Something I realized about myself and SBG

You want to know something I realized about myself and my transition to Standards Based Grading? It’s something I’m kind of embarrassed by, but I’m glad I recognized it so that I can be super conscious about it.

It’s that one of my big fears, something I couldn’t articulate until now I couldn’t quite place my finger on it, is that all my kids are going to do really well. That I’m going to have all 4s and 3.5s for all my students’ final skill grades.

I work at a school full of motivated kids. These kids are largely motivated by grades. [1] I’m  pretty sure there will be tons of reassessment, until students have 4s on everything, or almost everything.

I think something I’ve been proud of is having a pretty solid distribution: a couple As, a bunch of Bs, a few Cs. I don’t know why I’ve taken pride in this — I think having that distribution showed me I was challenging students the right amount, pushing them as a whole. [2] And although I always told my students I’d be happy if they all got As, and I think I would have been because I don’t make my courses easy and I would have been impressed that they all rose to the occasion, I would have also felt like I wasn’t making the course challenging enough for them. Does that make sense? I’ve always used my grading  distribution to let me know if I’m making the course the appropriate level to challenge my kids without having any of them drown.

So when people say Standards Based Grading is a total reorientation in terms of the way you think about the classroom, I realize this is exactly the sort of thing they mean. Because I’m ashamed to admit that one of my secret worries is that all my students get 4s on everything I teach. I don’t want to be that teacher that always gives As. *shiver*

I’m glad that I’ve recognized this secret fear, because it is TOTALLY AND UTTERLY DUMB. SERIOUSLY DUMB. LIKE SO DUMB. If I didn’t recognize this monstrosity in my subconscious now, I would have sabotaged my whole year inadvertently. Yikers!

Hello, earth to Sam, the point of this new grading system is to focus on getting the most amount of kids to know the most amount of material (and also, importantly for me, to teach kids independence and study habits that work for them). And I’ve made a rigorous set of non-fluffy standards. And if my kids can achieve mastery and retention of those standards, I’m going to toot my own horn as loud as I can. I want to capitalize on the motivation of my students to do well.

So now my new mantra is: I want to be the teacher who gives all As, and I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure my students know that I want them all to get As, and do everything in my power to encourage them to use their newfound SBG freedom and independence to get those As. Because my As in this new framework will mean something. Because my course forces mastery and retention. Because my course is rigorous.

Wow, huge realization.

PS. I have a smaller fear that I won’t know how to grade students well, even with my list of skills and my rubric. Not that I won’t be consistent among how I grade students — I am scrupulous about that now. But that I have assessment questions “good enough” that they can reveal to me the various gradations of 4, 3, 2, 1, 0 from the rubric. I think that’s something I’ll pay attention to as the year goes on. It’s something I have to see in action to see if there is some tweaking to do here.

[1] Many care about their grades more than they care about learning. Although both are sort of tied up, they are not synonymous. But regardless, it does lead to kids actually learning stuff.

[2] I’ve also had a serious problem with teachers who always tend to give As to students.



  1. It feels like to me that the better I assess, the better my students do. And the students who don’t do well now, well it’s clearly because of choices they made rather than choices I made. There are a few who get better than they “deserve”, but I’d rather have false positives than false negatives. And I’m really happy to be getting out of the judgment game about what people deserve.

  2. You shouldn’t be too hard on yourself. I think your hesitancy towards As is the same reason why standardized tests tell you your score based on the percent of the population who scored better than you. The American school system is set up to rank students from best to worst. Your fears merely mimic the ideals of the country.

    If everyone achieves As in school, how are we supposed to decide which student is better than which in life. What would become of the service workers and unskilled laborers.

  3. I think if I’d been teaching for only a short time, I’d have that worry too. I know, from over 20 years of experience, that I’m not an easy grader. If my students all got A’s, I’d be ecstatic. I’m not making my course any easier, as far as I can tell. (And I plan to give the same sort of final exam I always have, to compare my new system to my old.) Lots of good grades will mean the changes (toward SBG philosophy) have helped the students learn.

    We have a part-timer in our department who gives lots of A’s, and other teachers see a big problem with that. I have heard rave reviews from students, so I know he works hard at helping them learn. I guess if my students start all earning A’s, I’ll have to keep that final exam as proof that they are earning the same hard A’s just a few of my former students did.

  4. I have the same tendency and fears (of being the teacher who gives all As). But I try to remind myself of something one of my teachers in high school was fond of saying: “I don’t give As in my class. You have to earn them.” So what I want to be is the teacher whose students all earn As. Little shift in wording, but it makes a big difference for me. :)

  5. This is a great post, Sam. It is honest and very clearly explains your fears. Those fears are valid and understandable. I made huge changes to my assessment practices about 6 years ago. I was accused by my colleagues of being too easy a grader. They said kids only wanted to be in my class because it was easier to get good grades than it should be. I stood firm, and gradually got most people to understand that I wasn’t lowering my standards, I was simply giving kids more opportunities to meet my high standards. You will never go wrong by giving a deserving kid a second chance, or an alternative assessment on which to demonstrate learning.

  6. Oh my gosh, Sam, I went through this same thought process myself, but without words. I never so precisely nailed down what was bothering me – I ended up sort of just getting over it and feeling uneasy when the final average for my class jumped 10%. Thanks!

  7. I’ve never cared much what grades my students got, as long as I was doing the best I could to get them to learn and my grading system accurately reflected what I believed they should be doing. I have high enough standards that it would be a very rare class indeed that got all As, and I would be bubbling over with excitement: teaching top-notch students is really a lot of fun.

    I’ve allowed students to resubmit work for years (not as part of an SBG system), and it rarely moves the students grades very much. I’ve seen students go from D to C, or B+ to A-, but never from D to A. I’ve had students repeat the same class and still not be able to do the work. Even though almost identical programming assignments are given each year, I’ve had students fail the course 3 times running, because they could not do the programming. (Advice to retake previous courses that clearly had not been mastered was ignored.)

    So don’t worry too much that re-assessing will end up skewing your course to all As, unless the reassessments are noisy enough that a student can simply retake at random until their score is high enough.

  8. I’m with about 99%, the same thought process has been going through my head as well. The only semantical difference, in bold, should be that you want to be the teacher who’s students all earn A’s, (as opposed to the one that gives all As). I myself will be retesting some skills (not for grades) at various time throughout the term to see how well things are being retained after they cycle through the assessment sheet.

  9. Can you imagine a classroom of motivated children and no grades? Of kids who work hard and strive but receive no letters or numbers? And then all the energy spend on worrying about grading systems, grade inflation and grade equity could be spent on teaching and learning?

  10. Hi all, thanks for your thoughts. I should be clear that I am not feeling guilty or anything, and because I’ve thought it through, I’m in a really good place for implementing SBG!

    I think @Amanda and @Ryan has hit it on the head: “The only semantical difference, in bold, should be that you want to be the teacher who’s students all earn A’s, (as opposed to the one that gives all As)”

    It’s a serious difference in wording, and in meaning.

    Also, @John, it is interesting, because although I’ve thought about grades a lot, I never have used the word “judgment” to think about them. That word is loaded with the same connotations that grades are.

    1. @Sam-
      I was worried about ‘grade inflation’ as well, but after the first round of assessments (albeit for traditionally low achieving math students), it looks like a normal distribution. They certainly aren’t inflated on the front end for me, since mastering an easy problem, what they see first, only gets them a 4/5 in the grade book. When they master a more difficult one, then they get the 5/5.

  11. Well said, Sam, and you’re not alone. I had moments (that I’m now ashamed of) where I thought I should be single-handedly fighting grade inflation, always making my grading and assessments difficult enough to have a “range of scores” and an appropriate “average.” With a year of graduate school behind me, I can now reflect and see the mistakes I made and hopefully be in a position to help other teachers avoid those mistakes.

    For another angle on this problem, I really liked this article (if you can find it):

    Krumboltz, J. D., & Yeh, C. J. (1996). Competitive grading sabotages good teaching. Phi Delta Kappan, 78(4), 324-326.

    To summarize, the authors recognized that by using competitive grading practices (such as grading based on a normal distribution), teachers sabotage their own teaching by putting themselves in a system where some students are assured of doing poorly. I wish I had read it a long time ago. (And I’m sure some of my former students do, too.)

  12. This post illustrates a big reason why I enjoy reading math teacher blogs — when I find myself concerned about something about teaching, there’s an excellent chance that others are feeling the same way AND are saying interesting things about the situation (as opposed to those of us who think about saying something but keep putting off that whole writing thing).

    Anyway, I have been having similar conversations about SBG with myself, and I commend you for being so open about your thought process. I think the big key for me is that an A in a SBG class means the students are showing they learned the specific skills you taught them. And that can’t be a bad thing.

    (Also, a big thumbs up to those who made the distinction between teachers giving A’s and students earning A’s.)

  13. I just wrote a lengthy reply, then realized it was more suited for a blog entry (so be the first to check out my blog! :)).

    In short, I think you’re facing an inherent difficulty in the SBG system. There needs to be some creative thinking about how to make SBG more fair, and how to help teachers keep standards high.

  14. I thought about this for a while and here’s what I came up with: First of all, I kinda feel the same way as you used to. Here’s my thought, though (somewhat of an echo to above ones, but maybe a little different): If all the students are getting it on the first try, how are we challenging them? Are we pushing the students to show the full extent of their understanding of the material or just having them meet the minimum requirements to move on?

    We hate when kids get a grade on their paper and it says 60% and then don’t even look it over, but throw it in the trash. I have seen a lot of students do that when they get a 100% as well. “Oh, I got this. I don’t even need to look at it again.”

    I realize that you said “As” and not “100%s,” but I wanted that point said. We may not be turning into easier graders, but I think we may need to raise the goal to show each student there’s always room to grow and more to learn.

    1. I like the sentiment. And once things settle down, I’ll see if all my kids are getting 3s and 4s on the first try, for the majority of skills. If they are, I’m surely going to be proud of myself. But at the same time, I’m going to have to rethink what goes on the skill lists. Or if I should create a second, more intense, form of assessment (problem sets?) which would challenge them.

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