Standards Based Grading and the History Classroom

For some time now, I’ve been a lurker in the standards based grading conversations (SBG & #sbar) that have been occurring on Twitter and in the blogosphere.  I was taking it in so when I returned to the classroom from being an Instructional Facilitator, I would hopefully have built some basic knowledge in order to figure out how I could apply these principals in my own practice.

I recently accepted a new position teaching 10th grade U.S. History and 11th grade World History, and I have found that these conversations have been a great way for me to analyze and focus on what really matters to me as I reenter the classroom.  This is not to say that I am going to go all gung-ho and become a SBG zealot and turn everything I’ve done upside down.  It does mean that I am going to use it to ask myself some questions that I may find hard to answer and continue to study how I can use SBG to benefit my students.  I want to take a critical look not only at my grading practices, but how I plan my lessons and my classes as a whole.

With this in mind, I’m using my blog to process some of my ideas and thoughts.  I would love to hear from those of you out there who have studied or used SBG, those of you who are history teachers, and those who are willing to ask questions and have conversation in order to help us all become better educators.

My Niggling Question

Most of what I have seen regarding SBG has been in the context of math classes (along with some science and a dash of world language).  While I am not a math teacher, I have done quite a bit of math tutoring using the concept of mastery learning.  I feel this has helped me to better understand the basic concepts of SBG.  While I have been looking for examples of SBG used in non-math courses, I haven’t found very much yet and none that I am aware of in social studies or history.  (Please let me know if you find any!)  I have been thinking about this a lot and I figured out one of the things that has been bothering me about using SBG in history.

When I think of standards, the first thing that comes to mind are my state standards.  Here is a comparison of 11th grade math and social studies benchmarks in my state.

Math Standard – Students identify and apply scale, rations, and proportions in solving measurement problems.

Social Studies Standard – Students explain how various cultural influences impact society.

One seems more concrete, while the other can be subjective.  Yes, I understand that there is not always one way to get the answer in math.  However, using SBG in math seems a bit more straight forward to me than in social studies (please feel free to dispute this).

Take the skill of primary document analysis in history.  We’ll use a very famous document as an example:

Amendment II of the U.S Constitution – A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

It’s pretty obvious what this means, right?  Not so fast.  The interpretation of these lines have been debated in judiciary circles for some time and there is a reason court cases keep popping up concerning gun control laws.  The interpretation is not agreed upon by everyone.  My concern is not whether students come up with the “right” answer or interpretation, it’s the analytical process they use to decide and support their answer. (Hmmm…this does sound a bit like math, doesn’t it?)

My state standards and benchmarks in social studies tend to be fairly broad.  I don’t believe they lend themselves well to specific SBG entries in a grade book.  I am left to decide on my own what I feel would be the best “standards” to grade.  So I guess my niggling question is what are the important “standards” and how do I equitably and accurately assess them?  There seems to be a lot of debate in my content area (at least in my state & district) on this question, so as strange as I feel asking it, I think it’s an important question.

I guess that’s what I really need to work on. I need to clearly delineate the knowledge and skills I want students to have when they leave my class.  Hey, I can tell this whole SBG thing is worthwhile already…

Questions I have:

  • How has SBG changed your students’ learning?
  • What is the process you have gone through/are going through in order to implement SBG into your classes? What advice do you have? Suggested resources?
  • Is anyone out there using SBG in Social Studies or another humanities style class? If so, what are the pros and cons?  How are you determining your standards?  If you’ve chosen not to use SBG, why?

Just some of the SBG Blogs I’ve been reading (I’d love other suggestions):


23 thoughts on “Standards Based Grading and the History Classroom”

  1. This is the same conundrum I’ve had at the back of my mind since I started out on Twitter back in January. I love the idea of SBG but can’t ‘see’ what it looks like in my social studies classroom. I will definitely be following along in your investigation and I’m planning on getting my blog back up and running this week so hopefully I’ll have something to add soon.

  2. There are a couple of 7th grade teachers (World History) that are trying it out this year. I’m actually really excited for social studies because I’ve always thought that SBG fits so well for social studies because of the prevalence of really big ideas. So much social studies curriculum devolves into trivia that the big idea focus of sbg helps to re-orient the teaching.

    When I was helping them set up, we had a long debate about whether to set up the standards thematically or by region/time. So they teach it as Egypt, then Greece, then Rome, Africa, China, etc. I think it’d be REALLY interesting to have your topics run laterally through those. We have these themes of Geography, Religion, Technology, Culture, Economics (I can’t remember the rest) but an interesting way to set it up would be How Culture shapes Society and have that theme stretch across the different time periods. So they would need to know how culture affected Egypt, Greece, etc and compare them all. Just food for thought.

    I think in the end we set it up as like 3 standards for each region. Egypt for example might have been broken up into Religion, Geography, Culture. Then they are assessed separately on the knowing role that religion, geography, culture played in the history of ancient Egypt. I liked this compromise bc it didn’t require them to rewrite their entire curriculum but still allowed them to focus on the big ideas. If you remember how I set up my scales, for a 3.0 they could do that within Egypt, 4.0 usually ended up being either comparing with other areas they’ve studied, like Rome, or our current society – ex. They were given a population density map of California and were asked to compare it to Egyptian society with the goal that they’d make the connection that populations still develop along waterways.

    Also, you might be happy with separating out your content standards from your skill standards. So analyzing a primary document might be a separate skill vs. understanding the causes of the French Revolution. I’ve tried that in science with mixed success. Not sure if I should embed within each topic or separate it out. I go back and forth.

  3. Wow – you captured a lot of my thoughts exactly. I just returned to the blogosphere after a 3 year absence, and have been really intrigued by some of the SBG stuff I’ve read, though have been frustrated by the lack of humanities teachers engaging with this.

    I have done a lot of work with trying to do SBG in my history classroom over the past four years (though I didn’t know there was such a official thing as “SBG” while doing it) and have been struggled with and through some of the concerns you described. I’ll start working on a full post over at my blog to explain what I’ve done, what has worked, and what hasn’t to respond to your questions.

  4. Jamie – Thanks for letting me know I’m not the only one thinking about this! I look forward to your thoughts on the topic. Please be sure to let me know how to find you blog when you get it back up and running.

    Jason – You’ve given me some good things to think about. Thank you. I hadn’t thought about it from the “big idea” perspective and I’ll be pondering that more (it may help me better understand the comparisons with Science). I’m currently looking over the document you sent and trying to get a better grasp on how people are using SBG in the Social Studies classroom. I had planned on separating content from skills, and focusing on the skill aspect first in order to better facilitate my own learning process. I’m curious about your mixed success with this in Science. What are the main reasons you go back and forth?

    Stephen – I’m really glad to hear from someone who has been using this in the Social Studies classroom. I know it can be an interesting journey. I look forward to reading more about your experiences.

  5. I too have been struggling to get SBG right in my classroom. Just last semester I had 10 standards the students needed to meet. I gave them assignments in order to prove they understood the standard. They did none of the work and the end of the semester was a mad dash for the students and I to get there grades up. The problem I had created for my self were all these assignments required to meet the standard. During the last month a student came up with her own project to fulfill the standard. Thats when the SBG hammer hit me over the head. Its a struggle but I think I am on the right path

  6. “What is the process you have gone through/are going through in order to implement SBG into your classes?”

    When I started SBG a few years ago, I began with the end in mind – what is it that I want all students to understand, know and/or be able to do? In other words, I listed the learning targets for a given chapter/unit. Next, I made sure that my assessments accurately aligned with those learning targets. In many instances, I realized that I was not assessing what I thought I was assessing. Other times, I was over-emphasizing one idea while under-emphasizing another one within an assessment. This process of evaluating assessments against learning targets was a very valuable process in itself. Once I revamped the assessments, I began using them with students and instead of reporting out a single score, I reported out several scores based on learning targets. During this whole time, I began discussing with students possible changes to the grading system, why they made sense and how they ultimately would benefit their learning in the long haul. I won’t bore you with the rest of the details as it looks like you’ve read some of it on the blog.

    Keep the end in mind, discuss the changes with your students and the rest will take care of itself. Keep up the good work!

  7. I believe that the comments of everyone prior seem to be for the most part right on. The only one comment that I would add is what I do to insure that all students meet the standards to pass: Like your situation our social studies standards are broad and ambiguious and consequently difficult to measure. To work through this I sat down with some of my collegues and developed a sequential series of measurable learning targets, that if accompliished would garnuatee that the students met the standards and sub standards. The effective thing about this is that because it is scaffolded it actually makes instruction easier and more effective.

  8. I am definately interested in sharing with social studies teachers who are using SBG. I teach 8th grade social studies. I have started using it partly – using a 4, 3, 2, 1, scale but haven’t totally gotten it right in terms of the standards. Next year I am thinking of having the three skills I focus on be writing a historical essay, writing a DBQ and analyzing a primary source. I would then also have a content standard for each chronological unit???? not sure would love to hear from other people – seems like there are not many social studies people out there using it.

  9. Erik – I struggle with the end of semester work piece. On the one hand, I find myself wanting firm deadlines to help students work on organizational skills and to keep myself sane the last week of the semester. On the other hand, if they do the work and prove they know what they need to know, who am I do deny them? It’s a good thing to ponder.

    Matt – Thanks for your perspective. I’ve been working hard to define my “end” before jumping into planning a unit. It’s been a great experience shifting from “what resources do I have?” to “what do I want my students to know and be able to do?”

    Rob – I like that approach to broad standards. As Nancy asked, would you be willing to share what this looks like for you?

    Nancy – Thank you for your questions. I’ll repost this on Twitter to see if we can get some answers for you. I’ve mainly been looking at SBG through the lens of writing and primary document analysis. However, I’ve also been considering a content piece as well. It makes sense to me to do it that way. Let’s see what kind of responses we can get for you. Are you on Twitter?

  10. I teach 10th grade American History at an “Inner City” school outside Birmingham Alabama. I have been teaching 23 years, with the last 10 at my present school. I have found that using our State standards (State Course of Study) has made it a lot easier for me. First, let me say that I agree with State Testing for the students. Second, it is more important to me that I actually teach good American History (Exploration to 1877). I try to keep it simple.
    I want our students to actually know history before they try to interpret or analyze it. Unlike math, it is so easy for a teacher to put their ideas on what happened in history…….. that is not fair to the students. I know that in our state, social studies scores are the lowest. I think its because we want to have the students write what “they think” or “their interpretation”. I’m not teaching literature.. I am teaching history. I think interpretation should come only after the students know history…and the teacher has to teach them.
    Everything, I focus on is on our State Course of Study… if there is a “teaching moment” on something else…sure, I will teach it. But I can not teach all of history. I want them to understand and know about our Great Country….. and do it without all the politics and environmental stuff.
    You can walk in my classroom and see what I am teaching. My walls/ room are decorated with everything I teach.
    It is the perfect learning environment for I teach.
    The students know that I love history and I promise you the kids know histor when they leave my classroom (my scores)
    This is not “Rocket Surgery” … just do your job and teach them good American History.
    It is embarrassing when Jay Leno goes out and ask the most simple history question and people do not have a clue….. probably the same people that were made in high school to write essays on “What they interpret”.. but were not taught.
    Is it teaching, if it’s more important to you to have your students interpret something?? And probably it has to be the way you see it… Just teach them..

  11. Geeez.. I thought I would be able to proof read it before it was actually posted. Well, since I study history… I will know next

  12. I’m really glad to find some Social Studies teachers that are thinking about this. I would be interested to know your progress and if you have found answers to any of your questions. I would also love to work with any SS or Humanities educators who want to collaborate on creating standards that can work in the classroom and be understood by students.

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  14. Ellsbeth, I will begin by saying upfront that I am a math/science teacher, however what I have found by beginning my journey with SBG this year is how the process has changed the way my students and I see learning in our classroom. As Matt Townsley said:

    “instead of reporting out a single score, I reported out several scores based on learning targets… discuss the changes with your students”

    I no longer give an overall grade for an assignment or assessment. Each learning target or “Essential Skill” as we call it in our district gets a rubric score tied to a detailed rubric (I stole and tweaked from Frank Nochese on #sbar). This forces me to carefully design activities and make sure there are specific essential skills tied to everything the students do. I am a writing project fellow so I incorporate a lot of writing into my math class so the students and I really have to discuss what the rubric scores mean before they begin an assignment.

    The real key has been subjective grading. If the students get a “beginning” or “developing” score they have to keep working on the standard until it is proficient. The key is that I do not average all of the scores for that particular standard, they get the highest score. This one thing has drastically changed the way my students work in class. They are all about working to improve low rubric scores. It is my belief that students should not be punished for taking longer to learn a standard, as long as they learn it and show proof of understanding they get an advanced or proficient score.

    I am still in the beginning stages of this process but the thing that motivates me to keep going or stumbling through is the impact it is having on student learning and motivation.

  15. Thank you for all the wonderful conversation surrounding Standards Based Grading.

    Joe – In the past year, I made the move from teaching high school history to a university program that serves at-risk freshman. I teach two different courses designed to help students develop the skills they need to be successful in college (literacy, writing, study skills, etc). While SBG has informed my instructional choices, I have not directly implemented it into my grading practices (yet). I am currently working to refocus and redesign these courses, keeping SBG in mind. I hope to incorporate SBG more directly in the future. If I do, I will write a more detailed post on how. For right now, I am working to develop standards for these courses to help guide instruction. Thanks for asking!

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  17. I teach 8th, 9th and 10th grade History and am planning on implementing SBG in all 3 next year. To determine my standards I start with the state standards, and modify from there. I then rephrase each standard into an “Essential Question” that the student can then easily answer. I’d be happy to share examples. For my honors classes I am planning on making some higher order thinking standards weigh more than the “identify” basics standards.
    As far as my grading rubric, I think I am going with a 7- mastery, 6- proficient, 5- Basic, 4- insufficient. This way it is still a 4-point scale as many others are using, but the percentages come out the way I want them to in the online gradebook I am required to use.
    Also, one of my “units” is comprised entirely of classroom behavior/21st century skill standards. This way students can turn in late assignments to show me they have mastered the material, but will be docked in the “timeliness” standard.

    1. Rachel, I would love to see your essential questions as well as what goes into your classroom behavior standard. I struggle with not requiring basic classroom expectations in the overal grade (work in on time, prepared for class etc.), and in middle school the students often won’t do the practice/homework if there’s no credit attached. Having this category would help solve that. Are you using a traditional A,B,C,D grading scale in your district? How to you reconcile your process within that structure. I really get stuck on the procedural details, like how it will look in a grade book and how to keep track of student progress efficiently. I’m just starting to consider the SBG process, but it seems so overwhelming and I don’t know where to start. There aren’t many examples for history curriculum with this process, so I’m glad I stumbled on this blog.

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