“How do students get a 4? They need to WOW us, that’s how.” This was the answer we got when we asked this question to a panel of teachers three years ago during an out of state school visit. The school had been recommended as one that was transitioning to SBG and we were eager to talk with teachers about implementation. They had done a great job defining, articulating, and even calibrating their level 3 targets (Meeting the Standard), but had decided to leave the 4s undefined. As we sat and listened to this explanation, warning bells went off in our heads.
In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously remarked that while he could not define pornography, he knew it when he saw it. We cannot take this same approach to learning. Excellence and rigor are too important to be left to subjectivity, chance, or a student’s ability to read our minds.
“Wow me” does not encourage excellence, says more about the teacher than the student, and most importantly, does not at all support what we know about learning.
We know that the brain learns best and most efficiently when it has clear targets, which is why standards-based learning and grading (SBL and SBG) are smart moves for education. SBG requires intentional learning targets and scales (continuums of learning). Over time, these targets are calibrated and crafted until they are clear, appropriately rigorous, and consistently understood by all parties (students, parents, teachers), leading to much more objective assessments of achievement than most more traditional ways of grading.
Our goal as assessors is to be as objective as possible. “Wow me” is not objective.
Besides “wow me,” there are plenty of other things NOT to say when students ask how to get a 4 on a target:
- “Go above and beyond the expectations.”
- “Be creative.”
- “Do more. Do extra.”
- “Add color or glitter.”
- “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”
What should we say when a student asks how to get a 4?
- “Take a look at the language on the scale.”
- “Here are some benchmarks or exemplars.”
- “Remember how we all worked through the level 4 together in class last week?”
In order to be as clear and as precise as possible with our students, we created benchmarks and explanations to go along with the targets and scales for our current unit. This is the first time we have used these and they are a work in progress; that said, they have already helped immensely. Creating these documents has really forced us to articulate and specify what it takes to move along the scale. This intentionality has improved our ability to talk to kids about skills, to provide targeted feedback, and to more intentionally design and differentiate instruction.
Here are our links to the explanations/benchmarks we are currently using. We are playing around with a few different styles and formats, and will ask students at the end of the unit to give us feedback in order to improve these:
How to get a Level 4 on Evidence Target: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1choci9nisft5QA1VH5Zr_rnpB_9I-O9sBgRJ7uXq5bI/edit
How to get a Level 4 on Note Taking Strategies:
How to get a Level 4 on Graphic Representation Target:
How to get a Level 4 on Big Ideas Target (Analysis):
The greatest benefit of all of these documents has been for the students. They now understand the goal of each target and can actually see what achievement looks like, which in turn lowers anxiety and increases the quality of their thinking and consequently their work. Providing benchmarks and exemplars does not encourage students to mimic and does not lessen creativity; in fact, it increases creativity and challenges students to push beyond what they thought possible.
And you know what happens then? They wow us.