Standards-Based Grading Assessment Design

One of the more challenging parts of standard based grading in social studies can be designing assessments. They have to assess historical thinking while also requiring the use of historical content; They need to be scaffolded, and thereby aligned to the proficiency scale and they should vary in terms of assessment type and language skill. In addition to all of this, teachers may want to design assessments that align with inquiry-based learning, project-based learning, or other such systems.

One of the foundational aspects of standards-based grading is the concept of growth over time, that is, students are given multiple assessments around the same standards and their final scores are based on the most recent assessments. A course that has just 12 prioritized standards with the expectation that each standard is assessed a minimum of four times within the semester can quickly spiral into a seemingly endless cycle of assessment without time to actually teach.

How can we make this work while retaining the joy of teaching and learning? It’s not easy, but can be accomplished if we redefine what assessment looks like. Here are a few things I have learned that helped me make standards-based grading work with in a social studies classroom.

1. Formative Assessments can be used to assign summative scores

Keeping track of formative scores is a critical part of doing standards based grading well. My goal was to have a data point on at least one standard each class/block. Sometimes this was a simple vocabulary check even though this meant that a score 2.0 was the highest possible outcome, sometimes students wrote a short paragraph or did a quick document analysis that could only reach a 3.0. At least once a week there was a formative assessment where students could achieve and get feedback on score 4.0 tasks.

All of this data provided a sense of both student proficiency at one moment in time or their achievement trends over time. Power School, the grade book program our school used, automatically calculated a grade for each standard based on the most recent three summative assessments that were recorded. However, at the end of the quarter or semester I had the power to override that calculation when I felt it was needed. There were a number of situations where I felt this was called for, and it empowered me to use the full range of qualitative and quantitative data that I had recorded to assign the fairest and most accurate score possible. Simple or automatic averaging is antithetical to the spirit of standards-based grading.

Standards-based grading is not meant to be a trap or a straight-jacket for the teacher or student. It expands assessment and gives teachers the freedom and tools to provide better feedback and more accurate assessments of student growth and proficiency. I should add that this approach is supported in most of the research that guides standards-based grading. The most significant is arguably Robert Marzano in his book Formative Assessment & Standards-Based Grading.

2. Assessments do not always need to take an entire class or block

It is easy to get stuck in the pattern of assessments that take the entire block. I think that some of this is rooted in the desire to assess all the content that is taught in order to feel that students are being held accountable for their learning. Just as teachers cannot teach everything, we cannot formally assess everything. Decreasing the size and time constraints of assessments offers significant flexibility in planning and redefines assessment for students. Instead of being a huge and stressful task, assessment becomes a frequent and normal routine that is simply mean to capture student growth and learning.

The most common “short” assessment I have used is related to primary source analysis. In the final 15 minutes of a class, students can be given a short primary source related to the day’s content along with a few scaffolded questions to assess how deeply they can analyze or source the document. This can be as valid an assessment of student ability as asking them to write an entire document based question.

Of course, projects and larger tasks will take more time and these are still an important part of the classroom. AP courses will still need to give large assessments to prepare students for the AP exam and project-based learning is an exciting and fun way to have students apply skills. But mixing in more frequent and smaller assessments can reduce testing stress for students, make marking easier for teachers, and help place the standards or historical thinking skills at the center of assessment.

3. Assessments should be scaffolded

Assessment length and rigor are not the same; adding to assessment length does not guarantee that students are being assessed on deeper skills. Instead, organize the assessments into sections that correspond to your proficiency scales.

A score 2.0 section is a great place to assess vocabulary and basic content knowledge along with foundation skills at the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy.

A score 3.0 section can ask the student to take the next step in rigor and assesses their analytical ability with the content.

A score 4.0 section should do more than ask additional questions without any increase in rigor. A poorly constructed score 4.0 section risks a scenario where the student can answer those questions satisfactorily while making mistakes on the score 2.0 or score 3.0 sections. Instead, a score 4.0 section should ask students to make more in-depth inferences, tackle a more challenging problem, or pursue deeper analysis.

My US History resource page has examples of assessments I have used this these goals in mind.

4. Standards can be assessed together within projects or larger tasks

Historical thinking skills do not exist in isolation to each other. Although they are often introduced individually, its important for students to see how they fit together. At the start of a unit, I like to assess skills on their own in order to give students practice and make the teaching of the skill clearer and more accessible. Feedback is also more targeted. By the end of the unit, students are ready to work on a larger project or task that integrates multiple skills from the unit.

A common example of this would be the Document Based Question. Within a single DBQ essay students can be assessed on argumentation, contextualization, and primary source analysis among others. Projects that integrate skills can be more creative, from creating historical podcasts or doing a National History Day project to taking part in a Socratic seminar or Circle of Viewpoints discussion.

Differentiating between smaller assessments designed around single standards and larger tasks that bridge multiple standards is also a great way of keeping assessment fresh for students. Assessment boredom can be avoided! Examples like the one below can be found on my US History resource page.

Standards-based grading is not a prison or a straight-jacket. Unlock its full potential to make the classroom more exciting and engaging for both students and teachers!

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