A study launched in 1972 tracking five thousand “intellectually talented” children has entered its 45th year (here’s a short synopsis). Among its various findings, the study finds high-achieving students are often at a disadvantage in school communities that shift more resources to its low-achieving student population. For those of us who have taught at schools serving low-socioeconomic communities, this isn’t breaking news: we’ve been talking about this with colleagues and school leaders for long time now.
Teaching math in New York City alternative high schools, I admit committing more time to struggling students. I know I’m not alone and I also know this hurt higher achieving students in the long run. In some ways, we’re all guilty of leaving high-achieving students to their own devices. Or, rewarding their intelligence by forcing them to tutor their peers. Or worse, letting them do “whatever they want” with the time remaining in class. And while this is happening, we helicopter over the students who might not pass the upcoming assessment, the class in general, and/or the looming state exam. We dedicate more time to creating remediation resources than enrichment material. And all of this actively irks us, because we don’t want to have to choose between supporting low-achieving students and pushing high-achieving students, but our “factory-based” model of education makes it almost unsustainable to do both.
The silver lining here for teachers and learners is more and more schools are adopting a more competency-based approach to education, commonly known as standards-based grading (SBG). SBG describes student progress in relation to standards (national, state, school-specific, and/or class-specific).
I was lucky enough to teach at schools that adopted SBG, and as a result my math students were able to demonstrate mastery on a set of standards and move on to more challenging material. SBG forced me to isolate and grade only the skill being measured, providing my students a better understanding of what more they needed to learn in order to master the skill. While designing and planning SBG-focused curriculum took more time, my scope and sequence was skill-focused and could be individualized with flexible calendars and I could leverage content from a variety of free, standards-aligned resources. Most importantly, the SBG practice forced me to design curriculum more thoughtfully. I wrote lessons, made remediation and enrichment resources, and designed assessments for upcoming standards well in advance, and made them all readily available for my students digitally (on my class website) and physically (in the back of my classroom).
So yes, while I was guilty of providing students that were most in need of support with more face-time, my standards-based classroom enabled more students to accelerate through content and master skills at their own pace. They sat through less of the traditional “whole class” mini-lesson because they were ahead, and so they obtained their one-on-one time with me a little differently. Instead of asking questions in the middle of a mini-lesson, they asked before and after class, or they came to my classroom during lunch to get direct support from with me. Some of my students actively communicated with me via email. The point is: my higher achieving students made the SBG practice work within the confines of a traditional school day because they could ahead on their own terms.
As the 2016–2017 school year gets underway, I challenge educators around the world to wrestle with adopting the standards-based grading mindset for themselves. While you might not agree with the Common Core (or your own state’s standards), don’t let it prevent you from writing and tracking your own standards or competencies, tied to your own curriculum. For 21st century students, life is about using real-time data to inform decision-making. They’re privileged to be alive in a time when this is possible, and it’d be a disservice to them if we refused to adjust our pedagogy to meet their needs. The smartphone games they’re playing tell them exactly what achievements or medals they’ve obtained (and the achievements that remain). Facebook tells them how long they’ve been connected with their friends, down to the number of “likes” they’ve given each other over time. The SBG practice can help 21st century students visualize and navigate their learning journey through your class.
So if you’re interested in learning more about the standards-based grading practice and mindset, here’s a free resource co-authored by teachers familiar with the practice to help you learn more. On the last few pages, you’ll find links to more SBG-related resources. And finally, new instructional practices are best implemented with a professional learning community. Make time to chat with colleagues about what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and what you’re grappling with. If you can’t seem to find time in your day to chat, that’s okay: use technology. Join the conversation online by tweeting at Kiddomwith #SBG. We look forward to hearing what you have to say and building more resources to support your quest to fine-tune your pedagogy.