I started this post last night during conferences. Then... it became a novel. (Classic Steph).
What can I say? I get so excited thinking about how we can personalize learning that I could talk for day. (Which is also why I have started this series... I just can't shut up).
But as I sat in conferences, I couldn't help but think about my first round of conferences as an AP teacher. Every other conference eventually came to some version of... "He/She has never had a B before." Usually followed by my explanation of weighted grades and the rigor of AP classes... until I'd give up and say something like "It'll get better."
Grades were honestly running my classroom. Kids were so desperate for points one year that they literally brought thousands of canned items when I offered to drop an FRQ for the class that brought the most. They spent (or, their parents spent) HUNDREDS of dollars to drop one 50 point assignment. The pressure to keep an A and that influence on my classes was more exhausting than any number of pages I had to grade.
Something had to change. And significantly.
It was around this time that my school adopted Schoology - which offered a host of options under the Mastery tab to let me see students' achievement levels. Looking at the new feature, I was drawn to the fact that I could attach learning objectives to assignments, and Schoology would calculate not just the numeric grade, but also the proficiency.
Quickly - as they often do - my wheels started turning, and fast! I think it was just a few days before a new school year when I decided to jump onboard. I drafted some learning objectives (based on nothing really... they weren't great) and asked my colleague (God bless her) to jump down the standards based grading rabbit hole with me.
And as with everything, the process went through multiple transformations and deviations. From bad to okay to maybe alright? Let me walk you through it.
Because my first attempt was a last minute impulse leap - as you might imagine - we had multiple issues. Even within that first year, I changed the setup at semester time because I had quickly realized my flaw.
What was that flaw, you ask? I used the proficiency calculation instead of a decaying average.
Now these words might mean nothing to you, so let me explain:
Any teacher with half a brain could anticipate what problem I ran into with the proficiency calculation:
As soon as kids got a proficient score on something, they started blowing off subsequent assignments, saying "I already have the A so it doesn't really matter."
In a writing class, practice is key, so this apathy towards repeat assessment immediately caused problems. I'm not saying this method can't work. I just didn't have the refined curriculur design that would have been needed to make it work. So, at semester time, I gave the proficiency calculation the ol' heave ho. (Not admitting my own ignorance - of course - but rather, telling the kids we had to step it up for second semester and focus on consistency. Like a real pro...ha!)
We carried on with the decaying average model for the rest of the year.
Starting a new year, I felt better knowing that the decaying average worked, but two roadblocks had yet to be resolved:
In all honesty, I still don't think I have resolved #1 (but I'll share some changes that helped), and #2 is something I am working on every year. I grabbed a screenshot of my Resources page to show you how many variations of the standards I have been through. Like I said... MANY variations.
The following year, AP came out with their updated Course and Exam Description and that helped A LOT. Without that, I felt like I was kind of floating out in the middle of nowhere without the anchors I needed to measure kids. So before the changes implemented in 2019, I was just trying stuff out until it fit.
SIDE NOTE: This process is something that can't be overlooked. It would be easy to say you just plug in all the Common Core standards and start assessing your class, but for me, a huge process has been learning to prioritize and organize standards. And even more importantly, having the freedom to do so. One of the main reasons my adaptation of SBG has been pleasant is because I am not on a core English team and I have a little flexibility with my learning targets. Any system that expects full representation of every standard is delusional. Standards based grading must rely on multiple assessments of each standard, so expecting FORTY TWO standards - even over the course of two years - is unrealistic. (I'm looking at you, Common Core!).
Now we have arrived at the 19-20 school year. You know, those magical pre-COVID times when all we were worried about was the new composition style questions on the exam. Remember that?
In all honesty, last year I OVER simplified. (It's like I knew something everyone else didn't). I never had a good way of labeling multiple choice so previously, I had just said "Critical Reading" and called it good. So with the new standards in place, I decided to just break that into the four core categories in the CED (Course and Exam Description): Rhetorical Situation, Claims and Evidence, Reasoning and Organization, and Style.
I pretty much had a mix of old standards and new, but I did differentiate between what proficiency was in the first semester versus the second semester. It's not something I would recommend in hindsight. The more I learn about competency based learning, the more I realize that the target shouldn't move just because time passes.
But - another lesson learned!
For this school year, I fully adopted the CED standards. And to no one's surprise... I won't be able to get them all in this year. Even in a "normal" year, I think I would struggle to get to some standards in the CED.
However, I do feel our work has been more intentional and focused this year. Really narrowing down those reading standards to the subpoints and specific targets has allowed me to 1) use AP classroom to its full potential and 2) zero in on student weaknesses.
The picture above is a snapshot of my Mastery page on Schoology. You'll see my standards now have the correct numeric code from the CED (....and that we need to work on 8A).
This spring, in order to move one step closer to a personalized format, I actually have them narrowed down to six units, pairing the analysis standard with the writing one.
If you haven't noticed yet, nearly all of the learning objectives in the CED have a pair. In the one above, 3.B asks students to analyze a text for thesis and 4.B asks them to write a thesis. These pairings between analysis and development are consistent throughout the objectives.
So for this spring, I have made these pairs for 5B/6B, 7A/8A, 1B/2B(kind of), 5C/6C, and 3C/4C. Students are designing assessments that show me both sides of the skill.
Like I said, the learning objectives (or Roadblock #1) have always kind of been in a state of flux while I adjust and adapt to kids. The other hurdle, or Roadblock #2 mentioned above, has been a similar slow march.
Helping Students "Get" It
We did take more intentional steps this year to be transparent, but as you can imagine, switching to this style of grading is a pretty big jump. While my district is moving in this direction, I frankly wasn't willing to wait, so educating students, parents, and other teachers on my system has been a learning process of its own.
That said, here is my advice. (Well... what I have so far. We're still taking steps).
My last piece of advice can be the hardest. I have spent years explaining and re-explaining my gradebook, rationale, and process to all stakeholders, but it has become easier and easier every time. And, even better, I have the data to support why it's working now. It's one of those times where you have to dig your heels in a bit at the start and persevere, but it'll pay off!
As for next year and the year after, I have no intention of reverting back to numeric grading, and as my district adopts it universally, I'll adapt my methods to suit.
That said, I do know my next evolution involves upgrading my learning objectives to proficiency scales - more to come on those - and continuing to reform my personalized methods.
There aren't simple answers when it comes to this process. (But I'll sure try to help!) It takes time and patience. It takes trial and error. It takes a lot of reflection. In other words, it takes resilience - something we've all mastered in the last year, I think.
But I will say this... Now that I am working in my most personalized model, I have never seen stronger relationships with my students or greater conversations about learning in my classroom. It honestly makes me so excited for our next attempt. (And excited to keep sharing what I learn with you!)