SBG – Standards Based Grading

A few weeks ago, Fawn Nguyen started a discussion about Standards-Based Grading, where teachers grade based on the mastery of a skill, not based on points and “work”. Below is that conversation (because I covered pretty much everything I have to say about it, for now).

This post is written for teachers. Sorry other readers (Mom), but you will likely be bored by what appears to be a discussion in minutia. Feel free to read on if you’ve a taste for pain.

I couldn’t resist a chance to use this picture.

(Clarifications and links have been added that weren’t in the actual email.)


Hey, Fawn.

I just read your post about starting the year. You’ve clearly done more work for your craft this summer than I have, and I’m curious about how your SBG is going. I tried it with my HS students, but abandoned it when I moved to the Middle School, where “the study skills are important” (my math coach).

From: FawnPNguyen at gmaildotcom

Hi Matt,
I had to chuckle getting your email because I’m nowhere with SBG! Yes, I’ve read a lot, so lots of things in my head but they all need to be sorted out…

But two things for sure I know I’ll start in 2 weeks:

1. stop grading homework

2. allow test retakes (and test A LOT fewer items, more smaller quizzes, no big chapter tests)


Kids probably think they’re in a “dream” class given these two things.

So, I’ll definitely be “doing” SBG-like stuff, but I just don’t have anything written down yet.

I need to think through the 2 items. Now that you’re asking, let me think aloud:

  1. Homework logistics: 5 to max 10 problems a night, answers posted somewhere (online? outside class?), those who do NOT do them must come in at lunch (or something, but then this kinda punishes me to babysit them during lunch, UGH), periodic homework quiz then?
  2. Test retakes: biggest challenge of making at least 3 versions of a test/quiz. Then how/when/where are retakes held at?

There’s another teacher teaching math, and it’s not fair to her that I decide to go off on SBG on the 11th hour like this. So my compromise is what I’ve stated above, just start with those 2 items. But no rubrics/concept standards yet (FOR SURE I don’t have time to write these this year). Just normal points from “normal” quizzes, just given in smaller chunks…


Good point about middle schoolers and study skills. Hmmmm… come to think of it, just how many MS teachers are doing SBG? The big ones Cornally and Bowman and Shah and Elizabeth and Kate are all high school teachers! Interesting, might throw this out on Twitter to see.


There, you just allowed me to put some thoughts down in writing about SBG more than I ever have :)
What are you thinking of doing? So did you even try it at all at the middle school?

From: MrVaudrey at gmaildotcom

Yo, Fawn.

My own experience with SBG was:

  • at best, a way to minimize work for me while making the grading system easier to understand
  • at worst, a half-hearted attempt to create an easy final project.

This was a school were any classroom innovation was purely intrinsic, received no praise, no critique, and no acknowledgement. Which is why I left.

Here’s what I did for one year with no outside input (this was pre-Twitter for me).

  1. No more graded homework. I still go over the answers every day, and if students (I had seniors) wanted to copy, they were more than welcome to.
  2. Every Wednesday (minimum day, 40 minute periods) we had a Homework Quiz, with problems taken off the homework for that week. If they were up to date on the homework, they got 100%, thus boosting their quiz-test scores while demonstrating mastery of key concepts.
  3. Four-point rubrics for everything. That way, a zero for a missing assignment doesn’t tank their grade. (See here for more reading on that.)
  4. Throughout the year, students received “Standards Mastery Sheets” (see attached) after a test. I checked that these were included in their notebooks, but other than that, I didn’t grade them fully until the end of the semester. As you can see, they had to demonstrate mastery in key concepts, sometimes making up their own problem and explaining the steps.
    1. I had a 5-point rubric for this.
    2. I named each one with an alphabetical name; it’s more fun than “standard 4”.
    3. After I graded them, I laid all of them out and looked for copies. If they copied, they received a zero (BOTH copiers).
    4. Then—and I’m pretty proud of this—I announced to each class, “If you copied or let someone copy, you may come to me now and ask for a fresh one. If you don’t think I caught you, feel free to stay silent. You are dismissed.”
    5. Roughly 60% of the class copied at least one.
  5. I added a grading category for each standard (which took a while) and made a point to create assignments that dealt with one standard at a time. In Trig and Geometry, it was pretty easy to do.
  6. At the end of the semester, when students come by during lunch to ask for extra credit, I point them to the Mastery file and say, “Show me what you know. Your grades for Standard 4 were low, so take DELTA.”

I think it could have gone well if I had stayed at the high school. At the middle school level, they can’t connect the dots between “doing homework” and “understanding the topics on the HW Quiz”. The high-school students would say out loud in class on Wednesdays, “Shit. I gotta start doing the homework.”

Regarding your re-takes, that’s a separate issue than SBG, I think. It could be solved by doing 5-question, consecutively numbered quizzes a la Dan Meyer. In my class, students must study at home for 90 minutes observed by a parent or guardian—who sign off on a study log (attached)—before they are allowed a re-take. This dramatically cuts down the number of re-takes. My first year, I had a student who re-took quizzes ad nauseum until he got 100% on every one. I stopped changing the version just because I was sick of it (and was also a terrible teacher).

Fawn concluded our e-mail thread with a short note, mentioning:

Lots of people have lots of questions about SBG because it’s not a one-size-fits-all, (is anything in education?) so the more conversations, the better.

Well put, Mrs. Nguyen.

Below are some more readings on the subject and the attachments that I mentioned.

Timon Piccini on SBG
Mr. Piccini then recommended Jason Buell, who wrote on SBG here and
Timothy McSweeney’s grading scale (composed entirely of Samuel Beckett quotes)
A huge compilation of SBG materials from a teacher I know from Twitter.
A huge compilation of SBG materials by somebody I don’t know.

Documents I Used:
Standards Mastery – Trigonometry Std. 1
Standards Mastery – Geometry Std. 18-19
Test Re-take Study Log

8 responses to “SBG – Standards Based Grading

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  2. Our district is requiring SBG for sixth grade. The class in sixth grade will always have SBG district wide. The problem is we have no known plan for GPA’s, and no set way to determine our 1-4 scale. I have been wanting to ask how other teachers have given their final course grades without the whole school using SBG. I have used SBG with percentages the last two years, and the no points for practice (homework) has worked so far.

    • No set scale or rubric is dangerous. It breeds a few possible environments:
      1) All students all do poorly in a teacher’s class, but a similar class has diverse grades.
      2) All Students all do well in a teacher’s class, but a similar class has diverse grades.
      3) A student does poorly in all classes but one.
      4) A student does well in all classes but one.
      In short, the rubric–much like state standards–is meant to regulate and even out the possible sources of teacher error.
      I encourage you to keep seeking ways to promote fairness among your colleagues. With a little research (starting with my links above and others’ links below) you may even lead the charge in your district.
  3. I have been creating some SBG “explainers.” Not sure if they’re the type of information you’re looking for or not, but feel free to use them as you continue your journey.

    • I like that! Clearly, you and your colleagues have put some work into that list. As SBG develops, I see more guidelines like that popping up. Nice work setting the curve!
  4. I will be calling you soon to talk about this. I’ve done SBG at one school before, and am doing it again now… Interested to know your thoughts on some things.

  5. Since our email exchanges, Matt, I’m happy to report that I and my wonderful colleague, Erin, have sat down and hammered out more details to our SBG. Thus far,

    1. Only doing SBG with Algebra 1 class (taking Frank’s “K.I.S.SBG.” advice
    2. Used the textbook to write about 40 skills.
    3. Using Sam Shah’s 0-4 rubric (with 3.5)
    4. Modified a skills checklist (to give to students) from Jacob Morill who’d shared on Dan Meyer’s post.
    5. Each quiz will have 5 questions.
    6. If we combined skills on a quiz, then each skill has just 3 questions.
    7. Erin and I will split up the work like this: she creates all assessments for odd-numbered chapters, I take the evens. But I create all the RE-assessments for the odds, and she does the evens.
    8. I made Google form already for kids to fill in to request a reassessment, need 2-day notice, given out at lunch time, Tue – Fri.

    While both Erin and I have read many of the posts on SBG, our time together IRL was crucial in bringing it into our classrooms. And because we split up the work, it’s much more manageable to tackle this big new thing. I’m trying to maneuver through this learning curve without crashing and burning. I don’t mind falling every now and then.

    Thank you, Matt, for being part of a conversation that helped me move further along!

  6. Pingback: Why Give Homework? | Mr. V's Class

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