Standards Based Assessment, What?

Originally Posted 06-08-2012

Standards Based Assessment

As was clear from my last post, I am going to try Standards Based Assessment (SBA) in at least one class this coming fall. Now I have to work through the ideas and details a bit.

What is SBA?

Standards Based Assessment is an effort to reorient the communication between instructors and all of the other stakeholders in education about student progress. The goal of this reorientation is to put the focus back on the true expectations educators hold, and to what extent students have met them.

This is in contrast to the traditional system, where student achievement and progress is tracked through a somewhat arbitrary system of “point accumulation.” Rather than judge a student as having earned a “B,” instead one keeps track of a list of standards–those educational outcomes which are deemed important and worth pursuing–and each student’s progress and demonstrated compentency on each of them.

That is it. SBA is just a change in the way we record, document, and report student progress.

Why do it?

The biggest reason should be obvious, right? The way you measure anything sociological has an influence on the people involved, and the “points accumulated” system attaches value only to the arbitrary collection of points. Students learn this, and they begin to think of school as a (sometimes pointless) game, instead of as an opportunity to engage and learn. This is corrosive on the whole structure of education.

For me, another reason is that I think I have already been doing it. Well, not really doing it. I have been getting away with assigning highly subjective and personal grades based on my professional opinion of student progress. My flavor of IBL classroom makes it pretty easy to tell who knows what and who can do what. (I know I’m not unique that way. IBL is awesome for this.) And I can always tell a student what I think they need to work on next. I like to think I have done a reasonable job being fair, and I seem to have built enough trust with my IBL students to get away with this. But I know this situation is inadequate.

Also, my employer is pushing for better reporting of student learning at the level of the different flavor of mathematics majors. We want to ensure that our teaching work is having some real impact. At least at this level, everyone recognizes that a grade point average is a terrible measurement.

My little trip

I spent yesterday afternoon at a meeting in Cedar Rapids focused on SBAwith a bunch of other educators from eastern Iowa. There were some people there with experience, and some (like me) without. I found this very helpful, so thanks to Trace Pickering for doing the organization.

Also, owe a lot to the other participants. I was a bit worried that I would look like an odd man out, being a college professor in a room full of professional secondary teachers. But that was totally unfounded: everyone was wonderful and helpful.

What did I take away from the meeting?

Well, my notes have this list featured prominently.

  • Beginnings: choice of standards

    • granularity (Goldilocks problem)
    • imposed by authority?
    • process vs content standards
  • Implementation

    • recording and reporting structure important, don’t let it devour you
    • reassessment and spiralling
    • standards public and clearly stated. explicitly tied to assessments and announced at the head of each
  • Communication with stakeholders for buy-in: administration, colleagues, students(!), parents, others.

That is pretty sparse, but it reminds me of the main points.

Let’s go through it.

About the beginnings

First, one needs a set of standards to work toward. Sounds easy enough, but this is missing in a lot of educational contexts. At least, I know plenty of examples of college courses where the content of the class is described by a textbook, though the textbook is clearly overlarge for one semester. How is anyone supposed to understand the difference between one version of “Stewart-based calc I” and another? Even worse, when I first got to UNI I asked for guidance on the courses I had been assigned, and the best I got was a pointer to the course catalog. (That’s right, three vacuous sentences in some musty old book that no one really reads.) Some of the high school teachers claimed this kind of problem motivated them, too.

Where do you get standards? Well, many high school teachers have the ability to fall back on the Common Core Curriculum Standards, or whatever flavor of it their state uses. For me, I have department Student Learning Objectives.

I got a good piece of advice from a middle school science teacher, yesterday. (I have already forgotten her name, but this seems obvious in retrospect and I really needed to hear it.) To find what your standards really are, go through your old exams and look for them.

So, that dual pronged approach will have to do for a starter. I’m going to work on that tonight. (Or not. There is a lot of soccer on TV suddenly…)

The other thing to consider is to find a happy medium between having specific, measurable standards, and having a short enough list to keep track of everything. This is the Goldilocks problem mentioned in my list. If the standards are too fine-grained it will be difficult to keep track of them all. If the standards are too broad, then they are likely to be meaningless and progress entirely subjective. From what I heard yesterday, a semester course might have about 20 standards.


The next set of choices involves the actual mechanisms of recording and communicating progress. I need to find something that is not too invasive to be done in class, doesn’t take overlong, and will make sense to students. That is, it must be manageable. Also, I need a way to convert these things to letter grades.

It seems that the most important bit from a day-to-day perspective is that whatever system you use, it must work well for you and for the students. The whole point is to increase the quality of communication between instructor and student.

I will be investigating two online systems for this: ActiveGrade and BlueHarvest. Both are developed by teachers with an interest in programming and SBA who want to help others along their way.

I think I will prefer this to a paper shuffling system, in part because in my IBL classroom students get assessed during every presentation, and I can maybe use the ol’ iPad to put observations directly into my gradebook and make them available to students almost instantly. (That means they get a written record in addition to the verbal feedback they get after their presentation.)

A key idea of SBA is that the standards are what matter, not the timing of assessments. If what you really aim at is student learning, then you need to allow for lots of reassessment as students get feedback and then can work on their deficiencies and try again, somehow. Many used the word spiralling for a set-up where standards should make fairly regular appearances and reappearances. This has two goals: (1) a student can’t just get luck and be deemed proficient based on one good day, (2) a student can’t be unlucky and deemed non-proficient based on one bad day.

In my IBL class this will be built in. Students get assessed every time they go to the board, and that opportunity exists every meeting. If something does not go well one time, it can be readdressed as soon as the students are ready.

I guess I have a small worry about what happens during the last week of class. A situation with lots of students hoping to demonstrate a bunch of standards in the last week will create an ugly logjam. I’ll have to see what I can do to avoid that.


I’m going to have a lot of conversations with everyone involved about what I am doing and why I am trying this particular experiment. I have to trust that enough talking will get us all through the growing pains.

Wrapping Up

I’ll close with a paraphrase from Riley Enyon-Lynch (developer of ActiveGrade and helpful guy), who I met yesterday.

“It [SBA] is a more respectful way of communicating with students.”

To that end, I need to go develop my list of standards.