Thursday, April 25, 2013

Golden birthday: Iowa standards-based grading conference

For years I have been following some blogs of teachers/administrators whose classes/district use Standards-Based Grading (SBG).  If you know what SBG is, you can skip down to my conference summary.  If not, continue reading.

When I went to school (and probably you, too), grades were determined by points.  Homework is worth points, tests are worth points, correct answers are worth points, and sometimes participation is worth points.  You gain as many points as you can.  If you do poorly on an exam, you move on to the new unit and study harder for the next exam.  If you get an 86% on an exam, what do you know?  What don't you know?  The scores aren't indicative of knowledge.  Students are raised to focus on grades and parents always ask about grades. Numbers. Points.

In an SBG classroom, there are standards you must master in order to pass the course.  In a math class, for example, "Adding fractions without a common denominator" could be a standard.  Many SBG schools use a 1- 4 scale to show mastery of a standard (these numbers cannot be "translated" into As, Bs, Cs, etc. -- they do not represent the same thing).  Say it takes me longer to understand math concepts, and I get a 1 after my first assessment for this fractions standard.  I can do extra practice and must have finished my homework (which isn't worth "points" towards a grade) in order to qualify for reassessment.  I study and practice until I finally understand how to add fractions without a common denominator.  I reassess, and this time have a 4.  The 4 replaces the 1 I previously had for this standard.

In the old system, if I had done poorly on an exam about adding fractions without a common denominator, I would have a low test score on exam #1, and would try to score higher on the next one.  And I might never learn how to add fractions without a common denominator.  In SBG, I can practice and reassess when I'm ready.  If I haven't mastered the information by the test day, it's not too late.  In a way you can learn at your own pace (though you should try to keep up with the class), but the focus is on learning the standards.

Some SBG classes continually reassess all standards, and the most recent score is the one that stays.  For example, in a chemistry course, the third week of school I might take an assessment for standard R.  In three weeks, I take an assessment for standard S and R.  When we're assessed for the third standard, T, I also must reassess R and S.  The most recent scores are what's counted, so it's in the student's benefit to learn the standard well from the beginning, and not to cram before an exam.  Students in this system are focused on the standards.  The knowledge.  Learning.

That's an explanation of SBG in my own words.  Here's a quick video explaining (in a clearer way) what is standards-based grading.

I had great grades throughout high school.  I knew the system.  I knew how to get points.  I knew what I needed to know on test days, and always turned in my homework on time.  I'm the type of person who strives to get good grades.  What does this say about my knowledge?  Absolutely nothing.  Sure, I learned lots and studied, but I would have benefited and learned much more had I been in an SBG environment.  I'm sure it would have added a different type of stress to my schooling, but the knowledge gained would have been well worth the extra struggle.

SBG Conference in Cedar Rapids, IA (#SBGConf): April 24, 2013

In December, I read in one of these blogs that there would be a free SBG conference in Iowa on April 24, my golden birthday.  As soon as registration opened mid-January I signed up.  It wasn't until this Monday that I decided to "splurge" for my birthday and booked myself a hotel for Tuesday night.  I left work at noon on Tuesday, borrowed mother's car, and drove to Cedar Rapids.

I'm the type of person who enjoys spending time by their self, so it was a fun evening.  I ordered Chinese takeout (chicken curry and wonton soup) from a restaurant two blocks away.  There was so much food - it turned into four meals.

I took advantage of the tub and took a bath that evening, and I also wrote thank you cards to attendees of my family birthday celebration on Sunday while watching Craigslist Joe on my laptop.

The conference site was a two-minute drive from my hotel, which was very convenient (and I didn't have to wake up earlier than normal on Wednesday!).

I was pleased with the organization of the conference.  Check out these beautiful schedules posted outside each room:

Breakfast consisted of hearty bagels, donuts, and muffins.  I ate a donut before the keynote, and another donut afterwards (since there were so many left).  Yummy birthday breakfast.

For the keynote, they opened up the dividers so that four separate session rooms became one large room, with the presentation projected on four different screens.  Shawn Cornally (Blogger at Think, Thank, Thunk) gave the keynote presentation.  He was engaging, passionate, and made me laugh several times.  You can watch Shawn Cornally's keynote address "Standards Based Grading: A Gateway Drug to Awesome" here, and I recommend doing so.

The rest of the day consisted of four sessions, a panel, and lunch (not in that order).  I attended:
  • What does SBG look like in foreign language?
  • What does SBG look like in math?
  • Panel: High School Teacher Panel
  • High School specific issues with SBG (eligibility, class rank, etc.)
  • How can you use SBG to move beyond the bells and class periods to get learning?
I was surprised by the format of most sessions (that I attended, at least), which is my main criticism and suggestion for improvement.  Most of my sessions (three of the four) began with a 3-4 minute video, and then the rest of the time was Q&A with the audience.  This unfocused Q&A had us bouncing all around, and I feel a presentation focused on the session title of each presenter would have been more beneficial.  I do learn best when information is presented in an organized, visual way -- so that's another reason why I wasn't a huge fan of the Q&A formats.

But let me explain a bit more: So at the foreign language session, people asked, "How often do you reassess?",  "What grading scale do you use?",  "How many standards do you have in a semester?",  "Do you find your students are more motivated to learn/reassess on their own?",  etc.  In the math session, many of the same questions were asked.  Each session didn't feel focused on the content-specific parts of an SBG classroom; rather audience members were asking a wide-spectrum of questions to individual SBG teachers.  Same with the last session I attended, it was mainly audience members asking the presenter the same types of questions that spanned many topics within SBG.  

There were other sessions throughout the day focused on specific issues: reassessment, what it means to have mastered a standard (acceptable evidence of learning), how to convert standards to a letter grade, and homework.  So it didn't feel efficient to have each presenter (in 3 of the 4 sessions I attended) answer questions about all of the above topics, when the question-asker could have attended a whole session focused on that one issue instead.  I'm not sure if I'm explaining myself clearly, does this make sense?

To anyone who attended the conference, what did you think of the format of your breakout sessions?  Did you find the open Q&A helpful?  Unfocused?  Were you expecting presentations, like I was?

I met less people today than at the other conferences I've been to this year, that's for sure.  The main reason is that I'm not a current educator or administrator (or parent, etc.).  I'm just a strong supporter of SBG (read: avid blog reader), and plan to implement it in my future classroom.  You know, once I become teaching certified and have a classroom.  Which might happen after I (fingers crossed) live in South Korea for a year teaching English. And then maybe France. And after I do whatever other traveling I end up doing. And after I get a Master's. Etc. ... so in the future future.  Anyway, most attendees were talking about their own experiences with SBG in their classrooms, swapping advice, etc.  I loved listening to all of this, but I couldn't really contribute to the conversation.  

This is how most of my introductions went:
Rebe: Hi, I'm Rebecca.  Where/what do you teach?
Attendee: Oh I teach middle school math in X district [over half the time people wouldn't tell me their names after I introduced myself!]  Where do you teach?
Rebe: Oh, I don't.  I'm from Madison, WI.  Hopefully a future educator...
Attendee: Oh okay, so are you in school right now?
Rebe: No, I graduated in 2011.
Attendee:  Ok.  *Turns and talks to someone else* or *pulls out smart phone*

And I get it, I mean -- if I were an SBG teacher I would want to use this time to network and get ideas from other educators or administrators.  Also, sometimes (read: often) I'm socially awkward and can easily let conversations die.  Hopefully I can attend another SBG conference in 5 years and feel like  I can offer some experience to other attendees.

I did feel way more excited at this conference than at my past two office professional conferences.  This is because I'm passionate about SBG/quality education, whereas my office job is temporary.  Getting into the education/teaching field is my goal, excelling in the office professional field is not.

I'm very glad I attended the Iowa SBG conference today, and I would like to thank everyone who played a part in its success.  To have the virtual experience of having attended the conference, visit this shared Evernote document about the Iowa SBG conference.  All of the videos played at the beginning of each session can be found at  I think it's excellent how quickly all of these materials/resources were shared online.

Although I was back home by 7pm, I was exhausted.  My plan was to shower around 9 and then go to bed, but my roommates forced invited me out for a birthday beer.  I'm glad they did, as one of my roommates ran into a friend of hers, so she joined us for a beer.  It was double bubble night (2 for 1), so having an even number made it easy.  It was also karaoke night, which was entertaining to watch.

Birthday drink with the two roomies
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  1. Rebe, I wonder if we could flip the content-specific sessions with the general sessions. This may get the questions answered for the those who are looking for general information and then finish with how it is specific to the content.

    1. Great idea! I really liked the google doc you shared with us in the session; I explored it more in-depth when I got home. Lots of useful content -- maybe that's more of what I had expected.

      What do you think about the open Q&A format of the sessions? I'm a visual person, and I learn best when information is presented in a structured, organized way. So I think not knowing what was going to be covered at the beginning of each session also contributed to these opinions about the breakout sessions.