Jumping out blindly, or “my greatest fear(s) about SBG”

Red Bull Cliff Diving


What is it about that picture that freaks me out the most? Is it the 300 foot 1 drop that this psychopath is going into? Is it that he’s clearly falling into not-that-deep water, nestled between jagged rocks that could smash his body into a bag of human confetti? Is it that he’s flippity-flopping all over the place, punishing his equilibrium for some heinous crime it must have committed against him recently?

Nah, man. What freaks me out the most is that he’s standing at the top of that diving board, aiming towards jagged rocks, throwing himself into a which-way-is-up tizzy… while his back is to the water 2. What is that?! How can he do what he’s about to do without really knowing where he is going? What does it take to take aim, turn around, and drop throw yourself into the abyss all of of information that isn’t the most up-to-date? Who is this crazy man that looks, then leaps, then deals with the (hopefully not-dire) consequences afterwards?

I ask because I’m on the cusp of my own big jump. This summer, I’ve been doing a lot of work on brushing up on Common Core standards—knowing them backwards and forwards, unpacking and repacking—in an effort to be a better teacher next year than I was last year, my first at my new school in California. All this studying has led to a re-realization 3 that grades are junk, and that I truly should be joining a brave group of colleagues utilizing standards-based grading (SBG) in at least my English classroom 4.

Here’s my big issue, though—where does it end? I understand the theory, I know how to set up my gradebook, I get aligning assessments to standards, all of that. But… What does it look like at the end? In January (or June), what’s my gradebook going to look like? Will I have over-assessed Reading Standard #1:

Screenshot 2015-07-23 13.44.32

at the expense of Reading Standard #9?

Screenshot 2015-07-23 13.44.40

What happens if I have students who start out weak, get stronger, then inexplicitly get weaker as the year goes along? How do I deal with translating each standard’s “grade” 5 into a letter grade for the registrar? 6 Isn’t it kinda unfair to develop a brand-new system, introduce and sell it to students/parents, and then, at the end of the semester, to pull a “Wellll… it turns out…”?

So this is my issue. It’s the big thing I’ve been battling over the summer, especially in the last few days. As I see it, then, I only have a few courses of action:

Jump Don't jump

And that’s the big battle.


  1. Approximate.
  2. WTF reaction (Tim Gunn)
  3. Before moving to Cali, my colleagues and I in our school in Taiwan studied the heck out of standards-based grading, especially in a PLC group where we read Rick Wormeli’s “Fair Isn’t Always Equal“. By the time I was done with that (and my own side-research), I declared myself an “on-paper SBG expert”—all I had left to do was to put it into practice. *GULP*
  4. I’m still relatively early on in being a history teacher, and technology standards for my Computer Applications classes seem iffy-at-best, but I do have a few years of teaching ELA, so no excuse there, right?
  5. In many SBG systems, grades are done on a 0-to-3 or 1-to-4 scale of mastery as opposed to a 100-point-scale of vagueness.
  6. Suspiciously little (of value) is written about this one. “GRADES SHOULDN’T BE A THING!” they yell. “WE SHOULD JUST BE PREPARING THEM FOR SKILLS THEY’LL NEED IN COLLEGE.” Ok, well don’t I need to tell the college how well they do those skills? Huh? Is this thing on?

    Silly seal.

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4 thoughts on “Jumping out blindly, or “my greatest fear(s) about SBG”

  1. Totally with you on all this. SBG is a laudible goal, but hard in practice, especially to start. I just went from a school that was a little more into it, where all the students were used to the concept, to a school where the admin says “standard-based grading”, but they really just mean don’t give out points for attendance or bringing in extra kleenex…there’s still just a bunch of points for stuff you turn in.

    My constant dilemma is….say a kid is going to write 5 technical reports throughout the year. If “writing a technical report” is a standard, and they barely do 4 of them and then ace 1 of them, are they “Exceeding Standard” because they showed me they could?

    At this point I still tend to break it out, and say:
    Standard 1: Student can write a technical report about a 3D modeling project…
    Standard 2: Student ca write a technical report researching user needs…

    etc. so if they drag their feet on 4 of them, and then try to get away with doing a good job on just one of them, they don’t get out of a bunch of other important work.

    Then there’s late work. A well-written report a month late is still a well-written report by writing standards….but my class is trying to teach us about real careers…in industry, a well-written report a month late means you’re fired, and they’ve moved on to the next consultant. I tend to go somewhere in the middle.

  2. Amanda Hensley says:

    My district used standards based grades for years, and just last year moved back toward the traditional format. Honestly, I don’t think it mattered. Whether you’re using numbers or letters, standards or subjects, it’s the amount of time that teachers put into creating an accurate mark and accompanying it with explicit feedback that really matters when viewing and measuring growth, in my opinion. Unfortunately, many teachers view SBG as just “more” subjects to mark and therefore put less effort into the accuracy of each.

    • Chris says:

      Interesting to hear it didn’t change much for you. I hadn’t really heard a “meh” response yet—only people who think it revolutionizes the world or ruins education. I like that it really matters how feedback is used. That’s the ticket.

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