Category Archives: ActiveGrade

“You’re a Novice at Not Being a Jerk:” Non-Academic Standards Part I

This is a cross post from our ActiveGrade blog, which is a mix of ActiveGrade updates and pedagogical discussion.  I try to be sparing in my cross-posting, but I think this is an important piece which fits this blog well too.  I won’t cross-post part two!

“You’re a Novice at Not Being a Jerk:” Non-Academic Standards Part I

by MICHAL on APRIL 6, 2011

My question is – why isn’t a student’s ability to be a decent human being factored in to their graduation requirements?

I used to teach at a Quaker school where community was valued in several intentional, structured ways.  Every day staff and students worked on a crew (chore) to keep the school in order and learn practical skills; we had weekly meetings of the whole school to discuss policies and organize events; we spent time every day in silent reflection; and we went on wilderness trips to experience something greater than ourselves and push our comfort zones.  When I look back, it is these experiences that often feel the most meaningful, the most instructive, the most educational.

In academics, we strove to give students regular feedback to guide them toward being independent learners.  In order for students to graduate, they, of course, had to pass certain classes.  But despite the fact that community engagement was such an important part of our curriculum, we didn’t really have a way to give students feedback on these skills.  A student might not graduate if they failed US History, but if they passed all their classes it didn’t matter how big of a jerk face they were.  They could have skipped every community meeting, been rude to every student and teacher, and generally failed to understand the underlying Quaker values we were tyring to impart and it wouldn’t matter – Diploma.

These experiences led me to the central question of the post – “why isn’t a student’s ability to be a decent human being factored in to their graduation requirements?”  Of course there are some immediate arguments to be made.  First up: “maybe it’s too subjective.”  We have all encountered, or at least heard stories of others encountering, that one teacher who just didn’t seem to like us for whatever reason.  “It would suck,” we might say, “to have that teacher passing judgement on my character.”  And yet, that teacher still passes judgement on how much we understand in the class.  That teacher is already blamed for our low grades in many cases.

Another argument is that students are at school to learn skills, not values.  Home is where students learn values.  My answer to that is that we learn values in our everyday lives both at home and out in the world through the people we meet and with whom we interact.  If school is the place where students learn they are supposed to complete pre-defined tasks in order to graduate but not a place where their ability to engage in fair and meaningful relationships matters, then we are teaching them to value certain things over others – in this case task completion over relationship building.  But let’s look at our own work environments:  how often do you need to be conversant in the Civil War and how often do you need to be able to work civilly with other people; how often to you need to calculate the arc of a basketball and how often do you need to take other people’s opinions into account; How often do you need to identify and analyze a theme in classic literature and how often do you have to be comfortable doing something you don’t want to do?  I’m guessing, no matter what your job, you need the social skills more than the technical skills.

Here’s my concluding question: if we can attach a letter or number to a student’s ability to write well or explain the collapse of Rome, then why can’t we, in the same way, describe their abilities to be nice to other people or add constructive comments to a group discussion?

Please share your thoughts!  I’ll tackle the question of how to monitor these skills next time around.

Please see the comments and leave your own at

WTF at these graphs

This is a graph of the activity on ActiveGrade for the last 24 hours.

It’s Saturday at around noon right now, so you can see that maybe a couple of people have been entering grades this morning, and a bunch of people were entering grades over the course of Friday – petering out around 8 PM (ugh – I feel for you).  The units here are a little complex – the vertical axis marks “requests per second,” which is proportional to “the number of things that are happening in ActiveGrade per second.”  When the line is at 0.3 requests per second, it means that about 3 things (maybe entering an assessment, looking up grades, changing a grading policy) were happening every ten seconds.  On average, of course.

I don’t think many of my students could really understand this graph.  It’s deceptively complex.  How many requests do you think ActiveGrade got total in the last 24 hours?  How many requests do you think are in a single spike? What does it even mean to be getting a request per second at a particular instant in time – less than a second long? Do you think you could say when the most people were logged on?

Still, it’s easy to see when the program was the busiest.  That’s useful.

But look at this graph, which covers the last 48 hours:

At first glance, it looks like activity levels were lower in the first 24 hours and higher in the second 24 hours.  The requests per second stay around 0.05 for the first bit, and are frequently up over 0.1 on the second day.

How many of you would look at this next graph, of the last four days…

… and guess at the distribution of visits shown below?

This is the same data.  Wednesday had WAY MORE activity than Friday!  Could this be right? Is there a problem with the graphs?

So here are the questions:

  • What is going on with these graphs?  Why does Friday, which looks so busy, do so poorly in the final count?
  • Is the line graph an appropriate model for reporting this data?
  • How many total requests have we gotten here?
  • Is the business going to succeed?

How would you structure a lesson to give students the fluency they need to ask, and answer, these questions?  Graphs with these characteristics will probably not appear in your textbook.

If you don’t teach calculus, does this kind of question (“hey wait a minute, wtf at these graphs?”) have a place in your class?

Please leave your thoughts in the comments!

Nuts & Bolts: Assessing to Make SBG Work

This is a cross post from my ActiveGrade blog at – please read the post at

It’s about:

  • SBG is great, but, like all things, requires attention to detail and concerted effort.
  • SBG lets you relax about your reassessment schedule; you don’t have to worry if it’s not balanced.
  • ActiveGrade is the bomb, here’s one more reason; please help me by commenting and spreading the word.



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?

I’m Just Saying

This is something SnapGrades chose to show in their demo video.

Cool how it automatically translates your message to Spanish, eh?  Now even the exclusively Spanish-reading parents can tell their kids to “study more!”

How much value does “Good improvement!” hold for Laura or her parents?

SnapGrades seems pretty good, as grading software goes.  If you want your reports to be a little more… helpful, sign up for the ActiveGrade beta test and help create something better.

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!