Standards based grading has been a huge success for me. It's helping my students have conversations about success and becoming determined about showing improvement. Most of them have stopped talking about That Number. The number that I dislike. The one all the top kids in your class obsess over. 100. Ideally, it should all be about growth and feedback, but tradition dictates we give kids a number. They live and die by that number. See also: college, where sub-par teaching methods and the pursuit of 4.0 poisons just about everything.

AP culture feeds the beast. That GPA bonus is enticing. Surely extra credit must be offered. I NEED to have an A. If you can just give me two points mister, it's just two points!

I dislike it intensely. It takes a fantastic opportunity, exposure to high level curriculum, and turns it into a war for 100. How do you teach a group of Calculus kids, kids who have fought for 100 forever at this point, to forget about the stupid number and focus on learning for the sake of learning?

A few years ago I helped adapt my typical SBG approach to Calculus. Subdivide the class into topics, test each topic twice, honor the best score, and offer full replacement after school. Throw a six weeks exam in there to keep a little accountability. It didn't work. Sure, kids demonstrated improvement. But many blew off the initial attempt. TONS of them showed up after school to try and replace everything. All in pursuit of monkeys, er, 100.

This year? Reset button.

The Strategy

The first failure is trying to take Calculus and force it into nice little topics. After a two year experiment, it was pretty clear Calculus doesn't like being treated that way. It's a Big Ideas kind of class. It's primarily conceptual. Everything matters. You can't forget about September.

The second failure is removing too much accountability from the assessments. That after school thing was a crutch. Special rules had to be written.

The third failure was a disconnect between the assessment material and the design of the AP Exam. AP scores were terrible. Blowing off assessments probably didn't help. Seeing the format of the exam too late probably didn't help either.

What do we do?

Giant tests out of 100 are out of the question. Assessment needs to remain short and frequent. Reassessment should be available, but limited. Concepts matter. More accountability needs to exist. I should have the freedom to put anything and everything on them.

The Method

After a lot of discussion with a fellow Calculus teacher who wanted to do the same thing, we arrive at our current method. These are given once a week-ish.

It's a hybrid sort of thing. Each section is evaluated in a big picture sort of way. No nitpicking -1 or -2 junk, just feedback and an overall evaluation. The front page is skills. The top is for the deep catalog stuff. The bottom is fresh. The back is all conceptual. Written answers, thought questions, justifying answers and all that. Each is a separate entry in the gradebook. Kids still go right to the number, but it's not That Number. Only skills are eligible for a retry. Concepts are important. Six weeks exams are now mini-AP tests.

The Hook

Students should keep track. Students should get a pat on the back for success. There should be a goal unrelated to 100.

Since each test is a unique set of semi-permanent scores, the tracking is a little different. Each test is recorded on a line with the results from the three categories. If the total is 16+, you get a shiny, Calculus-only silver star.

It's the dumbest thing in the world. But an 18 year old will commit crimes for a sticker. And now that's how they talk. Did I get a star? I starred this one! I'm all ABOUT those stars! NOOOOOO 15, I HAD IT!!!!!!

Take a step back for a second. There are 20 points total. A 16 represents 80% (a comfortable 5 on the AP test, the reason it was chosen). A 15 is 75%. Think about that kid with the 15. What happens if they got a paper back with a 75? I probably can't do this. This is as hard as everyone said. Now I'm behind in math too.

When would a student with a 75 be ENCOURAGED by that result? Be willing to stop by after school to make sure that darn it they get a sticker next time? In the fight for 100, 75 is pretty unacceptable. And yet, my students have no problem with it, because the dreaded 100 has been abstracted away.

That's all I want. If you are motivated by getting As, ok. But I want you in tutorials because you're eager to learn, not because you're going to beg for some extra credit. And in class where the real evaluation isn't until May? Your number out of 100 is the least important number there is.

AuthorJonathan Claydon