would it be better if the deadline were the end of the year? Would it be better if the deadline were the end of high school, if somehow we could manage to track student progress well enough to support it?

      I’m not sure about the distinction you’re drawing between SBG and SBT, though. Would you clarify what you mean, please?

      1. I was trying to distinguish between “what” is being taught and “how” its mastery is assessed.

        In my little peabrain view then, SBG is the grading methodology you use for assessing mastery of the material taught, and how that mastery (or lack thereof) is reported to the student and his/her parents. e.g.: You can tell me that I mastered the major components of A and B but not so much C because A, B, and C have standards defined.

        SBT then would be the conscious decision to teach a set of topics (or subset of topics) because they are identfied in a certain standard. For any given grade & subject, there are literally dozens of standards available that specify “what” is important and should be mastered. (Usually a given school or district has some pretty “strong” ideas which standard you should use!). e.g., You teach A, B, and C because they are identified in the standard you are using.

        1. But you’ll have to determine what you’re going to teach at some point, right? Whether you have separate skill areas (standards) or a general area (US History) or something more organic (“What’s interesting to you?”), at some point you’ll have to make the conscious decision to teach a set of topics.

          Please don’t think of yourself as a peabrain in this – thanks for your contributions!

  4. Isn’t the point of standards that kids should know and master them all, and isn’t the point of deadlines that kids learn to plan their workand face the challenge of working efficiently? I’m concerned that by accepting 30 of 400 standards as sufficient and lowering time pressure almost indefinitely we’re doing the students a disservice by expecting too little from them.

    1. 1) I would love to test all 400 standards, but haven’t found a way to do it effectively. The limitation to 30 is a matter of necessity, because there’s not enough time to do 400, and the students can’t focus on 400 things in a semester.

      2) For me, deadlines are for communicating, not teaching. That is, my deadlines tell students when I need their work, but they do not teach them to plan. I use several other methods to teach them to plan.

      2.1) If a student can’t plan and can’t get his work in on Monday, are you willing to fail him even though he clearly shows that he’s an expert on Tuesday?

      3) I expect a lot from my students, and many of them find their classes with me to be difficult. Your level of expectation can be orthogonal to the way you organize grades.

      1. The approach used in most test design is to randomly choose a subset of the possible topics, to get an estimate of how well the student would have done on the whole set, had the test been long enough to test them all.

        Telling the student ahead of time exactly which topics are assessed restricts their learning to just the assessed topics.

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