How to design meaningful standards-based assessments (that are also easy to grade!) …even if your school does traditional grading
“Why do we have to learn this?”
“Will this be on the test?”
“How much do we have to write? How many pages does it have to be?”
Let’s take a moment to unpack what students are really asking us with these questions. For some students, who have learned to “play the game of school,” these questions are a way to understand how they can earn points in the “game.” For students who have traditionally been underserved by the educational establishment, or for students from households whose cultural perspectives on school and success that differ from those of American schools, asking questions about page count and “what will be on the test” can be a way to try to make sense of what may seem to be totally arbitrary “rules of the game.”
Adding to the challenge of assessment, oftentimes teachers feel we have to choose between what seems like meaningful assessments (projects, research papers, performance tasks), which may be time-consuming to create and onerous to grade, and tests that feel less deep (matching, multiple-choice, fact recall), but save us time grading on the weekends. Would you believe me if I told you it was possible to do both? It does take some planning and deep thinking on the front end, but it pays off big during the school year as it enables you to see real student growth, get buy-in from students, and streamline your grading.
In addition, by setting up your grading standards in the right way, you can make your assessments (and consequently your instruction) more culturally responsive and conducive to equity.
In this post, I’ll show you a 4-step process that you can use to streamline your assessment design, put the focus on learning, foster equity, and inclusion, give students ownership of their progress, and simplify grading. It works best if it’s used for your whole curriculum, as it does take time for students to learn the system and understand your benchmarks, but it’s something you can try with just one unit to start, if you’re reluctant to go all-in or if a curriculum overhaul seems daunting right now. However, the goal is to have a small set (no more than about 4 or 5) of universal rubrics that you can use for every single assessment, in every single unit of your course.
1. Decide on your standards and your benchmark levels.
These can come from state or national standards, your professional organization, or whatever your school uses. Most state and national standards are way too numerous to make sense to kids or parents, but usually, these can be collapsed into about 5 really broad categories. For my subject area (World Language), I use the ACTFL standards. Interpretive Reading, Interpretive Listening, Interpersonal, Presentational Speaking, and Presentational Writing are the only skills I assess. Choose the standards that are most critical to your content area, and narrow it down to about 3-5 really big-picture skills. You want the bird’s eye view.
You do not necessarily have to create these from scratch. Basing them on your state standards or whatever your school uses can make it simpler for you and makes your administrators happy. Again, if your state standards are too numerous or abstract and it seems overwhelming, just choose the 4-5 most critical and most broadly applicable to your content area, and focus on those.
It is extremely important at this step that you keep a critical eye out for bias in your standards and success criteria. For example, a criterion like ‘neatness’ on a project or poster may present a barrier to success for some students who lack access to fancy craft materials, or whose neurodiversity presents motor control challenges, or whose cultural values surrounding “neatness” differ from yours.
Another example might be criteria like grammar and mechanics. For students whose first/home language isn’t Standard American English, managing grammar and mechanics might get in the way of a student truly demonstrating their knowledge and mastery of a topic. This can be particularly damaging for ELL students, or students whose first language is African American English — a topic I will explore in more detail in a future post.
This is not to say that grammar and mechanics shouldn’t be considered, nor am I advocating that these things should not be taught. By all means, include them in your standards rubrics. If anything, having them as a separate category on the rubric can help you and your students target their learning in very meaningful ways. For example, if Jamal’s assignment has excellent grammar and mechanics, but is less impressive in the area of specific content knowledge, you can conference with Jamal about improving his content knowledge while also validating his excellent command of grammar and mechanics.
Or if Sharla has an incredible mastery of content but struggles with grammar, you and she both can see exactly where she needs additional support. This can be incredibly empowering for students to see that they are not “good at” or “bad at” your content area, but rather have a complex set of interdependent knowledge and skill sets that are continually evolving and developing. This is where your benchmark levels come in.
For the benchmark levels, again, you want to keep this simple. Get familiar with what “approaching,” “meeting,” and “exceeding” look like for each standard and each skill in your content area. Once you have these goalposts set, and you are really familiar with them, they become your North Star for everything else that follows. You no longer have to agonize over how many points to allocate to each category, or how much weighting each area should have. Instead, you look at the big-picture if a student is approaching, meeting, or exceeding the benchmark in a general way.
If most of Sharla’s work on an assignment is “meeting” standard, but she is still at “approaching” for grammar and mechanics, you can give her a “meeting” grade for the assignment and then help her work on her grammar in other ways, keeping an eye on how that improves over the course of the year. Perhaps this means that Sharla will stay at “meeting” in the course overall for a long time before leveling up, until her grammar skills catch up to the rest of her skills; but at least the grade is reflecting that she knows the content, and her weaker grammar is not negatively impacting that (or artificially communicating that Sharla does not know the content).
That said, if you are specifically targeting grammar and mechanics on an assessment, then by all means that should be the focus and if the student isn’t meeting the benchmark on that particular assessment, then it’s an “approaching” grade. I assert that there is a time and a place for assessing grammar and mechanics, and a time and place for assessing content knowledge … and a time and a place for assessing them both simultaneously. This is where your rubric design comes in, as well as your decision of whether or not to grade a particular assessment using the standards rubric vs a more traditional tool such as a short quiz.
2. Design a universal rubric for all assessments, based on your standards and benchmarks.
Simple, consistent rubrics are powerful in that they communicate to students exactly what is most important in a course. Seeing the same criteria across all units and all areas of course content helps reinforce to students exactly what matters in your course and what someone proficient in your content area knows and can do. It reinforces disciplinary literacy and fosters equity in that students are expected only to demonstrate the content-area knowledge and skills (particularly if you have been attentive to bias in setting up your standards and/or in how you assess student work).
You may need to have a couple of rubrics depending on your content area and teaching context, but the target should be no more than about 4 or 5 rubrics, ideally 2 or 3. For World Language, I have two rubrics: one for interpretive language (listening and reading), and one for interpersonal language (conversation) and presentational language (speaking and writing). All of my rubrics have the same standards and benchmarks, but different skill “look-fors” to reflect the differences in language skill areas.
Again, your rubrics will differ based on your content area and standards, but the important thing is to keep it simple, as universal as possible and focused on a handful of “big picture” standards.
One way to make your rubrics (and grading) even simpler is to try a single-point rubric. When I first learned about single-point rubrics, it was life-changing. It made my grading even easier, and really helped students understand what to focus on for learning and improvement. If you’re not familiar with single-point rubrics, Jennifer Gonzalez has a great explanation on her blog, Cult of Pedagogy, here.
My old rubrics used to include all the detailed criteria language at each level. It was overwhelming for kids and for me. I used to circle the criteria that students had met in each column. If they were mostly in the target column for their level, I’d consider that “meeting” standard. Once I learned about single-point rubrics, I added a single-point rubric to the backside of my standard rubric, and I use it to grade. Students still get both sides, so they can reference the success criteria, but the single-point rubric side enables me to give really targeted feedback and simplifies grading for me and for students. You can see an example of both sides of my rubric here.
3. Decide what grade you will assign to student work that meets expectations, and calibrate from there.
Even though we’re using a standards-based rubric, we still have to assign a numeric score since most schools still use numeric scores and letter grading. Keeping the same point value on a universal rubric (or small set of universal rubrics) makes life easier for everyone. Kids and parents tend to do better when they know what to expect with grading, thereby eliminating 99% of the grade disputes you might have.
For my classes, all of my summative assessments are worth 20 points. The choice to use 20 was arbitrary. For a variety of reasons, it just seemed like the right number in the larger context of my overall grading and the number of assessments I have over the course of a term. But there was nothing “magical” about the use of 20 points. It’s what works for me, your number may be different. Choose a number that makes sense for you. Sometimes in my upper-level courses, I will use the standard rubric with a multiplier to increase the point value for a really large, culminating kind of assessment, but this is pretty rare. However, it can be done and if your grading system needs flexibility for larger point-value assignments, I recommend using the standard rubric with a multiplier, to avoid having to recreate your assessment criteria to make the points fit.
Once you’ve decided on your “points possible,” you can decide on what numeric grade gets assigned to “meets expectations.” I recommend choosing something in the B range so that kids have room to grow into “exceeds expectations.” For my 20-point rubric, I have chosen 18 as my “meets” score. Nineteens are reserved for students who show evidence of exceeding expectations; scores of 20 are extremely rare (but not impossible!). Students who aren’t quite there usually earn a 16 or 17. Anything less than a 16 is rare in my class and is usually reserved for students who clearly haven’t learned the material and are just handing something in to hand something in.
And therein lies the magic of the standards-based grading system. When you grade student work, there is no more tallying of points, agonizing over a half-point here or a half-point there. You simply decide if the work meets your expectations or not. If it does, the student gets an 18/20 (or whatever your “meets” score is). If it impresses you, they get a 19 (or your equivalent). If they’re almost there but not quite, it’s a 17 (or your equivalent). And so on.
Again, 20 points is my arbitrary possible score. If there is a number that works better for your teaching context, then that is the number you should use. The important thing is to have a standard number of points possible, and a set numeric score ahead of time for “approaching,” “meeting,” and “exceeding.”
4. Educate students and parents on the process, by building in reflection time.
Build opportunities for students to get really familiar with what your rubrics look like and mean. This way students and parents can get a lot of practice with learning what mastery looks like in your classroom. Then they don’t have to worry about “how many pages” are required or “what to memorize for the test.” They know what is expected and can instead focus on the learning. In my classroom I hear things like, “Yes! I am moving into Novice High! I’m leveling up!” much more often than, “Awesome! I got a 19!” In addition, because students get lots of feedback on my rubrics, they no longer feel the need to engage in “grade-grubbing” to try to wheedle additional points. They can read my feedback right on the rubric and see what they did well and where they need to improve.
To build in regular opportunities during the term for students to get familiar with the standards I use, I have posters in my room, and all students have a handout, with descriptions of the levels in kid-friendly language. We talk about it a lot, and for every assessment, I tell the students what proficiency level I am looking for and give them a chance to review those levels as they prepare for the assessment. For example, I might say, “For this writing assignment, I am looking for Novice High proficiency. Review what that looks like on your rubric so you know what to focus on as you write.”
Just before handing in or completing an assessment, students self-evaluate their own proficiency level, using the detailed side of my rubric. This reinforces their understanding of the levels, as well as builds metacognitive and reflective skills. It empowers them to own their learning and see a direct relationship between their work and their progress.
After an assessment, students reflect on their strengths and areas to improve, so they can focus their learning in the next unit. When they get their graded rubrics back from me, they compare how they self-evaluated with how I assessed their work, further calibrating their understanding of the benchmarks and their own learning. They then reflect on their progress, either through individual journaling in their portfolios or in conferences with peers or with me.
All of this reflection and familiarizing students with the rubric might sound like it takes extra time but if you are already using some class time to give students instructions on a project or telling them what to study for the quiz, you can do this. It’s not so much a matter of doing something more, but rather choosing what to focus on in your explanation. It might take a few assessments for students to really get the hang of your system, but if you are using the same rubric and the same points expectations for everything all term, they will pick up on the important stuff (the standards and benchmarks) really quickly. It really helps make it clear for them (and you) what is important in your class.
It does require a bit of a shift in thinking and some heavy lifting, perhaps in summer when you are making changes and improvements to your curriculum, but once the hard part is done, it’s done, and it saves so much time and stress later, and powerfully impacts student learning. It might not be easy, but it definitely is worth it!
Standards-based grading doesn’t have to be daunting, even if your school still does traditional grading. This article offers tips for how to make standards-based system work for you and your students, to foster equity, empower learners, streamline your grading, and make assessment more meaningful.
French Teacher, Global Ed Coordinator, Instructional Coach
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