When Virginia’s Prince William County school district switched to standards-based grading nearly a decade ago, middle school social studies teacher Erin Merrill wanted an easier way to keep track of her students’ mastery of the specific standards tested on the year-end state standardized assessment.
Merrill also wanted to empower her students to take ownership of their learning. Her solution: giving students a data notebook to track their progress.
Standards-based grading is the practice of aligning graded tasks with clearly stated learning targets drawn from the state standards. Students still earn a score of 0 to 100 on graded assignments, but teachers’ gradebooks must list which standards are being assessed with each assignment. Students also have multiple attempts to master the standards, with grades on assignments that demonstrate higher mastery replacing earlier grades.
The data notebook Merrill uses with her students is a four-page tracker that has the 14 civics and economics standards that 8th grade students in Virginia are expected to learn by the end of the year. For example, students should be able to demonstrate knowledge of the foundations of American constitutional government by identifying the purposes for the U.S. Constitution stated in its preamble, and identifying the procedures for amending the document.
With the tracker, students have different ways to visualize their progress. One way is by noting next to each standard whether they failed, passed, or mastered it based on their grades on summative assessments on which each question is connected to a specific standard. Students can also visualize their progress by filling in their scores on charts.
“Not only are the students seeing the value of it and appreciating the use of it,” Merrill said, “but I am seeing success in the actual test scores and I think that’s a win-win for everybody.”
In an interview with Education Week, Merrill discussed how she came up with the data notebook and how it’s affected student performance. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
How are you assessing your students’ mastery of different standards?
I try to do a balance of things in my classroom: My students get a lot of creative-based projects so that they can have more authentic experiences. But there are always standards-based unit tests at the end. I use a variety of tools, but lately I’ve been using [online testing platform] Edulastic a lot because it has a test interface that’s exactly like TestNav [the online testing platform Virginia uses for state standardized testing]. So I can have my students practice a lot of the things that they’re going to be doing [during the standardized test].
I’ve also found it really helpful for my students to be successful at the end of the year if they know what they’re going to be learning. It goes beyond just putting a target on the board, which is something that a lot of teachers are required to do, but we find a lot of students don’t get a lot out of that. My students receive a data notebook that has all of their standards of learning that they’re going to be required to learn, written in kid-friendly language. Then as we go through every unit assessment, the students will calculate their percentage of mastery for each strand and have a visual of what areas they need to retest on, because the idea of a good standards-based assessment is that you don’t retest maybe all 30-40 questions of a unit test. If a student mastered five out of the six things that you’re testing them on, they should only need to retest in one area, so we do that.
I have the data notebook to help give them a visual and make sure that they’re keeping track. My students tell me they really like seeing what they have to learn, which isn’t something they’re given in a lot of classes, and they like having that visual of how they’re doing, especially growing over the course of the year. I use that when we get ready for SOL [Standards of Learning assessment] review, so that I can target it individually to the students’ needs, instead of having to again spend four, five, or six weeks recovering everything we did for the year.
What led you to create a data notebook for your students?
We started being trained on standards-based grading, I think, around 2017. That was really a trigger for me to rethink what I was asking the students to do and how I was grading it. My whole thing is that I should not have to keep track of 80 students’ progress. I mean, I should know how they’re doing, but the students themselves need to start taking accountability so that they have a say in their education. Being an 8th grade teacher, it’s such a great age to start building their independence, so that when they get to those advanced high school classes, and then possibly onto college, then they are able to self-advocate more, and they have experience looking at their own learning and seeing if they need to retest or what they need to study.
Have you seen a change in students’ academic performance?
The first year that I tried this it was actually my professional goal, so it was something that I tracked throughout the year and wrote up for my report. I asked the students three times during the year: How prepared did they feel for the end-of-the-year standardized test if they had to take it tomorrow? What score range do they think they would earn? How well did they feel that they understood what they were supposed to be learning? How did they feel about the data notebooks themselves?
On a scale of 1 to 5, the average rating was a 4.3 on being prepared for the SOL. No one said that they felt like they were going to fail. Two-thirds of the students thought they were going to get a solid “pass” or an “advanced.” The average rating for whether they understood what they needed to learn was a 4. And overwhelmingly the students said they love seeing how they’ve done using the data notebook. About 25 percent of the students added that they wished that other classes did this, too.
Since I have implemented the data notebooks, I have had a 100 percent pass rate on the SOL.
Do you have a student success story you’d like to share?
I had a student who struggled academically and had never passed a Standards of Learning test in Virginia and came to my class sort of, ‘OK, I’m in a social studies class. That’s whatever.’ She wasn’t particularly thrilled. She didn’t hate the subject, but she was there. I guess she just sort of clicked with what I did. Her confidence soared. Her engagement in the class was higher because she knew, ‘Here is proof that I am succeeding in what I’m learning. I am eager to try out more questions in class and take more risks to see if I understand it before the test.’ She passed her first SOL with me.