Saturday, March 5, 2011

Is SBG possible in your school system?

It's been a while between posts - life of the first year teacher is certainly proving to be hard work and sleep deprivation effects are beginning to kick in. Unfortunately, I think SBG is making it even more work - but I'm hoping it will pay off for my students, and that it will get easier when I teach the same topics next year. Before I write about my initial experience of SBG, I want to discuss the first challenge I faced: would it be possible, or even permitted, for me to try out SBG?

So, is SBG possible in my school system? Unfortunately the short answer is SBG options are limited in the NSW (Australia) secondary school system. Two key factors act as brakes on implementing SBG: state mandated assessment protocols and linked assessment across classes. I suspect teachers across many different school systems will be facing similar challenges.

State mandated assessment protocols block alternative approaches
The assessment process for senior years (Stage 6 Prelim/HSC courses) is strictly defined by the NSW Board of Studies, mandating a fixed number of summative assessments over a two year period.

While there is flexibility in the nature of the assessment, this specification precludes an SBG-style "continuous assessment with retry attempts permitted" approach. Similarly, for the Year 10 School Certificate course, assessment procedures are clearly defined. So for Year 10, 11 and 12 classes in my state jurisdiction, SBG really isn't an option if you want SBG to actually play a component in determining student grades (which is the whole point!). Fight the battles you can win - and this isn't one of them!

Linked assessment across classes makes change harder
What about junior secondary school years?  Despite the intent of the syllabus designers, every school I have seen has implemented the NSW Board of Studies mathematics syllabus "three pathways design" as three separate ability graded "Standard, Intermediate, Advanced" streams.  By Year 9, when the pathways design really affects lesson programming, mathematics faculties align their classes to a pathway and then quite reasonably use a common assessment protocol for each pathway.

The net effect is to create groups of assessment linked classes - ruling out a change to assessment procedure unless it is done for all classes in the same group. So that rules out going solo on SBG with my Year 9 class because it would be impossible to equate my grades with those of other Year 9 classes doing the same syllabus pathway.

Room at the bottom!
Which leaves Year 7 and 8. Fortunately at my school, each Year 7 and Year 8 class is assessed separately. While common tests are used, student grades are not linked - students are not ranked across the year group - so each teacher can implement their own assessment process. Which means I have the option to try out SBG with these classes. Since I'm new and green - the sane approach is to try with only one class - and with the support of my Head Teacher, Year 8 was my choice for SBG.

Should you abandon testing?
So can I forget about tests and do SBG as I wish with my Year 8? No - not really. These students will still have to do a grading test at the end of the year to determine their Year 9 syllabus pathway - and it would be irresponsible of me not to prepare them for it. Also - since I am new, and SBG is new - I do want a barometer to tell me how we are travelling - so I've decided to keep the topic tests for Year 8. My compromise is to reduce the test grade value compared to the SBG grade value. My students will hopefully get the benefits of SBG, while the adults who want test results can look at those. I'm kind of trying to have my cake and eat it too: have the benefits of SBG while still conditioning the class to tests and generating data so I can measure the effectiveness of the SBG approach.

It's interesting to observe how a few key syllabus and assessment rules at the top of the system - even just in the final years, percolate all the way down to the early years. And where do those rules come from? That's another story...

What barriers have you encountered as you consider changing assessment methods for your class? Were you able to find a way to makes changes? In my next post I will describe the initial SBG experiences in my Year 8 class, and then consider some of the politics of introducing SBG.


  1. I've been lucky to encounter few administrative barriers as I implement SBG this semester. The biggest challenge I'm finding is that looking so critically at my curriculum is making it hard not to change a bunch of other things too. This is my 13th month teaching and I can't imagine having done this last year -- that's impressive! Incidentally, if you haven't seen it already, there's some great first-year-teacher validation to be had at "The Boat". I look forward to reading more about your results. (PS: thanks for the link to the stick figures that feature in your wonderful cartoons!)

  2. SBG sure does make you stare at the curriculum critically! Thanks for the link to "The Boat" - I recognised the feeling immediately!