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by Erica Fischer on Jan 21, 2014

Creating a Standards-Based Grading Classroom that Everyone Can Love

Last Thursday night, #langchat was the place to be! As teachers popped in from around the world to discuss how to maintain district standards while incorporating proficiency-based grading, the #langchat hashtag became a trending item after just 30 minutes!

Not only was there a lot of engagement over this topic, but participants were also able to share some really great insights into managing assessment expectations for parents, teachers, administrators and students, while promoting language growth.

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Grade Diluting: Is More Always Better?

Creating a Standards-Based Grading Classroom that Everyone Can LoveStandards-based grading (SBG) is the idea that students are assessed on their level of mastery of the objectives in a course. Students are not only assessed, but given feedback about how to proceed in the future to improve their level of mastery. One of the key concerns is that despite the move towards SBG, schools and districts may still require teachers to use traditional data points and assessment methods in addition to SBG. This puts a lot of pressure on SBG teachers to not only measure students’ proficiency on course objectives but also numerically factor in averages of assessments and assignments. This can in many cases increase the number of graded assessments that teachers include in their units, and can sometimes lead to a process known as “grade dilution.” @KrisClimer said, “A lot of grades does dilute meaning of each one, unless each assessment builds on the previous one.”

Yet, when using SBG students are not able to mask their level of understanding no matter how many grades they have because each assessment is created to prove mastery of a standard. Students should not progress unless they are proficient in a standard. This might mean that teachers have to give students many more opportunities to prove mastery of a specific standard versus just giving students extra work or other opportunities to build their grade (i.e. extra credit, attendance, etc.) @alenord said, “One thing I think must change is to take fewer grades than we have in the past. Lots of grades mean that they don’t mean much!”

Some teachers feel that grade dilution is not as bad as its name may imply. @SraSpanglish mentioned, it is also a way to “cover” yourself when parents or administrators want to know how a student is progressing in your language classroom. She explained, “Grade diluting…reflects trends rather than blips.

The #langchat community championed the idea of giving more personalized feedback over traditional assessment methods whenever possible. @garnet_hillman said, “Students can learn without grades, but they cannot learn without feedback…less grades more feedback for growth!”

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SBG and Transparency: Keeping Parents In the Know

Many districts have converted to “transparent” systems, in which parents can login to a personalized page for their student and see an updated grade percentage for the student at any point in the school year. Continually updating grade percentages has become a hot topic for many world language teachers. While there are different kinds of software that will calculate grades automatically, these platforms are not always conducive to SBG. @CoLeeSensei said, “My gradebook program crashed as I tried to do “proficiency” not grades.”

There were a few ways that teachers suggested keeping parents more engaged in the SBG method of student assessment.

1. Use a Simplified Point Scale. Whether you use a 7 point scale like @yeager85 or a 4 point scale like @garnet_hillman, a point scale can be effective as a quick way for parents to see how their students are doing in a language classroom. Often, these point scales can easily be translated into percentages with a handy reference chart.

2. Rubrics Help Parents Value SBG. As long as parents and students understand what is expected of them ahead of time, using SBG can be just as easy to understand as any other assessment method. @alenord said, “Convincing parents is a matter of teaching them about the rubrics. They need to know their babies aren’t penalized for everything. The #ACTFL or Lingafolio “I can” statements are also a powerful tool for convincing parents!”

3. Convert Standards to Grades. Even knowing the value of SBG, many parents and students still want to see grades. Since Standards-Based grading is about mastery, giving grades can be difficult. Although it would make more sense to simply have a “mastered/not-mastered” system, there are many parents who want daily proof of their child’s improvement. @trescolumnae suggested translating proficiency levels to grades so that it is more accessible. He said, “I use a system that @ccsspanish and I developed: At Standard (depends on level) is a high B, for example.”

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Mastery vs. Grades: What best prepares students for college?

This last point brought up the important question: What is the role of grades in the world language classroom? For many teachers, there really isn’t an option. A school or district often mandates grading methods, and there is not much that teachers can do to change that method whether they use SBG or not.

For those teachers with the autonomy to choose, however, there is a schism of opinion between whether grades are helpful or harmful in the long run.

Benefits of Mastery:

Higher language enrollment. Students are attracted to the idea of not having so many grades to worry about throughout the semester. Although this does not eliminate the need for assessments at the end of the semester, it is much less stressful when the class is focused on learning, not making grades. This focus also makes language courses more fun and more authentic.

Often more rigorous than grade-only classes. Students who are in mastery classes can’t just “get by.” Often, the mastery score is higher than a typical “passing” grade, usually about 80%. That means that students must redo assignments that aren’t meeting this high expectation and gain a better understanding of the material.

Focus on communication. For many #langchat teachers, it’s clear that focus in the classroom can sometimes be so grade-heavy that deeper learning never occurs. In a mastery-based classroom, students have the flexibility to make mistakes without fear of lowering their overall score. It increases communication and helps them develop necessary risk-taking skills that are often missing from other types of classrooms.

Drawbacks of Mastery:

Not all support staff are supportive. @cadamsf1 said, “[SBG] has helped enrollment, but we are far behind in educating EVERYONE counselors, students, parents, admin. Not everyone believes that colleges will accept a Pass/Fail mastery course grade as equal to a grade-based classroom.

May not prepare students for college life. @SraSpanglish said, “So many people say all these 2nd chances don’t prepare kids for college reality…What do you tell a kid when the professor laughs in their face when they ask for a redo?” This is a very real concern for many teachers, administrators and parents. Some teachers argue that offering students multiple opportunities to complete assignments correctly is not often found in college or the real world.

Can be time-intensive for the teacher. Having to grade items multiple times can be a time-intensive task for teachers, especially when personal feedback is required. Instead of having a handful of scantron assessments or simply grading one interactive activity, students who are not meeting the standard must receive individualized feedback in order to pass. This might lead to unintentional lowering of standards in order to get students moved through the curriculum on time.

The Best of Both Worlds

Although both sides make excellent points, it was clear that many #langchat teachers prefer the mastery method in the elementary, middle and high school setting, with a healthy dose of grading mixed in. @trescolumnae said, “It’s a process. Some students are very grade-focused, but if you design the system well, “getting grade” requires proficiency.”

The key element is whether students are learning to be proficient in the classroom. @garnet_hillman said, “If our kids leave us without proficiency, we have not prepared them for college. They are better prepared having mastered the material when with us. Life is full of redos.”

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Thank You

There were so many great comments and conversations that we just couldn’t include them all (although we wanted to!). We want to thank @msfrenchteach and @CoLeeSensei for helping to guide our discussion. Also, check out a full transcript here. There were fantastic suggestions for grading strategies, comments on the mastery/grade debate and good hands-on techniques for creating a growth-based classroom.

We love to know what you’re doing in your world language classroom. If you have an idea for a future #langchat topic, please share your ideas with us. We want to help you build your professional learning network and learn with you!

Additional Resources

Standards Based Learning and Standards Based Grading from the trenches – part 1
GECHS Spanish Proficiency Portfolio
Strategies for Standards-Based Portfolio Curation
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Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.

One comment

  • Joan Conner

    I believe that mastery of language skills should be the ultimate goal in a foreign language classroom. However, I do see how our traditional grading system conflicts with SBG. I think that students need multiple opportunities and modalities to reach mastery. Perhaps for now, a combination of SBG and traditional grading is the way to go, at least until all constituents have a better understanding of how SBG works.
    I don’t agree with the comment that fewer grades is better. I think students need multiple opportunities to be able to achieve mastery.

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