Standards Based Grading in AP U.S. History (APUSH)

Last year I attended a workshop by Rick Wormlei.  Over the years I’ve been a teacher, I’ve developed a hesitancy and “leeriness”of any and all workshop presenters.  I’ve been to enough bad workshops over the years, and sometimes, they were just awful.

This workshop blew away all of my expectations.  Wormlei was engaging, and interesting, and just overall fantastic.  He looks a bit like Steve Martin, and has a similar sensibility.  It felt as though I was completing professional development with a very knowledgeable stand-up comedian.

Wormlei’s presentation was focused on the ideas of Standards Based Grading.  Essentially, Wormlei argued (and continues to argue) that a student’s grade should only be a representation of how well they’ve mastered the content or skills of the class.  I’ve heard about this approach for years.  When it was initially proposed by our principal several years ago (he made us read a book), I found it ridiculous.  How can one make a kid accountable if they don’t grade homework?  Will kids complete any homework on time ever again?  We’re supposed to accept late assignments?  Allowing them to retest or redo anything whenever?  It sounded like a teacher’s horror story.

Wormlei explained it differently, and he made it make sense.  Without rehashing everything he presented, I thought I would summarize my system for SBG in my APUSH class this past year.  If you’d like to learn more specifically about Wormlei’s approach, I’d check out his book, Fair Isn’t Always Equal.

In my class, I had to make quite a few decisions before I could implement SBG.  Once I started with a particular system, I couldn’t really change it within the school year.  APUSH moves too fast, and ultimately, I would just confuse the students.

First I had to deal with the fact that APUSH combines skills and content.  How would I assess the skills, and how would assess the content?  Would I assess both at the same time?  Switch back and forth?  Only consider content or skill?

Eventually, I decided to assess content directly through the stimulus based multiple choice.  On each test, I would include 5 SBMC for each Key Concept (1.1, 1.2, 1.3 etc.).  The students would also need know content for the short answer questions and the essays, but they would be labeled as skills.  I know this seems like a very small sample, however, the SBMC take a while for students to complete, and they are hard to come by.

I created a simple 5 point rubric for my SAQ.  They’re usually graded with three points, but with SBG, I determined that it would be best to grade everything out of 5 points.  For the essays, I decided to grade each skill separately.  APUSH long essays are graded out of 6 points and the DBQ essays are graded out of 7.  Each point would be graded on a 5 point scale, and imputed into the grade book separately.

A typical test had 15 MC, 2 SAQ and 1 long essay (I give them over 2 days, I have 40 minute class periods).  For quizzes I usually give 1 SAQ.  I would love to throw some SBMC on each quiz, but I don’t really have enough questions to consider doing so.

A second part of SBG concerns re-testing.  According to SBG philosophy, students should be able to re-test and rework any assessments to demonstrate mastery.  Logistically, speaking, this sounds a bit like crazy talk, and frankly, it is.  The College Board hasn’t provided teachers with very many questions to utilize in the classroom.  Therefore,  I had to come up with some way to allow students the opportunity to retest without having to write a bazillion questions myself, or allow students to take advantage of the policy, and retest without really thinking until they earned the score they wanted.  I decided to allow everyone the chance to re-test once.  Students had to sign up, and indicate the sections they wanted to retest.  A student might indicate that they wanted to retest 1 SAQ, KC 8.1 and the essay.  If they wanted to retest any component of the essay, they had to write a completely new essay.  The retest would be offered after school, and students had to attend on the same day, or they forfeited their ability to retest.

For the most part, this had worked.  I would love to cut down on the number of retests I give next year.  I also need to have a formal slip I require the students to fill out for their retesting (right now, I just have them e-mail me).   I also need to require students to review their errors with me prior to retesting, particularly for essays.  I also need better multiple choice.  This is why I’ve been writing so many on my own, and I will continue to do to so for the remaining periods.

Finally, I needed to figure out how I would combine my school’s grade book – an old style 100 point scale – with the SBG 5-point scale I had devised.  I eventually came up with the following conversion scale to explain the conversion to students.

  • 100% –  You scored 5s on all summative assessments.
  • 95% – You scored mostly 5s on your assessments. (more than 80%)
  • 90% – You scored an almost even amount of 4s and 5s on your assessments.
  • 85% – You scored mostly 4s on your assessments.
  • 80% – You scored an almost even amount of 3s and 4s on your assessments.
  • 75% – You scored mostly 3s on your assessments. (more than 80%)
  • 70% – You scored an almost even amount of 2s and 3s on your assessments.
  • 65% – You scored mostly 2s on your assessments. (more than 80%)
  • 60% – You scored an almost even amount of 1s and 2s on your assessments.
  • 55% – You scored mostly 1s on your assessments. (more than 80%)
  • 50% – You have not submitted any evidence to assess your work.  

This works for explanation.  What I actually have them do at the end of the quarter was have them fill out a chart.  From the chart they find the middle range of their grades.  This is one of my favorite parts of SBG.  A student’s score should reflect where they are most of the time, and it reflects that better when you find the middle range instead of an average.

My next concern was how I would make sure my students completed their homework.  I teach in a small rural school district, and I have about 20 students in my class each year.  Most of the students I’ve had in grade 7 before having them in APUSH.  Therefore, I’ve already developed a rapport with them and their parents.  I’m very lucky in this respect.  I’ve found that most of the students completed their homework whether is was graded or not.  I made the assignments reasonable, and I gave out a packet for each Period.  This way, students could plan to complete the homework around their busy schedules.  I also linked every question I asked with one of the key concepts.  If they wanted any chance to retest, the homework packet for that unit needed to be complete.

This has worked fairly well.  I typically checked the homework every time an assignment was due, and then I gave them a C – complete or I – incomplete, at the end of the Unit for the full packet.  Unfortunately, I was a little overwhelmed by making the packets this year.  Therefore, accountability was sometimes lost.  Next year, I plan to require students to have complete packets if they wish for the opportunity to retest quizzes or tests.  They will also need to make sure that they complete any in class assignments.  I’ve found that while I’ve had to cajole some students to complete assignments or keep them after to finish the homework, it it still much better than the traditional system of grading homework.  The homework is very clearly regarded as practice, and the students know that I will never cover all of the information in class, so they need to cover some on their own.  Also, it really discourages cheating.  It is SO EASY for students to cheat these days, and most all of them are doing so in some form or another. With this system, there’s really no reason to do so.  They can, but they miss the content, and they won’t earn a grade anyway.

The one area where I really missed the mark with SBG this year was with having students reflect on their growth and progress with their skills.  This is a crucial component of SBG.  I was so concerned with “making all the things,” they I barely paused to have the students reflect.  I attend to check this for next year.

With one year of SBG complete, I would say that I will most likely stick with some form of this system for the rest of my teaching career (it’s half over at this point).  I hope this helps to explain how SBG can work in a high school classroom, and how it can work with History.  I will also be writing a post about how I’ve implemented SBG in my junior high classes soon.

I decided to add the documents I’ve created for Standards Based Grading to my TpT store.  I know that they took me bunches of time to create, so I thought they might help others teachers implement SBG more easily.  You can find them here – Standards Based Grading – APUSH.

Are you thinking about trying Standards Based Grading?  What questions do you have?  Please leave any questions or comments below.  

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