SBG in My History Classroom Part 3: What I've Done the Past 3 Years

For the past three years, I’ve taught an 11th Grade US History class. At this point, it’s hard to separate when I started doing different things, so I’m just going to describe what i ended up with as a single product, even though it was developed over time.

One of my goals in assessing based on standards was to simplify things for the sake of both myself and my students. In the end, I used SBG only for writing, because as I taught 350 different terms throughout the year, I knew it would be impossible to keep track of all the content. I wrote the standards based on the rubrics from the wonderful New York Performance Standards Consortium, of which my school was briefly a member three years ago. These rubrics represent college-ready performance. This fall, I led an effort to create a common analytical writing rubric that could be used both to measure student’s college-readiness, and also their performance on the writing portions of the NY Regents Exams for History and English, which was largely based on the Consortium rubrics. The writing standards I ended up with were:


  • Thesis is convincing, thoughtful, relevant, & precise
  • Thesis is developed thoughtfully, logically & persuasively throughout the piece

Analysis & Evidence

  • The work use a variety of convincing evidence to support their thesis
  • The work uses analysis to demonstrate how evidence supports the thesis


  • The work has a clear introduction presenting the thesis in a highly engaging, compelling manner
  • Each paragraph presents an argument clearly and supports an overall structure
  • Consistent, effective transitions develop ideas and arguments logically & build to compelling, persuasive conclusion.


  • The work consistently and beautifully applies a format and diction that is appropriate to purpose, audience and context
  • The work uses varied sentence length and structure to enhance meaning


  • Mechanical and grammatical errors are non-existent
  • Follows MLA conventions for quotations and citations flawlessly

Focusing on these few standards gave me a system where I could easily track students work overtime and communicate that clearly to students and parents. It also allowed me to pinpoint where students’ writing needed improvement.
There was a lot missing, though. While it would never make sense to use that state history standards that go into every little piece of content, it would make sense to develop standards for each of the core understandings in each of my units. I also needed to add some standards that correspond to the Habits of Mind necessary to think like a historian.


SBG in My History Classroom Part 2: The First Attempt

My first foray into something resembling SBG was at the end of the 2007-07 school year, when I was preparing students for the New York Global History Regents Exam.  Below is the grading policy I shared with students, along with the presentation I used to introduce it.

There were a lot of problems with this:

  • It was really cumbersome and complex and there were too many variables for students to make sense of.
  • While what is identified as “Attitude Standards” works, the “Skill Standards” and “Content Standards” aren’t actually standards.  The skills are tasks, and the content is a list of themes.
  • There was no way of tracking the component skills necessary to complete the tasks.
  • There is nothing communicated to students about how their standards based performance translates to their transcript grade

This was a necessary step though for me to move towards SBG, but ultimately, it was unsuccessful because it just confused students.

SBG in My History Classroom Part 1: Foundations of my use of SBG

When I entered my teacher education program, I had a lot of big ideas about school reform and social justice from the likes of Ted Sizer and Paulo Freire, but very few on how to actually teach. Reading Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design was one of the great epiphanies of my life. It gave me the perfect practical guide to planning units and lessons that melded with my larger ideas and commitments to teaching in a manner that empowers students, allowing them to critically engage with important and open ended questions, rather than just memorizing facts. UbD has been my Bible for the past seven years, and is my starting point for everything I do in the classroom. My courses are centered around essential questions. I plan using the principles of backwards design, starting with key understandings and skills students need, then moving to planning performance assessments that allow students to demonstrate these skills and understandings, and finally planning how to get students ready for these tasks. Grading students based on these core understandings and skills was how I ended up with a system that resembles SBG.

I’ve also been highly influenced by Ted Sizer and the work of the Coalition of Essential Schools. I went through the Brown Education Program, which Sizer designed, and was blessed to be mentored by a brilliant founding Coalition teacher, Bil Johnson. The Coalition’s Common Principles are also always in the back of my mind. I’ve been struggling for the past six years with how to be a Coalition teacher in a non-coalition school, and my grading system is one of the things I’ve developed to manage.

Nearly all my ideas on assessment and grading are rooted in Bil’s classes. I went to a K-8 school where we did not have grades; only narrative comments. When I moved to a traditional high school and then later in college, the arbitrariness of grading really bothered me. One of my core commitments when I started teaching was that my grades would mean something, and that I would be transparent with students about what they needed to do to earn any grade. Bil trained us to use rubrics that describe the various levels of performance on a given task, and I have used rubrics for all major assessments throughout my career. This was another thing leading me towards SBG.

Finally, when I came to the Bronx Lab School in its second year, one of the shared practices across all classes is the use of Performance Task Assessment Lists, or PTAL’s. (I have never found anything published that explains these – has anyone else?). Most teachers at our school created a PTAL by converting an assignments directions into a chart, and then arbitrarily assigning point values to each part. It took me a year to figure out how I could use PTAL’s along with a rubric, and eventually I just dropped the whole direction part of the PTAL, and made a list of the qualifications of the excellent section of my rubric. Here are examples of an old style bad PTAL, and a rubric based PTAL I used in my US class last year. PTAL’s have encouraged me to think about what I’m grading in any given assignment, which is a foundation of my use of SBG.

SBG in My History Classroom Part 0: How I Got Here

When I decided to start blogging and reading teaching blogs again, Jason Buell, who luckily was still subscribed to my RSS feed despite three years of silence, was kind enough to leave me a comment on my first post. I immediately checked out his blog where I found a whole slew of posts on Standards Based Grading (SBG). I had never heard the term before, so I read through his posts, along with those he recommended from Shawn and Matt. What I found was that they had formalized and expanded on a lot of things I have been doing and experimenting with in my history classes over the past four years. It’s always nice to find our that something I thought on my own is actually a good idea shared by others! [That’s actually why I became a teacher in the first place – it was reading Ted Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise and thinking, “this is pretty much every complaint I had about high school.”] Unfortunately, it seemed like I the discussion I soon found myself observing was about SBG in Science and Math classes, so I did not jump in.

Luckily, I believe thanks to Jason again, I came across Liz Becker’s post on SBG and the History Classroom, so I realized I was not alone on my island of social studies SBGers. Her post captured a lot of my thoughts and concerns:

  • There are lots of great examples of this in math and science, but not in humanities
  • Math and science standards tend to be more concrete than social studies standards
  • History standards are often broad and not something that can be graded in a gradebook

I promised Liz a post about what I’ve done, so here we go. In the past couple days, I was also pointed in the direction of Shawn’s post on SBG in History, and @BrklynSurfer’s list of the skills he’s planning on using for SBG in his classroom this fall. I’m happy to be joining the conversation, and looking forward to working with people online to get a viable plan in place for Social Studies SBG. (I teach English now too, but I think it’s one step at a time).

I’m also in the process of planning two new courses for next year with two different, but overlapping, teaching teams. I’m planning an 11th Grade Global History Course that will cover all history through the 19th Century, and an aligned 11th Grade Global Literature course. This will be helpful so I can explain my “crazy grading system” to my team, and hopefully bring them on board.