Adventures in SBG: One Thing I've Noticed Recently


Due to a few vagaries of circumstance, I've been involved in more Standards Based Grading discussions during the past three months, than I have been previously. Which is fine. I really like the philosophy, and while I am not an SBG purist, I do think that the process that I use in my own courses is one that is working well for my students, and the courses that I'm teaching. Like any other aspects of my course, I like talking about what I'm doing when it consists of things that I'm proud of.

A few months ago ago, a colleague with whom I have really enjoyed discussing AP Bio asked me to explain what it was, exactly, that I did with SBG in my courses. I replied with a long, descriptive, email, which I have since forwarded on to a the other teachers who have written in with similar questions. It was after my most recent forwarding that I realized that most of the teachers who contact me with SBG questions are in the process of working through wholesale building-level, or even district-level SBG implementations. I also realized that the concept of a large-scale SBG implementation is one that I am very uneasy with. This unease has not been assuaged by the discussions I've had with these colleagues, as it seems that on the whole, these large-scale implementations are not being done in a manner that I would describe as well-considered on the part of the districts engaged in them.

Here is a recent email that I received (permission for posting granted, identifying details removed, emphasis mine), which is exemplary of many of the problems that I see in these implementations:

Hi, I tried doing some aspects of what my district says is SBG last semester and it was a disaster.

This is an immediate red flag. The minute SBG moves from a system that a teacher is interested in implementing to one that is being pushed from on high, teachers lose a good part of the autonomy they might have brought in to the process. My SBG system is useful because I built it myself, with my colleagues. No one in a position of power twisted my arm, or proscribed what could or could not be done. It's not surprising that I love my SBG system, and this teacher does not love theirs (though it's not really all that fair to call it "theirs").

Just how proscribed is the system that this teacher is dealing with? The email continues:

They want re-takes and re-do's of everything. I have to post learning targets now and I'm supposed to assess it at the end of every class. Well, we have 90 minute blocks and I may go through a number of learning objectives in one day. I also tend to spiral the learning as that is the only way I know how to teach biology so I am failing miserably at what they want me to do.

Why don't they just cut to the chase at this point, and tell the teacher in question what to teach and how to teach it? I'm sure the district thinks that these types of mandates are ensuring a uniform transition, but I would suggest that such a perspective is missing the philosophical forest for the administrative trees. Mandating these types of policies is not fostering progressive pedagogy as much as it is fostering confusion and resentment among the teacher corps. This teacher can point to specific issues that the mandatory implementation is causing in his/her course, and he/she doesn't feel like he/she has the understanding or support needed to address these problems. That's highly unfortunate.

Outside of the toxic effect that these types of misguided policies have on staff perspectives, my major issue is that these policies promote an extremely myopic view of what SBG entails. At its heart, SBG is a reaction to particular perceptions of what grades represent. In making these types of large-scale mandates when pursuing SBG policies, a district is taking the best aspects of SBG, and turning them in to an analog of the same old thing. Global reassessment policies are a good example of this issue. The notion of reassessment has become a somewhat dogmatic aspect of many SBG systems (including my own Honors Chemistry system), but the notion that it is something that must be present in all SBG courses is laughable (see my own AP Biology system as a reassessment-free example of an SBG system).

I didn't ask to use this particular email because it was special, but because it is similar to most of the ones that I have been receiving about SBG lately. Various teachers involved in various stages of mandated SBG systems, unclear on the details, and largely unaware that there are many roads to travel in making this transition, are eager to find people outside of their district who can shed some light on the process. It seems to me that this type of "mandate thinking" on the part of districts is something that the larger SBG community needs to take note of, and take issue with. The desire to connect assessment to student understanding is a universal desire of all teachers who I would consider to be philosophically aligned to the larger SBG thought process. By transmogrifying SBG into these types of "one-size-fits-all" mandates, the power of the philosophy is diminished to the point where it risks being seen as just another district mandate, one whose time will pass when the next hot thing comes along. That, it seems to me, is a shame, and one that can be easily avoided with a bit of thought, respect, and encouragement of teachers.