Exams: SBG-style

The goal of any exam, ideally, is to assess how much students have learned over the course of a semester or school year. I changed the focus of grading in my classes from counting points to counting progress towards specific learning goals, I knew my exams needed to reflect that change as well.

This summer I had initially thought I might design some sort of alternate, performance-based exam that would mesh well with the tenets of standards-based grading. However, this year all exams for the same class were required to be exactly the same regardless of teacher. Since I'm currently one of four teachers who teach the 9th grade Integrated Science course and the only one using standards-based grading, I knew I had to take our common exam and make the best of it.

So, the exams had to have the same questions, but they didn't need to be in the exact same order, right? I reordered all the questions on the exam based on the learning goal they assessed.

Multiple choice section, SBG exam

This process uncovered several questions which didn't address any of the learning goals, so these "others" were grouped together to make their own section.

Overall, I wasn't thrilled with the exam, but I think it was quite good given the requirements it had to meet.

Assessment

Breaking down the exam into its composite learning goals allowed me to assess each learning goal on the exam individually. It took decently longer to grade the exams in this way, but it also provided me and my students with a wealth of information about their learning throughout the first semester.

I created a Google Spreadsheet that automatically calculated the individual scores for each learning goal and the overall exam grade. Once the grading was done, I shared each student's spreadsheet with them through Google Docs.

Below is an example of a filled out scoresheet (and here's a blank calculation sheet if you're interested):

Example Exam Calculation Spreadsheet

Details

Overall grades. You may notice I calculated two "overall" grades. I told students their overall grade on the exam would be the average of their scores on each learning goal (giving each learning goal equal weight), but I wasn't sure if that might result in some odd effects on the overall grade due to some flaw I hadn't planned for. As a check, I also calculated the exam's score "traditionally," or simply by dividing the total points possible by the total points earned. Interestingly these two scores were almost always ridiculously close to each other (for most students it was <1%). I'm not sure exactly what that means, but it was interesting nonetheless.

Unfinished long answer questions. The exam had 6 long answer questions and students were required to complete at least 4 of them. I had a few students who either skipped the long answer questions entirely or did fewer than were required. It didn't make sense to penalize any one learning goal for not doing all the long answer questions (since, after all, simply not doing the long answer questions didn't necessarily mean they didn't understand the content of the learning goals). However, I felt that there should be some penalty for doing fewer than required1.  As a result, I calculated what percentage one long answer question was of the entire exam and divided that by 2- which gave me 1.84% in this case. For each required long answer question that was not completed, I took 1.84% off their overall exam grade.

Spreadsheet-fu. I honed some serious "if-then" formula skills in the process- an area of serious spreadsheet-fu weakness before this spreadsheet. Despite the time it took me to figure out how to make the spreadsheet do what I want, I'm still pretty sure using the spreadsheet instead of calculating everything by hand saved me several hours. Plus, now I have another formula type under my belt.

Final thoughts

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my predictions about what learning goals would be problematic for students on the exam were dead-on. They were the same learning goals that more students struggled with during the course of the semester. There really weren't any surprises on the mid-term.

What then, is the purpose of an exam in a SBG classroom? Exams are meant to assess how well students know the material that has been presented throughout the semester. However, if I am regularly assessing students' understanding of learning goals throughout the semester is there any benefit to a final, summative exam? Most students' exam grades were eerily close to their grades for the rest of the semester2.

If we're doing SBG well, it seems to me the final exam is unnecessary. We should already have a good understanding of exactly what students know, so why bother with a big test at the end of the semester?

Should the exam in an SBG classroom be something totally different than what we've traditionally come to think of exams as being? Or should they just be done away with?

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  1. At first I really balked at penalizing students for not completing the required long answer questions. However, after thinking about it for a bit, I came to the conclusion that to some degree the decision of a student to skip one or more of the long answer questions  was indicative of a lack of understanding of the content at least to some degree.     (back)
  2. On average, the exam grades were just a bit lower than grades for the rest of the semester. I can rationalize that in several ways: additional anxiety due to it being an exam, or a less than perfect exam design, etc.     (back)

Citations & tracked classes: SBG questions

We're now 8 days into the new school year & standards-based grading has officially been introduced and implemented (though we don't yet have much in the way of assessments in the book). I really like how the use of SBG has required me to rethink how I present a topic and how we spend our time in class1.

However, a couple issues have popped up where I could use a little guidance from some SBG-brethren (or sistren):

Problem 1: Citations & plagiarism

In the past, if students failed to cite their sources or plagiarized, I wouldn't accept their project/assignment/what-have you. I would give them an adequate amount of time to make the necessary changes and re-submit it without penalty, but if they didn't fix it up they wouldn't get credit.

As I was thinking through the SBG system, I realized that if I have a standard for properly citing sources and not plagiarizing information I could be opening a loop-hole. I did a twitter shout out on the issue, and the SBG-Jedi @mctownsley, responded to my question with a question:

Is citing sources an important issue you want all of your students to demonstrate?

Well, yes. I believe it's a very important skill to cite your sources- both for academic integrity and to point any readers toward your sources so they can read them and see if they agree with your interpretation of them. However, imagine a student really hates citations (let's face it, they are a pain) and decides to the play the system. They realize that as long as they use citations properly for the last assessment that requires them, they really don't need to do citations for any other previous assessments. This doesn't seem ideal.

My solution as of now: I have a standard for citations. In addition, if a student turns in a project or activity that is missing citations when it should have them or is plagiarized, then I'll give it back, tell them to fix it up, and not change any grades on any standards (except for the citation standard). While this technically leaves a loop-hole intact, I believe it'll prevent too much monkeying around.

Problem 2: Tracked classes

I teach 9th grade Integrated Science all day, every day. However, there are three(!) levels of Integrated Science: Honors, regular, and Foundations. Let's ignore issues with tracking students since it's an issue beyond my control at the moment2.

Should all Integrated Science classes share the same standards? Should achieving mastery be defined the same for all classes? My school weights honors classes more heavily (to prevent students taking low-level classes from becoming valedictorian, presumably), which seems to suggest there's a belief that the class requires less effort3.

My solution as of now: (1)The standards for all levels of Integrated Science are the same, but may be adjusted as I see necessary. If one level is showing a lack of knowledge I feel is important, I'll feel free to add a standard in for just that level (and vice-versa for removal of standards). I'm trying to be flexible and provide the best learning opportunities for all students. (2) I'm really not sure about this one. Right now I'm going to expect students in all levels to demonstrate similar levels of knowledge or skill to achieve mastery. Since I'm flexible on how much time I spend on standards in different classes, I'm willing to spend extra time if needed to get all students to mastery level.

Whatchoo think?

I know there are many people out there who have already dealt with similar issues. I'd love to hear your own solutions to these problems as well as insights into my "solutions as of now."

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  1. I really like the way it allows me to focus in on areas of student weaknesses and differentiate instruction with super-laser-guided-satellite-gps precision.     (back)
  2. For the record, I find it's 95% a bad thing- including some pretty serious (but never mentioned aloud) issues with minorities being over-represented in Foundations and under-represented in Honors. There's an unspoken message being given to our minority population...     (back)
  3. Not an assertion I agree with, but thems the facts.     (back)

SBG Express: I've got a ticket to ride

I mentioned it in my last post, and I'm officially announcing it here. My ticket is punched and I'm on board the SBG Express1 for the 2010-2011 school year!

I've spent the last few weeks reading and rereading several teachers' explanations and reflections on standards-based grading (including, but not limited to Shawn Cornally, Jason Buell, Frank Noschese, Matt Townsley, and several others who will be mad at me for not giving them a shout out). The more I read, the more I knew that standards-based grading was something that in some sort of sideways, subconscious way I've been working towards implementing the last several years even though I didn't even know what "SBG" stood for until May of this year.

Here's my basic understanding of SBG to date:

  • Assessment and grades should accurately reflect student learning (not just student homework-turning-in abilities)
  • Instead of using cumulative-points-earned as the basis for student grades, use progress towards a set of "standards (or "learning goals", or "knowledge criteria," or "whatever you'd like to call them")."
    • These standards describe specific areas of knowledge or expertise that students should gain. For example, "I can explain the law of gravity and understand what factors affect the strength of gravitational force."
  • Grades in your gradebook should help students realize where their understanding is great and where it's lacking.
    • Knowing they flunked "Quiz: Chapter 7" isn't helpful. Knowing they got 6 out of 10 on "I can explain why stars transition from one stage to another as they progress through their life cycle" gives the student valuable information that allows them to focus their remediation.
  • A grade on a standard is not set in stone (until exam time). Students can re-assess on any standard at any point in the school year. Grades can go down if the student shows a lack of understanding later in the course.
    • This should allow a students' grade to more accurately reflect their actual learning rather than be punished for not learning something before a big test when they knew it by the end of the course. Likewise, the student who crams successfully for the big test then forgets it all should have a grade that better reflects actual understanding.

I know! Sweet, right?

Fortunately, I've been blessed with a personality that's totally fine jumping into a project without having worked out all the details ahead of time. Unfortunately, I'm going to have to explain this whole SBG thing to quite a few students, parents, teachers, et cetera, in just a few days.

Tomorrow I'll share what I've got so far in the "details" folder.

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  1. copyright, 2010, Shawn Cornally (back)

Summer thoughts

Summer...that magical time where I look forward to reading1, thinking, and relaxing...but in actuality it usually gets eaten up quickly by either Master's projects (last summer) or landscaping projects (this summer). Obviously my posting to this site has been drastically reduced the last couple months. There a few things floating around my head that I'll probably post on later this summer, but for now, here's a quick run down of what's going on:

Project Climate

I really don't fell that I've yet done the project justice in this space- either in explaining what it is or reflecting on how it all went the first time around. The more I think about it the more impressed I am with my students and how well it went down. There are lots of glaring issues to be fixed with the project- but despite all of those I'm extremely happy with the level of thinking, collaborating, and learning the students exhibited throughout the project.  The trick this summer will be to figure out exactly how to tighten it up as well as implement it in three classes simultaneously (instead of just implementing it in one class this past spring). If you have no idea what I'm talking about, check out the project overview, student blogs, and past posts on the project.

Master's Project

With the conclusion of the inaugural Project Climate I've also reached the end of my Master's program. I was able to write up some reflection and analysis of how Project Climate went (a topic of future posts) and officially submit my project and apply for graduation. My adviser has encouraged me to publish the project- if you know of any journals that would be a good fit for Project Climate please drop that knowledge in the comments.

Twitter

I've really been inactive with Twitter this summer. With school over and my focus switched to projects around the home I just haven't felt like I've been in the edu-flow much lately. While I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing (it's good to occasionally take some time away from various aspects of our lives), I really do miss the camaraderie and knowledge sharing that goes on via Twitter. I have no thoughts of quitting Twitter for those of you who were worried (or hopeful) about that2. P.S. I'm @WillyB, if you're not following me and you'd like to. No pressure.

Standards Based Grading

My big education-related project for this summer is to take a good look at Standards Based Grading and try to figure out a way to use it in my classes. Since simply dropping the use of grades altogether isn't something that would be looked upon kindly, SBG seems to be a great way of really getting at what grades are supposed to measure: student learning.  I've been saving up Shawn Cornally's SBG posts over at Think Thank Thunk as well as a few other resources for just this occasion. I'm always open for SBG-related resources and implementation ideas- If you've got 'em, dropping them in the comments would be greatly appreciated.

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  1. There's a sidebar with the last several books I've read/am reading, just in case you're curious.     (back)
  2. I'm sure that was all of you, right? Right!?!?     (back)