Some Downsides to SBG

SBG — or at least the way I’m implementing it — has some downsides. I see a ton of positives, but there are things to weigh against it. I am pretty sure my final verdict will come from my students, when I ask them about it.

1. I have already written 25 reassessments. (I don’t meet with kids to reassess — they take it in a “study hall” that students usually go to when they miss exams or schedule their extended time for exams.) I wish I could meet them individually and do what other teachers are doing — reassess kids by talking with them, sussing out what they know — but I can’t. I simply don’t have the time. But I lose that personal touch with the kid, that conversation after a good job or a poor job, about the process of learning. I mean, I have those when I meet with kids generally, but right now it’s just a lot of tests they’re seeing.

2. Students want to meet a lot more with me. This is good, but the downside is: I am getting way too burned out. It’s not feasible to carry on like this for the rest of the year. I hope that after the first quarter, students will be better equipped to get in front of the material, instead of lagging behind it.

3. My kids are seniors, and grades are important to them (hello, college admissions). At my school, kids almost always get As and Bs with an occasional C and even rarer D. But currently I have a few kids failing and a few kids with Ds. Right now the grades are lower than they historically have been. (They also mean something totally different. I get that. And I’ve had a number of kids who have been absent a lot.) The result, however, is that I am waiting for the other shoe to drop. I suspect I will get flak from somewhere. I hope that the trend I’ve been seeing recently continues — and the grades continue to go up as kids realize the need to (a) stay on top of the new material and (b) remediate the old material they didn’t realize they would have to stay on top of.

4. Everything is going way slower – because I’m spending more time in class assessing. I do it about once a week, for 35 or 40 minutes. But right now I am about a week behind where I was last year. I am teaching limits now and I’m getting bored with some of the dry stuff I’m emphasizing (e.g. limit laws, etc.). So are the kids. I am going to try to cut some stuff out so we can get to the good stuff — and make up for lost time. But still. I’m going slower.

5.  I haven’t changed any of my curriculum so far. I’m using the same SmartBoards (well, modified, but generally the same) from last year. So the course should feel the same. But I feel like everything is getting choppier. Kids are more focused on the skills, and it’s hard to get them to see the big picture. They latch onto the skills. It’s their security. I fear they don’t care about learning anything else. I think they have trouble zooming out and seeing the connections — and I need to be super conscientious about that. But to them, the skills are the of all and end all. Something is off, and I can’t quite articulate it well yet. This was my attempt.



  1. Word. Can I address each point from the omg-i’ve-been-there-and-it-sucked vantage? K.

    1. Writing reassessments can suck, and depending on your situation, it may be inappropriate to allow student-initiated reassessments for every standard. You are in control of what goes on a quiz, so feel free to say, “hey, it’ll show up again, you just get better and get outta my face right now.” That way you control assessment, and you don’t spend all of your time grading. Plus, this isn’t about bending to their whim of having perfect grades, this is about teaching them how they should study.

    2. They will get sick of it, too. They will decide to do the work and get it the first time. The first part of the semester always sucks.

    3. Isn’t it terrifying to see what grades our “brightest” get when you take away all of the fluff? I have students that get their first F’s with me, and they cry. It’s ok, though, because that’s just one snapshot. If they don’t want to keep yo-yoing between an F and a C, or a C and an A, then they can learn it the first time, amiright?

    4. You may have fallen into the trap that SBG is just assessments. Remember, it changes everything. It changes how you interpret their comments, their in-class work, meetings with you in the hall way. You don’t have to be giving perfect little quizzes in gluttonous 45-minute chunks all of the time to assess them.

    5. This is clutch that you’ve seen this already. This is how I know you by far out class me as a teacher. (this took me years of SBG to see) You have to assess the big picture apart form the skill. For me, the 9 and 10 are impossible, if the student demonstrates a lack of conceptual understanding.

    Good luck, Sam. Keep us posted.

    1. Hi Shawn,

      Thank you. Your thoughts are useful for me. I struggled the most with figuring out how I was going to assess them often in class. There are logistics at my school which got in the way of what I wanted.

      I actually had planned to do short 20 minute things every so often in class. But my school has all these policies and regulations around tests. Anything more than 15 minutes is considered a “test,” and you can’t assign homework the night before. If I do give something that is more than 15 minutes in class, I have to put it on a “testing calendar” (because I can’t put it on a day where students already have 2 tests scheduled). And everything that qualifies as a “test” has to be announced 5 days in advance. SOOOOOO you see how this doesn’t favor SBG.

      So, you might say, why not just put 2 skills on a 15 minute quiz and avoid all the nonsense? Well, here’s where it gets tricky. I have a bunch of students with extended time. So I’d have to give them 7 minutes of extra time. Which would mean they’d each have to schedule their extended time with me in a way that suits both our schedules. And to do this frequently would be kinda nonsense. And if I give them the 7 minutes in class, well, that’s kinda what I’m doing now (planning 25 minute “assessments” and giving 40 minutes for everyone to complete them). But it takes too much time.

      The testing calendar, and the extended time issue. These are really the two things which affect everything I’ve planned with SBG. You can see how this all gets super duper tricky, super quickly.

      As for your point #2, I actually am cautiously optimistic that I’m seeing this happen now. Kids are learning how to study, how to talk with each other, how to resolve their own issues (sometimes by meeting with me, but often times without).

      As for your point #5, I will definitely be thinking harder about how to have concepts creep into my skills more. But what’s nice is: I’ve already started asking some really nice “backwards” questions which really force kids to know what’s going on. Like I’ll give them a graph of: f(x)=(x+3)(x-3)(x-1)^2/((x-3)(x+1)^2) and they’ll have to give me the equation. You know how much they need to really understand about functions to get this right? To get the squares correctly? Seeing them go from not getting it to getting it… it been amazing.

      I think the pros are still outweighing the cons at this moment. But it’s definitely not all roses.


      1. Time saving: You can also assess through projects and conversations. Get your class working in small groups, and have them work together to create something. I say, don’t be afraid to count some group work towards individual standard grades. I gave a test every Friday, but updated at least a couple kids’ grades almost every day just from in-class conversations or comments.

        Dechunking: I reserved my highest grade for non-sbg projects. Check out

  2. I have been thinking a lot about the assessment side of SBG recently and where the ability to transfer concepts to new domains and the bigger picture of mathematics fits into the system. It seems like it makes sense that things are getting choppier as what (I think) you’ve essentially done is chop up the curriculum into disjoint standards. Of course, my experience with SBG in practice is non existent and everything I know comes bloggers like you and Mr. Cornally. I wish I had answers, but alas, only questions.

    (On a side note, I really want to send you the evaluation page on integrity, but it’s on the school server and the administration is really slacking on giving access to student teachers. As soon as I can get the file I will share it with you. Don’t expect much though – its not a questionnaire but rather descriptions of various qualities along the integrity spectrum).

  3. I had to check the title of this blog twice to make sure I hadn’t written this entry myself. I am seeing these exact same issues in my own first year of this stuff. So, if misery loves company, I’m with you, I guess.

  4. Sam,

    Thanks for the post, I am attempting to use SBG with my PreCalc classes for the first time this year too and am running into some of the same issues (and some opposite issues). I have only had a couple of kids come to me for extra help, but I have had LOTS of retakes. I have 103 PreCalc students, 6 standards up for reassessment so far and somewhere around 200 reassessments given (one standard at a time). I realized quickly that I need multiple versions of each standard retake printed at all times. Also, google forms has been a lifesaver for retake sign-ups :) I am looking forward to the kids learning to prepare completely for the test the first time, but at this rate, I’m wondering if I also need some extra incentive…

    I like Shawn’s idea of not allowing student initiated reassessments on some standards, and I used it on a recent quiz. The only problem was that after I graded it, handed it back and told kids “no, you can’t reassess this yet, you’ll see it again on the next test”, the response was “wait! so we could have gotten a zero on this and it wouldn’t matter because it will come up again anyway?” … ahhhh… missing the point….

    It seems a lot like constant reassessment, though the students do seem to learn something (most of the time) in between.

    On my “tests”, a lot of the questions cover multiple standards so I can try to keep some of the big picture stuff relevant. That said, I would also like to have some big picture standards, if I could figure out how to write them properly.

    Thanks for your update, I appreciate hearing about someone else’s stumblings through SBG :)


    1. ““wait! so we could have gotten a zero on this and it wouldn’t matter because it will come up again anyway?” … ahhhh… missing the point….”

      Yeah, those kind of statements from kids still in the transition are frustrating. I was always tempted to respond with a short and sharp “right.” or “it wouldn’t matter for your _grade,_ but I thought maybe we’d try _learning_.” Really hard to keep my replies helpful!

      1. I’m just getting started with this business myself, but one thing is clear to me: all records will be kept and used to frame report comments and effort ratings. Reassessments add to my information about a student; they don’t overwrite it.

        Further, I’m preparing several versions of each test in advance. A reassessing student can complete just the parts they need to, or the whole thing if they want the practice. Going the extra mile will be seen favorably at report time.

  5. I’m with you on the downside rearing it’s ugly head. I shared my grade distribution with my principal (and on my blog as well). He jumped right to the question, “If they can reassess and eventually get an A, why are there so few As?”. Which puts me in a place I’m not comfortable being, because I interpret it as one of 2 things. A) The kids really don’t care or B) I suck at teaching. Maybe they’re just not used to it yet, but its been 9 weeks, so that rationalization doesn’t hold much water, I don’t think.

    1. Well, I also wonder if some sort of grade-inflation thing may be a part of it, too. I mean, if you’re only giving a 5 (or whatever your point scale is) to a perfect answer and that’s associated with an A, then maybe there just shouldn’t be as many As as we have come to expect.

      1. Dave-
        Definitely. Perfect is perfect. No 2 ways about it. If A is excellent, then you have to be excellent to get an A. If B is above average, then you have to do above average work, etc. I think too many of them are used to inflated assessments of their understanding (or at least assessments that don’t represent their understanding truthfully) that SBG as it is constructed is a little of a shock.

    2. Ryan,

      I would say that it doesn’t actually mean one of two things. It means that these kids haven’t yet learned how to learn. It’s about choices. It’s about being proactive. It’s about consequences about not being proactive.

      Your job is to talk with them about these things, to give them ways to remediate and encouragement to reassess. To talk to them about learning. And that you’re here to help them. And to caution them about “digging the hole.”

      Just because the opportunity is there there doesn’t mean they will come. It’ll be a process for them to learn. And it might take a semester or a year (or they might not learn it at all). It’s your job to guide them in the process, using SBG.

      So I wouldn’t put much water in your principal’s conclusion. Nor your two conclusions, though, either.

      1. My only other negative complaint would be that I find it a bit troublesome that they haven’t learned how to learn at this point. My major gripe with our junior high is that they micromanage the kids so much that they don’t seem empowered to do anything independently. Perhaps that’s the nature of the beast, but then I have ‘reprogram’ them, so to speak.

      2. I like the angle on learning how to learn. Besides teaching them math, and probably more importantly, I consider my job to teach them how to learn (as opposed to what to learn). I do have conversations about that with them from time to time, but probably not often enough. I’ll be sure I mention this when I present to the board tonight.

  6. My school may be different than yours. I am teaching at-risk kids bilingual algebra 2 and pre-calc and most of them really shouldn’t be at that level but it is the way of things. I don’t tell them the concepts while I am teaching. We do little projects and activities with rich mathematical content that includes new skills and built-in remediation. Before the test, I give them a review and then tell them what the new concepts are. That way when I am teaching the new stuff, they focus on the activity and the mathematical experience rather than what they will be tested on. I also don’t test them on everything I feel like testing them on so we can keep moving. My concept list is pretty small. Sort of like a predetermined random sampling. You may have thought of all of this and your students are probably different than mine and think differently about how to approach school.

    BTW, I have been following your blogging about this subject and it has been helpful as this is also my first year with SBG.


    1. John,
      What an interesting idea. I tend to give the concept sheets in advance because I like to be clear and consistent. But I might toy with — once we hit a new quarter — not giving all the skill lists out until the day before the tests.

      1. Just thought of something else. What if we did not give them the concepts until exam review but after a math lesson, we ask them what the skill to be tested on should be? That would be some interesting data and if their suggestions started appearing in the concept checklist, that would be a validation for them…

  7. Sam,

    Once again, I find your honest comments refreshing. You are not afraid to share your struggles and receive feedback on them.

    I have been doing my best to catch up to you guys on SBG. So far I have read Cornally (because I like to start with practicing classroom teachers), and am starting in on Marzano (because my next step in learning is usually to check out the experts and their fancy books). I’m liking it a whole lot in theory, but as you point out, the practical is sometimes challenging.

    I know that you are diligent and thorough in your comment writing. I suspect that one place this system may save you time is in your comment writing. The evidence you will have on hand to help you think about comments for students will be much richer with SBG, I believe.

  8. On point number 5:

    This is one of my biggest concerns with SBG (which I had sort of implemented midway through last year in my classroom) as well as with math education in America in general. Things are broken down into tiny concrete little skills that seem to lack any bit of continuity. Each day has a clear objective, which is to solve a specific type(s) of problem, and then you practice that skill over and over again, until you “master” it. These objectives align with state standards, which again harp on breaking down math curriculum into little concrete units. While this keeps things organized and holds teachers and students accountable, it’s really tough to get students to see the big picture, as you say. So my kids worked to get through each skill but quickly forgot previous ones, or didn’t see how this skill was connected in any way to something we did two weeks ago. I tried giving them unit outlines or walking through the syllabus to see how all of the skills built on top of each other, or even making one of the skills a “connective” skill (for example, “students must explain why factoring, completing the square, and using the quadratic formula are all methods of solving quadratics, and when each would be best used”) but this was the toughest part of the segmented curriculum.

    I would argue that while SBG provides a lot of fool-proof, quantitative data about student performance, which is invaluable in today’s test-heavy No Child Left Behind world, and especially true in public schools which have to meet AYP each year, I fear that it’s come at the expense of discovering-based math learning and assessing in more creative, varied ways. I’m trying really hard to remember my own math classes when I was a student at your school and how my teachers managed this balance, but it’s already very fuzzy in my memory. I’m 23. Is that sad?

    P.S. One could argue, like St. Ann’s teacher Paul Lockhart does in A Mathematician’s Lament (yes, that St. Ann’s, and if you haven’t read it, google it!), that the entire math curriculum is arbitrarily broken up into “curriculum” like Algebra I vs. Geometry vs. Algebra II for the sake of holding people accountable and segmenting math in these classes which impede continuity of math learning. It’s an interesting argument, but those progressive St. Ann’s folk were always a little too radical for my tastes.

    1. William,

      Yes, first off, I’ve def read Lockhart’s Lament.

      Second, I loved high school, but by 23 I forgot the details of almost everyone one of my classes. Soon you’ll have only random moments and then, those will be gone. I now can’t even remember how my high school looked.

      Okay, onto other things. I see the kids latching onto the skills. And FOR NOW I’m okay with that. I don’t pretend to be the teacher — or at a school — which wants to teach entirely through problem solving, portfolios, projects, whatever.

      Being frank: my kids have always latched onto skills. They’re grade conscious. They want to know what’s on the test. And part of me is okay that they latch onto skills: many don’t come in with super strong math skills, they don’t have an intrinsic love for math which I can capitalize on, and I like the idea that I can be clear with them. I also am consoled by the fact that I focus a lot on concepts in class, and I test them on explaining/writing concepts every so often. In other words: getting many of them through the basics is hard enough, and I’m happy to do that.

      I’ve been thinking, however, that I can redesign the way I present some information… that we have some fun days of non-graded problem solving (this worked so well last year the first time I did it… except I wish I hadn’t formalized it and graded it), that we spend some time explicitly mapping out the Big Picture of Calculus. Explicitly connecting things we’ve learned together. Whether we formally test it or not.

      And I can also do other things. I can give a 50 minute lecture on infinity and zero. I can have them do some work on the history of calculus. I can give them challenge problems for a prize. None of this needs to be accounted for in the grades.

      The more I think about it, the more I realize that the concerns I have about the connections and the big picture are less about the skill list and more about how teaching the course. I’m not being explicit about addressing the big picture (thinking they’ll intuitively make the connections…).

      Yeah, the more I mull this over, the more I don’t think I can point fingers at SBG for kids latching onto skills. I’ve always had this problem with The Big Picture. I tell the kids not to lose the forest for the trees all the time. But I lose the forest for the trees all the time. I think it’s just coming more into stark relief now that I’m thinking about skills all the time.


      1. I’m with you, it all depends on what you want the grade to reflect. If you want the grade to reflect problem solving skills, then SBG might not be the way to go (although you could still adapt the ‘skills’ that you are assessing to be problem solving based). But it isn’t an all or nothing situation, just because your gradebook shows skills, doesn’t mean you don’t teach problem solving. You just don’t formally assess it. Every once and a while, throw the picture up (as Meyer does with WCYDWT) so they can work on problem solving and you can see how the skills are relating to problem solving.

  9. Sam, as always thanks for your insight. Definitely food for thought…

    Concerning #5, I’m happy with how things have worked out for me with this year and SBG in one regard: that I split their grade evenly between skills (called Standards a.k.a. Concepts), and their grade on projects. Right now we only have one project, but this provides information on “Problem Solving,” “Reasoning and Proof,” “Communication,” and use of “Representation.”

    Obv. there is some connection here to the NCTM standards; the rubric I’m using is based off of the one here:
    [go to Math]

    It’s really a lovely rubric, and I’m making it a big deal for grading their projects. Thus reassessment takes the form of revisions on their projects… lots and lots of revisions.

    As for the insanity of writing reassessments, it’s a shame that you can’t just meet students at some convenient time during the day. But frankly I also think it’s insane to write the quizzes two or three times … once takes long enough. [there is the associated insanity of continuously reinventing the wheel, one of my favorite insanities]

    Last thing: make those quizzes shorter. My advice is 10 minutes max, which actually gives 15 minutes with extended time. I see no problem in giving everyone 15 minutes as long as it really is a 10 minute quiz. Meanwhile, you have some activity for early finishers to look at, which you launch into after the quizzes are collected.

    I guess I too had the problem where my first quizzes were just too long. I eventually cut it down to 20 minutes or quiz per week. This is perfect for me.

    There is more to say, so apparently I should update my own blog :-)


    1. Hm. I think part of the problem is some of my calculus skills take a long time to do. Like a “graph this rational function: y=[blah]/[blah]” or “Prove blah blah blah…” takes 10 minutes to do alone. And I have a lot of skills, where I’d be doing a lot of 10 minute quizzes. I couldn’t get it all assessed to 20 minutes/week.

      I think assessments would be WAY easier if I were doing this in Algebra II where the problems take much less time. I could easily do the 10 minute thing in Alg II. Calculus problems (or to be specific: my calculus problems) just take a long time.

      As for projects, I need to think more about doing these. I do them rarely.



  10. Great observations. Here’s my comments to #5; first what you wrote:

    “I feel like everything is getting choppier. Kids are more focused on the skills, and it’s hard to get them to see the big picture. They latch onto the skills. It’s their security. I fear they don’t care about learning anything else. I think they have trouble zooming out and seeing the connections — and I need to be super conscientious about that. But to them, the skills are the of all and end all. Something is off, and I can’t quite articulate it well yet.”

    This is real, and a significant artifact of SBG. Your only assessments are of the skills, and as you said in #3, your kids are especially grade conscious. They are gravitating toward what is assessed, the skills, because that’s what matters.

    From a student perspective, I don’t think this is too surprising: a student can get an A in your class without seeing the big picture, the connections. So for those whose primary goal is a good grade, they actually don’t care about learning anything else, because there is no external motivation to do so.

    Meanwhile, students who actually DO care about seeing the big picture and making good connections can be burned, in the most important way possible (their grade), if they do not pay as much direct attention to the tested SBG skills. In the end, what you use to grade students tells them what you think is important, and SBG makes this choice very clear and specific.

    I don’t know how to rectify this issue within SBG, though I like the suggestions to cut it down from 100% of the grade. I have a very hard time understanding how SBG can coexist with something like Meyer’s WCYDWT, since they seem at cross purposes. Couldn’t a kid just fall asleep during the WCYDWT moments and still ace the class?

    One piece of advice is to construct skill questions where a “clever mindset” can whip through the problem much faster. You might consider spending some time developing or finding problems that encourage this. It’s not going to be easy, especially if you’re going to be writing 5 or 10 or more assessments for each of the tested skills. With too much repetition you may end up with kids learning specific tricks for specific problems, and that’s no good either.

    Best of luck! At least you don’t have SBG’s other problem: when kids aren’t motivated by grades, they are much less likely to reassess and learn the skills, and either kids fail by the handful or taking SBG tests in class replaces the curriculum.

    – Bowen

    1. josh g. wrote “I read just a bit of Marzano’s “Art and Science of Teaching”, the assessment chapter being right at the front. What struck me there was that he started describing a system very similar to the active SBG stuff we talk about online … except his rubrics kicked it up a notch. It was 0 to 4, and paraphrased off the top of my head:
      0: Don’t know nothin’
      1: Know a little
      2: Almost got it
      3: Demonstrated mastery of the specific skill
      4: Same as 3 ***plus you’ve inferred or connected beyond what was directly taught***.”

      I think this kind of rubric could help with Sam’s issue #5. It’s like SBG, with all of Dan Meyer’s benefits… until you get to the top levels, and there all bets are off. To get the best grade, a student has to be able to creatively connect the concept with another (or something?).

      If a student is OK with a mediocre grade, he can still just focus on the rote skills. But I say, if he’s not interested in learning more, and he doesn’t care about the grade, who are we to force him?

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