Implementing Standards-Based Grading in my Social Studies Class, Finally

7/12/12- I wrote a new version of this, which contains better ideas.  Please read that instead.

This year, I am going 100% SBG in my senior Social Studies course, which combines government and economics.


I wrote a whole series (scroll down to the bottom) on my plan to do a form of Standards Based Grading in my history class last year.  It sort of happened, sort of didn’t.  I was thinking about SBG, but the experience for my students did not change: they still saw grades for individual assignments, though there were performance standards attached to writing assignments.  There were three major problems, two of which I knew going in, one which I realized very quickly:

  1. In a survey history course that ends in a high-stakes, content-based exam, it is necessary to track how students do with all content, and one is never going to be able to write standards for, let alone reassess, 200 different pieces of content.
  2. As I wrote last year, the history skill standards that I was aware of at the time are not written with performance in mind, and were very difficult to assess.
  3. The problem that emerged immediately was that I hadn’t planned my course with SBG in mind, so the standards I planned on using were not really useful for assessment.  They were also the wrong standards/enduring understandings for what I ended up teaching, because I never went back and made sure the Stage 1 stuff from UbD aligned with the Stage 3 stuff (see this recent post on that issue)

Changes for This Year

This year, there are four factors which are game changers and make me know I can actually do this right this year:

  1. I started working on a project with the brilliant Daisy Martin, who does the Reading Like a Historian work out of Stanford, who gave me a ton of clarity on what historical skill standards should look like so they can be used to assess student performance.
  2. Most importantly, my new school started a SBG pilot, that the 11th and 12th grade math and science teachers, as well as the art teacher, are participating in.  They already had a structure in place which solves some problems for me, and keeps me from having to figure things out myself.  The clarity provided by the design of the pilot makes my life easier.
  3. Because I knew of the pilot and had the structure in mind, I was planning as an SBG assessor from the moment I started conceiving my course, thereby correcting the second issue above.
  4. My unit plans, at least the first one so far, fully align Understandings, Assessment, and Instruction, the three stages of UbD.

What it Will Look Like

Everyone in the pilot was told to write learning goals that start as “I can” statements for students, along with teacher friendly indicators of performance.  Examples follow below.

For everyone in the pilot, there are three categories of standards: Unit Goals, Essential Skills, and Citizenship.  Somewhat arbitrarily, the units will make up 60% of the grade, Essential Skills are 30%, and Citizenship the remaining 10%.

Unit goals are the content and skill based standards that are the learning goals for a unit.  Each unit will have 4-7 standards.  For example, my learning goals for my first unit, on Identity & Media, are:

LG 1.1: Media Literacy – I can analyze media effectively

    • SWBAT explains the creative language that gives meaning to pieces of mediA
    • SWBAT explains the embedded values and points of view in a piece of media
    • SWBAT explains the explicit and implicit goals of a piece of media
    • SWBAT empathize with how others might experience a piece of media

LG 1.2: Identity – I can explain how identities, desires and beliefs are formed

    • SWU how identities and desires are socially constructed
    • SWU that identities and desires are intertwined
    • SWU how the beliefs and identities of their friends and families effect their own
    • SWU that individuals have multiple identities that interact in different ways

LG 1.3: Race – I understand the concept of “race”

    • SWU how race is socially and historically constructed
    • SWU that race has no basis in biology or scientific reality

LG 1.4: Gender – I understand the concept of “gender”

    • SWU how gender is socially and historically constructed
    • SWU that gender is socially and historically constructed

Essential Skills are the yearlong skills that will be assessed regularly throughout the entire year:

LG A: Argument – I can create effective written or oral arguments

    • SWBAT construct arguments that integrate and evaluate multiple perspectives, explanations, or causations, including counterclaims
    • SWBAT develop controlling ideas that clearly address prompts or fulfill assignments
    • SWBAT support their ideas using explanation of evidence

LG B: Using Evidence – I support my claims using appropriate evidence

    • SWBAT construct arguments with the best available evidence for both claims and counterclaims
    • SWBAT group evidence with similar positions
    • SWBAT articulate differences between various pieces of evidence
    • SWBAT use all available evidence

LG C: Sourcing – I approach the information I encounter in the world from a critical perspective

    • SWBAT, when relevant, consider origin, purpose, use of evidence, persuasive techniques, intended audience, reliability, biases, credibility, and blind spots of information.
    • SWBAT to compare sources with others to determine its reliability

LG D: Content – I include all relevant information and make accurate or valid claims

    • SWBAT to include “outside information” when doing guided inquiry work
    • SWBAT be accurate
    • SWBAT include relevant background information

LG E: Written Organization & Clarity – My writing is clear and organized for maximum effectiveness

    • SWBAT write with a clear plan or organization, including topic sentences, transitions, introduction, and conclusion
    • SWBAT write introductions that are beyond a simple thesis and restatement of the prompt or assignment
    • SWBAT write conclusions that are more than a summary of what has already been written
    • SWBAT write clear, developed thesis statements

LG F: Complexity – I seek and articulate multiple perspectives or explanations in order to grasp the complexity of issues and their consequences

    • SWBAT identity the multiple beliefs individuals and/or groups hold on economic/social/political issues
    • SWBAT identity the multiple causations relating to economic/social/political events
    • SWBAT envision or identify the multiple potential intended and unintended consequences relating to economic/social/political decisions

LG G: Imagination – I can imagine how things could be better

    • SWBAT to envision superior alternatives to current reality
    • SWBAT to come up with concrete plans for improving current conditions for individuals and/or communities

LG H: Questioning – I ask high quality questions

    • SWBAT ask questions that promote thinking about complex events that allow for inquiry into new ways of looking at something
    • SWBAT ask questions that help others understand information they are struggling with
    • SWBAT ask questions that help them gain new understanding or information
    • SWBAT to construct both relevant deep and shallow questions

LG I: Audience – I speak or write in a way that is tailored to my audience

    • SWBAT use appropriate diction and vocabulary for a given audience
    • SWBAT use evidence that would be persuasive to a given audience

LG J: Oral Organization & Clarity – My speaking is clear and organized for maximum effectiveness

    • SWBAT use appropriate non-verbal communication in a given situation for a given audience
    • SWBAT to speak in a logical order
    • SWBAT to speak clearly in a manner that is understandable and appropriate to a given audience

LG K: Revision – I can improve my work through revision

    • SWBAT improve their work through their own efforts
    • SWBAT improve their work with feedback from others

LG L: Reflection – I can honestly reflect on the quality of my work, my growth, and the development of my thinking

    • SWBAT to accurately self-assess their work
    • SWBAT articulate how they have improved in various skill areas, using specific evidence from their work
    • SWBAT describe how their views changed over time

Finally, Citizenship standards will cover things like growth, effort, timeliness, and participation. I know there are a lot of people using SBG who do not feel these aspects should be part of students grades, but I feel like most of these people teach in more privileged communities where most students know how to and are able to do these things.  It is very important for my students to get explicit feedback on these aspects of their performance so they can improve them.  With that said, no one will fail the course because they turn things in late.

Some Random Notes

  • Any given assignment will likely asses 1-2 Unit Goals, but multiple Essential Skills.
  • Certain standards are “power standards,” worth double the others.  For example, the first two unit learning goals for my Identity unit are worth twice the other two.
  • Certain large assignments will be designated “Must Complete” assignments.  It won’t matter what students have demonstrated from other assignments, they will not be eligible for credit without completing the large projects for the course.
  • Standards will be assessed on a 0-4 scale, where a 3 is meeting the standard.

Why This Can Work for Me, but Might Not for You

The most important reason this can work is because there is very limited specific content I am worried about my students learning this year.  I am focusing on depth over breath.  While I think SBG could work in a survey history course, I’m not sure there’s  reason for it, given the need for 200-400 learning goals.  The same would be true for a traditional government or economics course.  I am probably doing half of the content that one normally would in these courses, but doing so in much more depth so that my students can really develop the skills they will need as citizens and in order to be successful in college.  I am willing to have my students not be able to explain the entire process for how a bill becomes a law in exchange for them knowing how to research apolicy, and to take action based on that research.

Calculating Final Grades

It’s NYC policy that every student receives a number grade at the end of each semester.  Students will receive these grades using some form of a Bump & Space grading system.

So that’s what I’ve got.  I’ll be sharing this plan with my students on Thursday.  I’ll write through out the year with how it goes.


2 thoughts on “Implementing Standards-Based Grading in my Social Studies Class, Finally

  1. Looks good! I can’t imagine how hard it was do do this in a SS setting. I think it’s easier in math and I drove my head against a wall. Keep us posted, and good luck!


  2. Stephen,

    Thanks for sharing this. As always, it is thought-provoking. As a history teacher, I find your final comments a little discouraging, i.e., “The most important reason this can work is because there is very limited specific content I am worried about my students learning this year.” As you yourself note, that suggests SBG doesn’t apply as well to a typical history survey course. Whether that reflects badly on SBG, or on the typical history course, is a separate question, but that’s sort of a moot point for those of us required to follow a school- or district-determined curriculum. Is it possible, however, that an effectively developed SBG program, with effective assessments, wouldn’t need to assess the individual content standards, because in the course of demonstrating mastery of the other, broader standards, they would necessarily master the content as well? For example, you wouldn’t have to assess students directly on the process by which a bill becomes a law, because in describing a project in which they take action on a policy they effectively show their understanding of that process? I’m not sure if it would cover hundreds of standards, but it might be sufficient for a course that didn’t try to cover quite so much breadth.

    I have to admit that I did find your list of standards overwhelming. Even with your rule of thumb that an assessment will asses 1-2 Unit goals, that means two to four assessments for the first unit. Are these formal assessment? Major assessments? And how long are the units? If I had four assessment per unit, the grading would kill me. How do you keep it manageable?

    When I’ve thought of switching to SBG, I’ve found the prospect of developing all the many standards I would need (even independent of content standards) a little intimidating. How long did it take you to develop these standards? Did you draw on other sources?

    Again, thanks for sharing this. I find the idea of SBG very appealing. It seems like allow me to focus my teaching on actually teaching students and helping them to learn, rather than just grading them. I’m going to tuck this away, along with your other posts, for next summer, when I’ll think about this in earnest.


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