Category Archives: active SBG

Emphasize Learning

Should students be rewarded for being friendly, prepared, compliant, a good school citizen, well organized and hard-working? Or should good grades represent exclusively a student’s mastery of the material?

from The New York Times

The article that quotation comes from is spot on, but in a scary way.  The author, Peg Tyre, nails some of the primary benefits of standards-based grading, like the emphasis of knowledge and skill over classroom participation and direction-following.  She describes the improvement in parent-teacher-student communication after a school in Minnesota switched to SBG.  As you may know, these are benefits I believe in.

But the whole article is framed in the context of alignment with standardized tests.  The idea of standardized testing is not inherently repulsive to me as long as we can find some way to keep the focus of education on learning and away from scores.  To have this great article about knowledge and communication framed in terms of test scores makes me worry that our ActiveGrade software, and even SBG in general, will be turned against us as another method of points-grubbing that is simply more specific about where to grub for points.

It’s up to the teachers and parents and kids to keep the focus on learning.  No grading system can help much.  ActiveGrade and other programs that report SBG grades can help by organizing the grades into topics, and emphasizing those topics over any final grade, but they all must ultimately rely on summaries of learning that can be interpreted as a score.

Here’s how I tried to keep the focus on learning when I was teaching:

  • I made sure the class was interesting to me – if a lesson from last year felt boring, I tried to remake it.  I let my interest show in class with enthusiasm and engagement.  One day a young woman asked me if you could really crush a can with boiling water (like Bill Nye does), and I’d never done it – the next day I brought in the materials so we could try it!  Clearly the can experiment doesn’t give me a pay raise or anything – it’s just interesting to me and I showed my students that I was interested.
  • I tried to model learning for its own sake by letting students see me learn things I had no expertise in.  As the math teacher, they didn’t relate to me when we were learning math – even if it WAS something new to me, I learned it faster and easier than they did because, I don’t know, I know the properties of multiplication about a thousand times better.   I joined soccer practice for a semester, in which several of my math students were at least a thousand times better than me, and I asked them for help on small parts of my technique.  They saw me falling down, getting muddy, going up for a goal and completely missing the (stationary!) ball (it’s funny now, but it felt really bad then), but staying with it and getting better.On a smaller scale, I did this in class by basing scenarios around things that the students knew a lot about (e.g. fashion or video games or music or juggling) but I didn’t, and just taking 30 or 45 seconds to let one of them share their interest.
  • I went out of my way to hold students up as authorities in a subject.  If a student had shared about juggling earlier, and so we were discussing something about it, I referred to him when another student had questions like, “how many times does a club flip over?”  I did a lot of group work, with each group studying something independently, and I would refer the group studying vertex form to the group finding roots if it was appropriate.  Giving students the responsibility of being authoritative in a subject gave them a new kind of reward for learning.

How do you emphasize learning in your classroom?  One thing I never did well was including parents – I met with them once a year, if they requested it, for 10 minutes.  I regret not talking about this stuff more explicitly with them, and also with the students.

I just realized that I’ve started to forget how much there is to keep track of while you’re teaching and planning and grading and reporting – writing about my regrets brings back all the stress of feeling like I’m not doing ANYTHING.  I’m turning this into a run-on post, now, but please remember that you are doing a LOT of work for a LOT of other people.  I hope you’re proud of yourself – you have my admiration, respect, and gratitude!  Sure, SBG is great, and we can all improve at everything, but don’t sweat it: love those kids, first, and show them the beauty all around them!

Active Grading: Comparison

Active grading means:

  1. Emphasizing the learning that grades represent, and trying to avoid holding grades as the final product of education.
  2. Allowing students to react to their grades. Grades are the beginning of a conversation, not the end.
  3. Helping students to understand their grades by organizing them into topics (vanilla SBG).
  4. Actively keeping students informed by assessing their skills often and giving them feedback as soon as possible.

I think a lot of us like the ideas of active grading because we care more about helping our students learn than about

  1. their transcript or
  2. comparing them with each other.

We give feedback as a way of helping students learn.

But we also want to give feedback in the form of numbers.  Numbers have all these great properties that meaningful feedback doesn’t have – you can average numbers but not comments, and you can compare numbers “objectively” but not comments.  It’s faster to read numbers than comments, and I can scan a transcript with a GPA to decide whether to let someone into my college much faster than I can read 30 pages of writing.

So, we condense our knowledge about students’ learning down to numbers (or, more extremely, a single number!).

Once we record a grade as a number, we’ve lost information.  I gave Mike an 85% last year in calculus, but that doesn’t tell you that he just couldn’t get his head around the idea of a differential equation.  You gave Sandeep a 75% because he aced every test but never handed in a piece of homework and skipped every other class.

But now I’m a college, Mike has a 3.5 GPA, Sandeep has a 2.5 GPA.  I can clearly see from these marks that Mike is a better student – by twenty-five percent of the scale.  Maybe Sandeep has some extracurriculars or something, but he’s got some major catching up to do!

When we do this we’re acting like recording grades as numbers adds information to them!  We can’t sort comments  in order of academic achievement (automatically), but it’s no sweat sorting GPAs – even from different teachers in different schools, each with his or her own idea about what the grade levels even mean!  This is inappropriate.  The numbers are not orderable.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the last couple of months, as I build ActiveGrade.  How do we use numbers to represent grades where it’s appropriate – to get the power of the best-fit line, or the correlation – without giving those numbers too much power, like the power to rank (which is nonsense with different definitions) or average (a 0% F averaged with a 100% A is: a 50% F.  Talk about effed up!).  I think I’ve hit upon a few great ideas – more on that soon.  What do you do?

Announcing ActiveGrade!

Hey Y’all,

This year I’ve been working with a partner on developing a piece of grade-reporting software that we’re calling ActiveGrade. Here’s why:

  • There’s a lot more that software can do to help make grades understandable and meaningful.  I think grades should be the start of a conversation between students and teachers, and so one of ActiveGrade’s focuses is helping teachers communicate exactly what they mean when they report a score.
  • ActiveGrade is also a reaction against grading software that treats grades like the final product of education.  I feel strongly that damage is being done to students who are motivated by grades (ugh), so I’ve been striving to create something that functions mostly as a feedback tool which students can respond to.  Grades should not be an end.
  • Support for standards-based grading in other software is weak.  ActiveGrade is strictly SBG, and it will provide tools for teachers and students to really participate in active SBG.  You may have noticed: I liked the term “active SBG” so much I named my software after it. Well, I should say that we liked it – Dan really came up with the term. Anyway!

ActiveGrade will be ready for beta testing next month!  A big goal in the testing is to figure out what kinds of tools are most important to teachers using active SBG.  If you want the chance to make ActiveGrade what you really want it to be, I hope you’ll sign up!

If you’re interested in helping, sign up at!


Which Active Grading Scheme is Best?

Active SBG means:

  1. Emphasizing the learning that grades represent, and trying to avoid holding grades as the final product of education.
  2. Allowing students to react to their grades. Grades are the beginning of a conversation, not the end.
  3. Helping students to understand their grades by organizing them into topics (vanilla SBG).
  4. Actively keeping students informed by assessing their skills often and giving them feedback as soon as possible.

These ideals are great, but we have to be really careful about how we implement them – there are some major traps to avoid. For example, if we implement #2 by throwing out old grades, do we inadvertently overemphasize tests and contradict #1? If we break our whole course down into discrete topics to implement #3, do we run the risk of trivializing the broader connections _between_ concepts in our curriculum?

I’m creating grading software, and trying to decide what the default grading scheme should be.  Here’s my current favorite.  What do you think?

Rubric for each assessment:

  • 0. Has not demonstrated any skill or understanding
  • 1. Has demonstrated the beginnings of understanding, but still makes conceptual errors
  • 2. Has demonstrated understanding of the standard, but still makes mechanical errors
  • 3. Has demonstrated basic mastery of the skill
  • 4. Has demonstrated mastery of the skill, can connect this skill to other skills, and can creatively apply it to new situations.

It may not be possible for a single assessment to accurately measure a 1 and a 4, here, since any assessment that can measure a 4 would probably overwhelm a student who is at a 1 level.  An assessment that could measure a 4 would probably include many different standards simultaneously – its score could be entered in multiple standards at once.

Reassessment policy:

Students may ask for a reassessment on a given standard whenever they like.  Reassessments might take the form of problems, conversations, a project, etc.  If the student wants the chance to earn a 4, he should ask ahead of time, since these assessments take time to create.

Method of calculating a standard score:

A decaying average that counts the most recent score as 60% of the total grade, recursively. Whenever a student gets a new score for a standard, that single score is worth 60%, and the combination of all the old scores is worth 40%.  Examples:

First assessment Second assessment Third assessment Final score The math
2 3 4 3.4 0.6\cdot 4 + 0.4(0.6\cdot 3 + 0.4(2))
4 3 2 2.6 0.6\cdot 2 + 0.4(0.6\cdot 3 + 0.4(4))


First assessment Second assessment Third assessment Fourth assessment Final score The math
2 3 4 4 3.8 0.6\cdot 4 + 0.4(0.6\cdot 4 + 0.4(0.6\cdot 3+0.4(2)))

Method of Calculating the Overall Grade

To find a student’s overall grade, I evaluate the list below from the top down.  The highest qualifying grade is assigned.

An average of at least 3.6 with a minimum score of at least 3: A

An average of at least 3.3 with a minimum score of at least 2.5: B

An average of at least 3.0 with a minimum score of at least 2:  C

An average of at least 2.7 with a minimum score of at least 1.5: D


Examples, with 6 standards in the course:

S1 S2 S3 S4 S5 S6 Average Minimum Final Grade
Student 1 3 4 4 4 3 4 3.7 3 A (on average, shows high-level understanding.  Has no gaping areas of weakness)
Student 2 3 4 4 3 3 4 3.5 3 B (on average, shows somewhere between mechanical and conceptual mastery)
Student 3 2 4 4 3 3 4 3.3 2 C (shows a mix of low- and high-level understanding, is good with the mechanics, but still can’t really get standard 1)
Student 4 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 C (always shows mechanical mastery and has never shown higher-level understanding. Has no areas of bigger weakness)
Student 5 4 4 1 4 4 4 3.5 1 F (usually shows a very high level of understanding, but really doesn’t understand standard 3.  Note that a single assessment with a score of 3 or higher on standard 3 would launch this student to a B)

This answers a lot of my worries, as long as I can really keep up with the demand for level 4 assessments in a way that connects multiple standards.  Students must show a lot of high-level understanding to get an A, and they must be able to connect concepts.  Students who just want to pass the course can easily get a C by learning the rote, independent skills of the course.  This seems about right to me.

Worries I still have:

  • Under this method, if I give a final exam and a student with straight 4s gets a 1 on one of the covered topics, is it really right to drop that student to a C?  His grades would be something like 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 2.2 4 4 4 4.  A C?  Maybe it’s not the minimum that I should be testing, but some measure of deviation?  Maybe I need to leave 3 days for emergency reassessment after any “final” exam?
  • This system is complex.   Is it so complex that students would feel completely confused about their grade?
  • All standards are “weighted” equally here.  Do I need to reserve some topics as more important?

What do you think?  I’m trying to make this software for anyone who wants to use Active SBG in their class.  What do you need to effect your favorite grading system?

Strategies for keeping active SBG cohesive

Does breaking the grade into 10 or 20 different topics help? or does it foster a reductionist attitude toward learning—that everything is discrete and independent of everything else?

Does allowing lots of reassessment help? Or does it focus kids on point chasing?

GSWP left these poignant questions about SBG for us, and today Sam Shah said that so far, the answers for his classes are bad.  To keep the punches coming, Alfie Kohn points us to “When Good Teaching Leads to Bad Results: The Disasters of ‘Well Taught’ Math Classes,” which concludes that “Despite gaining proficiency at certain kinds of procedures, the students gained at best a fragmented sense of the subject matter and understood few if any of the connections that tie together the procedures that they had studied.”

A scary and sad morning for people just starting to use active SBG!

Sam’s last point is that practice of active SBG needs to include some kind of protection against the choppiness that splitting your curriculum into discrete chunks brings.  If we assume that students will see their grades as the final result of our classes (a depressing but realistic assumption), what can we do with our grades to include learning and connections in them?

My Strategies

Here are two strategies I used to hold my courses together and fight tendencies of reductionism.

  1. I worked hard to reward students in ways that didn’t include grades, and heavily rewarded higher-level, holistic thinking.
    • Praise: “Great realization, John – that’s the real root (hah!) of the connection between factors and intercepts here.  This isn’t going to be on a quiz, but it’s one of the most beautiful parts of this stuff.”
    • Recognition: “And this is another case of what Sarah was describing before!”
    • Interest: “Whoa, how did you think of that?” followed by a 90-second conversation.  (Requires students to do something interesting, of course).

    This stuff felt cheesy at first, but I realized that if I only used it when it was really genuine, then, well, it would be really genuine.  Unfortunately, it tends to reward some students more than others, but we also give some kids As and some kids Cs, so I’ll leave that debate out of it.

  2. I reserved my highest grade for students who showed more complete understanding. At my school the highest grade was “honors,” but you could use “A” or “A+” or whatever.  If a student earned 100% on every skill in the whole course, he or she still wouldn’t earn the highest grade without completing a few projects that brought together a larger scale of knowledge.  This is, I admit, very un-SBG.  The effect was that students who just learned each concept individually and minimally could never get an A.  I made that very clear from the beginning, so that students wouldn’t be surprised, and I spaced the projects so that I introduced about one per month, keeping the emphasis on holistic learning throughout the year.I didn’t like requiring more work for the highest grade, but I did really like requiring a different magnitude of understanding.

SBG is no guard against point-chasing, and even active SBG has a lot of loopholes kids can exploit.  And, I mean, of course.  Teaching is freaking hard and teaching 80 kids at a time is even harder.  We’re set up to use grades as a reward by the system, and have to fight to keep them low in importance.  When grades are the reward, how can we really expect learning to be most important to all kids?

Strategy 2 above is the most practical – an administrator could just drop that into your class without caring if you’re a total grump with your kids.  But strategy 1 is really the most important, I think.  You know how I feel about personally connecting to our students already – I think it’s our only tool that actually does elevate learning over grades.  And with that our only tool, every point-chasing kid looks like a nail!