Standards-Based Grading: How One Physical Education Teacher Made the Transition

Illustration of people playing sports

Prior to 2015, I had a very rough idea what standards-based grading was all about. My experiences were based solely on what I had heard from teacher friends who themselves were making the transition. Many of these colleagues were not given a clear understanding as to why and how to make the transition, leaving them stressed out. When the day came for my unified arts colleagues and me to take that leap, we too found that we were expected to dive right in and make it work.

Right out of the gate, we found that we had a ton of questions. How do we transition from effort-based to standards-based grading? How can we take into consideration students who are well behaved and try hard, but may never be competent at a specific skill? How do we grade a student who can do every skill competently, but has poor behavior, attitude, or listening skills? How can we find the time to grade every individual skill while teaching an average of 28 classes per week? Is this the best way to assess/grade students when we only see them once a week for 45 minutes?

The idea of grading each student on multiple standards hours after I had seen them in class worried me immensely.

The struggle was real. As a Physical Education (PE) teacher, I personally wrestled with finding time to incorporate and teach all of the new standards, not to mention finding the time to record assessment data for each student. Should I do that during class or during a planning period? The idea of grading each student on multiple standards hours after I had seen them in class worried me immensely. What if I couldn’t remember how they performed a skill? What if they practiced when I was near them and giving feedback, but as I walked away they were unable to work independently? How could I assess each individual student on their cognitive understanding if my original intent was to have all students moving as much as possible? Was I willing to sacrifice moving for learning? As I grew more comfortable with standards-based grading, I realized I was actually better equipped than I had realized.

A new and heightened awareness helped me plan and assess, as well as collect data for each student with more organization than I had ever had. It still takes me a significant amount of time to do all of these things, but now I really focus on what I think of as best practice. This means I am giving the students as much guided opportunity to move as possible. In addition to moving, I am providing them with a variety of activities they can learn now, in the hopes that they find multiple ways to enjoy physical activity for themselves now and in their future. Best practice is teaching through moving, introducing new skills, and encouraging students to challenge themselves physically.

But it’s more than all of that. Thinking back to what I learned in my college Pedagogy class, I realize that I will be a better teacher if I use pre-assessments to give me base-line data and post-assessments to see growth. I need to use New Hampshire standards and National standards as I develop my curriculum and “I can” statements to help my students and me take a closer look at what I am teaching. In other words, working in a standards-based model brought me back to my beginnings and helped me stretch further than I thought I could.

I still use my gradebook for each class to record habits of work (HOW) data. I track things like preparation for class, self-motivation, on-task behavior, full participation, assisting others, and respect for others and equipment. I am able to quickly write notes as I observe and interact with the students, during water break, and/or while classes are transitioning. If I didn’t write these details down, then I would have a hard time recalling which student had which kind of specific success or frustration during class. I like to sit down to the computer to input this HOW data when I have roughly an hour of uninterrupted time. That gives me the opportunity to reflect on my gradebook comments, input grades accordingly and make sure that classes are on track for the end of the unit or quarter.

Collecting “academic” data for things like sportsmanship, use of strategies, and demonstration of concepts and skills in game situations is easier. I can enter this data directly into my computer, in real time, since I have limited what I am looking for. For each unit I create, I pick two criteria and grade each of them in a given week. The next week I grade two other other criteria. By the end of a unit I have met each criterion once or twice, and by the end of a quarter I have graded each four or five times.

The definition of standards-based grading is, “students demonstrating an understanding or mastery of the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn as they progress throughout education.” This definition is one that I refer to when I question what or how I’m approaching a lesson plan or specific skills. As educators, we must know what the overall expected outcome is in order to create a progression of skills for our students. While this approach asks us to work backward instead of forward, it truly is the easiest and most efficient way of creating units and lessons that I have encountered. It’s also a huge help to students to see, hear, or have demonstrated for them what exactly the teacher expects by the end of the unit. That way the student can learn to self-assess daily and weekly on their personal improvement.

Diving into this new world of standards-based teaching and learning came with some bumps. My colleagues and I had a lot of questions and even some concerns. Once I made the commitment to shift my practice, I saw that through coming back to my roots and taking a long, hard look at my work, I could succeed in a standards-based setting. Not only that, as I looked at my work with my students and what I ultimately wanted to achieve with them, I saw that working in a standards-based model made me a better PE teacher.

Ali Cushing teaches Physical Education for kindergarten through sixth grade at Effingham Elementary and Ossipee Central schools in the Governor Wentworth Regional School District in New Hampshire.