• An Interview with Scott Habeeb and Pawel

Standards-based Teaching and Learning: After Year One

Several teachers at Salem City Schools in Salem, VA have been using JumpRope and undertaking standards-based grading for about 12 months now. We reached out to Scott Habeeb, the high school principal in that district, and Pawel Nazarewicz, a math teacher at the high school, to pose a few questions about their work with standards-based teaching and learning - what they have learned so far and what they foresee in the future. Here’s what they had to say.

Now that you have more than a year under your belt of doing this work - the standards-based grading work - how has it changed, from when you first started? What has matured about it?

Scott: We’re pretty early into things as far as using the standards-based learning (SBL) moniker. However, we’ve had huge changes since we started focusing on assessment for learning (AFL) about seven years ago. We see it as the larger umbrella - assessing for the purpose of learning - with SBL being a natural outgrowth. However, before you can focus on SBL, you have to be assessing properly and for the right reasons. The AFL philosophy is essential for SBL implementation. Let me restate that: For organic implementation, teachers must first have an AFL philosophy. Otherwise, SBL rules become mandates and dictates.

We are now seeing SBL as natural. It’s not a major “new” thing. It’s a natural outgrowth of our focus on assessment. If you’re going to regularly assess, not for getting a grade but for giving/getting the feedback that leads to learning, why would you then average all that assessment together? It just makes more sense to look at things based on standards so that you can give feedback in a more focused manner.

Pawel: For me the biggest difference heading into this school year is the way I’m going to assess individual standards. Another math teacher and I designed assessments and then discussed what we consider to be worthy of a 0, 1, 2, 3, or 4. To do so, we broke each standard into two components: Basic Understanding and Beyond the Basics. The table below represents our current thinking:

Grade Basic Understanding Beyond the Basics

0 (F) None None

1 (D) Limited None

2 (C) Most Limited

3 (B) All Most

4 (A) All All

So, as we grade assessments, we will still give students lots of feedback on their work, but instead of getting into arguments over a point here or a point there and the little differences between a 92 and a 94, we will look at the work more holistically.

We hope this makes a grade more meaningful. Thus, a student with a B in the class knows pretty much all the basics for all the standards and has a solid, but incomplete, foundation of some of the more challenging concepts. This will help us get away from simply collecting points.

As you look back at your implementation of standards-based grading, what were the most significant bumps on the road and how did you manage them? How about most significant wins?

Scott: The most significant bumps were the early on bumps seven years ago. We had to get teachers to understand the deficiencies associated with traditional assessment and dispel some of the classic notions associated with teachers thinking that giving zeros and taking off points would teach responsibility. We have evolved greatly in these areas.

I would note that we have not “implemented” SBL. Instead, we are on a long-term assessment journey. We are not all at the same point, and we have very few policy changes. Actually, we have only two policy changes, and both empower teachers to use professional judgement rather than limit teachers:

  • A student’s final grade should reflect their level of mastery at the time it is assigned. This frees teachers from having to rely on random averages of grading periods and assignments and to, instead, use their professional judgment to assign the appropriate grade. This empowers teachers to overlook past digressions and focus instead on current standing.

  • We transitioned from six grading periods to two. This has helped us move away from averaging grading periods together. It has also helped us implement the policy of a grade representing mastery. No longer does a previous grading period dilute or inflate a grade. Frankly, I could see us eventually moving away from grading periods altogether, but if we do, it will be because our teachers have evolved in their SBL practices to a point of no longer needing even two grading periods to average together.

Both of these policy changes grew out of our focus on AFL. They were not created at the outset but instead made sense as our faculty evolved away from traditional grading practices and toward more meaningful assessment for the purpose of learning.

Pawel: The most challenging part last year was coming up with a manageable list of standards. I think I had 54 of them for Algebra II, which was too many. This year, we have it down to 24. We’ll see how that goes. I think having fewer than 30 standards for a class is a must in order to make assessments meaningful on a 0-4 scale. There needs to be enough depth for each assessment to differentiate between the five points.

The most significant wins are students and parents embracing the system and telling us that this way of grading makes perfect sense to them and that they wish they had more exposure to it when they were in school (parents) or in their other classes (students).

If you were to make a recommendation or two to a school or district just starting this journey, what might those recommendations be?

Scott: Do not start with policy. Traditional assessment practices are deeply embedded in the culture and fabric of schools. Therefore, to change those practices in a meaningful and lasting way, a school must address this as a cultural evolution. In my opinion, the worst thing a school leader could do would be to mandate an overarching new grading policy before the faculty was ready. Therefore, I would recommend that a school first come to realize that too often a student’s grade represents who the teacher was more than what the student learned. It’s not too hard for a faculty to realize that this is an unacceptable reality.

Next, I would ask a faculty to determine what matters most, learning or grading. My work with faculties around the country has shown me that overwhelmingly teachers value learning over grading. Once we acknowledge that learning is more important than grading, we have to ask ourselves, “What are the things we do that run counter to our value system?” For example, if we give extra credit, we are encouraging students to ask for points and care more about the grade than about learning. But if we give students additional opportunities to demonstrate mastery that replace previous attempts, we are showing students that learning is valued.

Or, if we give all grades as fractions and divide the aggregate numerator by the aggregate denominator, we are training students to seek numerator points rather than to learn content. If, instead, student progress is communicated in relation to mastery of specific standards, we can train students to ask about better mastering standards.

Pawel: Start a conversation about what a letter grade should communicate. For example, what is a fundamental difference in what an A-student knows or can do in your class vs. a B-student vs. a C-student. It can’t just be the difference between a 92.3 and a 92.5. Thinking about this and articulating those differences will put you in the right frame of mind in thinking about how you grade.

Secondly, come up with a manageable (less than 30) list of standards for your course. Each needs to be deep enough to accommodate differences in grading and fairly distinct from the other standards. Just coming up with a list of standards for a course feels like you are 50% of the way there.

Communication with students, parents, and community members can often be a weak link in any standards-based grading system and has been known to thwart implementation when not approached thoughtfully and pro-actively. What have you done to ensure everyone there knows what is happening, that there’s been minimal confusion? And what do you continue to do?

Scott: I would advise against over-communicating. The best spokespeople for what we are doing are the students. If students truly understand NOT that their teacher has some “new-fangled” assessment policy but instead that the teacher is going to do things to accurately measure their progress and then use those measurements to help them master content, then it will be rare to find a parent who complains.

Sometimes schools and educators make too big a deal out of their new initiatives and, in doing so, give people something to debate. What is truly debatable about SBL? Shouldn’t grades reflect what students know? Shouldn’t grades be measured against consistent standards? Shouldn’t learning be the priority? I would encourage teachers to first and foremost make sure their students understand the great lengths to which they are going to help students learn. Everything else falls in line after that.

Furthermore, if a school loudly touts its SBL policies, but its teachers don’t believe in them and don’t appropriately apply them, then the parents and the community will truly have something about which to be upset.

Pawel: I explain the reasoning behind moving to SBL and how retakes and redos are an integral part of the assessment process. This puts both students and parents at ease because it makes potential failure part of the learning process (as it should be).

I also show a JumpRope report which shows how we identify weak areas for our class as a whole and students individually for additional practice and reassessment.

Basically: Talk about the upside to doing things differently and why it’s not just better, but significantly better and thus worth our time and effort to change.

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