Student watching math class on laptop

Rabbi David Saltzman Ed.D July 20, 2020

Distance Learning Pushed Us to Standards-Based Grading. We’ll Keep it.

Rabbi David Saltzman Ed.D

BetterLesson Instructional Coach and Director of Teaching and Learning

As we transitioned to distance learning this spring, our team at the Yeshivah of Flatbush was faced with a grading problem. We were using a typical grading scale of E (excellent), VG (very good), G (good), and U (Unacceptable), but we found that that system did not convey student performance as clearly or specifically as we wanted. One letter was meant to represent 5 – 7 different variables, including test accuracy, homework completion, participation, and behavior; and each teacher had their own subjective criteria for grading. In addition, large subject categories like math, reading, and language were broken down into unhelpful subsections like “math concepts.”

We had previously considered the vagueness of report cards, but the distance learning context forced us to grapple with the issue in new ways. With distance learning, we were facing a second big challenge.

The Assessment Challenge

A new problem we encountered in distance learning was administering assessments that accurately assessed students’ proficiency from afar. Some teachers were concerned with assessing students who were not showing up to Zoom class. Others were worried about whether students may not be submitting their own work, given the ease of online plagiarism. My colleagues and I wondered at staff meetings, “How are we going to assess students authentically and give meaningful grades? How can we determine if the students are doing their own work?”. These same assessment questions were a hot topic in my BetterLesson coaching calls with teachers from around the country.

The Switch to Standards-Based Grading

The new challenges of distance learning provided the impetus for us to switch to standards-based grading—and quickly! Standards-based grading is the practice of measuring student progress and proficiency on individual standards, such as Common Core Standards, rather than giving students a holistic and often subjective  A-F grade. The goal of this change was to identify relevant standards, have students learn them, and then assess each standard authentically. With this shift to standards-based grading, we could communicate to parents how their students were progressing on specific skills.

Our solution then was a two-part plan. Part one was to design, adopt, and implement a standards-based report card. Part two was to collect data on specific skills through authentic assessments. These two elements would allow us to quickly assess the determined skills and communicate meaningfully on the report card.

Part 1: Designing the Standards-Based Report Card

For our spring report card, teacher teams reviewed the Common Core standards and chose 4-5 salient skills for math, reading, and writing. We discussed those skills during our weekly grade-level team Zoom meetings, split into sub-groups to write mastery progression rubrics, and came back together to review the rubrics. The progression levels we decided on were: meets standard, approaching standard, and needs improvement. (See our 1st-5th grade rubrics here). Finally, we designed a new report card and spreadsheet for teachers which would display each student’s most-recent proficiency level on each standard.

Part 2: Designing Targeted, Synchronous Assessments

To ensure we accurately reported each student’s progress on each standard, each skill needed to be assessed in a format that was effective via distance learning. We were able to design synchronous assessments in reading and math, as those skills could generally be assessed in virtual small groups or 1:1. Writing was more challenging, as the work is done asynchronously and could be edited by a sibling or parent before the student submits.

For reading, we decided on a program that assigned a different reading passage for each grade level, and we determined benchmarks for our new grading system. Over a week, all the 1st – 4th-grade teachers met with each student 1:1 and gauged fluency, accuracy, and comprehension with a quick reading assessment tool. In 5 minutes per student, we collected important and authentic information about these critical skills.

Math progress was ascertained by meeting with students in small groups, using the Zoom breakout room feature, and assessing specific skills. Whiteboards were a great tool to use in these small groups. The teachers asked math problems and then checked the work as students held up their whiteboards to the camera. (An added benefit was that students were also able to give feedback to each other.) Students also orally described their thinking about how they solved the problem. After ten to fifteen minutes, the next group was brought in, and the same process unfolded. With the standards-based model, since teachers knew exactly which skills the students were learning, the assessments were targeted and specific, and took less time to administer.

Positive Outcomes

We’ve had several positive outcomes through this change:

  • Aligned our report cards with specific skills. Our previous report card was confusing and inaccurate. By reporting proficiency on specific Common Core skills, the report card now reliably reports and tracks student growth using the mastery-based progression rubric consistently across all teachers.
  • Built collaboration among grade-level teacher teams. All grade level teachers worked together and unified their practice. We have six teachers per grade, and partnership is an essential element for school and student success.
  • Deepened teacher understanding of standards-based grading. Since teachers were involved in the process of switching to standards-based grading, they now have a better appreciation for the benefits and a willingness to continue this work in the fall.

Our Future Goals: Empower Students

This first phase of our shift to standards-based grading necessarily happened quickly and under enormous stress, so it was really only the first phase of a longer-term transition. When we return in the fall, we have short-term and long-term goals extending from this report card development.

  • We will have to repeat our process from the spring – identifying standards, writing mastery-based rubrics, and aligning lesson plans and report cards to those standards.
  • A long-term goal is to empower students in their own learning. One element of empowerment is to design classes where students can pace themselves and track their own progress towards mastery, using our progress rubric. The BetterLesson Progress and Mastery Tracking or the Goal Setting and Reflection are examples of strategies that we desire to implement.

Next Steps for Educators

As committed educators, we want to ensure that our students are progressing towards and reaching important learning goals. When that goal is specific and supported by a clear rubric detailing strengths and areas of improvement, all constituencies know what students have mastered and what they still need to learn. The ability to measure these skills through synchronous 1:1 and small-group assessments guaranteed that our reporting was accurate and meaningful.

Distance learning compelled our team to shift our grading practices swiftly. Through teamwork, flexibility, and a desire to enhance student learning, our teachers were able to make this useful and significant change in a short amount of time. Other schools looking to make similar adjustments to their grading practices and policies can follow this model for a successful implementation of a standards-based grading report card with targeted, synchronous assessments.

BetterLesson supports schools and districts as they face the challenge of creating flexible, equitable, student-centered learning environments – whether learning happens in-school, online, or in a hybrid model.

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