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Susan Reslewic, a colleague of mine, and I recently discussed making a transition to standards based grading in her course. Susan agreed that I could share the contents of her email:
Getting the feeling that standards-based-grading goes hand in hand with differentiation...I think it [standards based grading] could really support my efforts to better differentiate. When I looked at the physics tests today (all over the map: some failing grades, some perfect scores plus), I just felt like I wish the kids who "did poorly" could say "oh, I know a and b, but not x, y and z". It frustrates me that some kids are going to get their test back and see a score in the 70s and then go to the place of "I did poorly. I don't understand physics. I hate physics. I hate science!" I wish instead...the grade communication focused on what the kid can and cannot do (yet). As I write this I think maybe a first step is for me to provide detailed comments on the test next to the grade.... Basically saying here's where you are excelling and here are things you need to work on."
Susan makes some of the most compelling arguments for Standards Based grading (SBG): helps teachers differentiate and lets students know what they know and don't know.
As I read Susan's email, I was reminded how overwhelmed and excited I felt about the idea of SBG. I responded with some thoughts included below about taking baby steps to SBG.
Transitioning to Standards Based Grading:
If you want to try baby steps to standards based grading, the easy way is to start reorganizing your tests, quizzes and other assessments. Label each test question with the idea being tested - maybe even grouping those questions together. For example, perhaps questions 1-5 are about calculating velocity and 6-15 are about applying Newton's Three Laws. Don't report a final total percentage on the test, instead report percentages on each group of questions: 80% or 4/5 on balancing equations, 70% or 7/10 on calculating K. Then, make students retake only portions of tests and quizzes that fall below a certain percentage. For example, you may tell student "X", you "mastered" balancing equations but have to retake a quiz on calculating K.
In addition, make the benchmark quizzes about only one idea; if they pass the quiz, then they mastered the idea. Just like the tests, students only retake failing quizzes. Of course, you will need multiple versions of comparable tests and quizzes. It may take years to build a robust question bank but perhaps start with 2 or 3 versions of each test or quiz.
Another quick thing is to label the problem set and homework questions with the specific idea being practiced. You could even identify the basic and challenge questions within each subset of questions. Certain questions can be mandatory for all and excelling students can attempt the challenge questions. Over time, you can build a library of remedial activities and other resources to help students with particular skills or topics. If they fail a part of a test or a quiz, then you can point students to specific activities and resources that target their deficiency.
These are some baby steps that will not take much tweaking to course structure. These steps should help gain some of the benefits of a SBG course but keep in mind that these are temporary fixes. Not only does it take major structural changes to implement SBG but a comparable shift in mindset must also occur.