Trying Something New With Grades

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I have wanted to change the way I assess students for a while. I have made changes to how and when I grade assignments, the format of tests, and how understanding is communicated during and after lab activities. But in the end, I was still grading students the same way I always had, the same way I was in school, and the same way students have for quite a while. Kid accumulated points, some assignments were weighted more than others, and students who turned in most of their work on time (regardless of quality) tended to do well. This school year, I am not doing that. I will probably fail spectacularly. Luckily I have administrators who are supporting me, knowing I am trying to do what is best for our students. I am going to try this first with my AP Biology students, since I share the Biology 1 classes with two other teachers, and hope this leads to a wider transition.

I will share what I am doing, but I need your help. After reading through my plan, send me a message or leave a comment with your feedback. What looks good? What should I change? What have you tried and can share to improve my students’ experience? 


I am basing my course assessment off a document shared by AP Biology/Calculus teacher Chi Klein. The College Board shares, as part of the curriculum framework, “Essential Knowledge” statements and has recommended “Learning Objectives” from them. Ms. Klein compiled and organized those learning objectives into a document that could be shared with her students. I will be sharing a GoogleDoc with my students in the first days of class which they will use over the course of the school year.

As is the case in most standards-based and “gradeless” classes I have seen, students will be responsible for justifying their level of mastery over the content. The “Learning Objectives” document I will share with them covers 149 content standards. Students will be able to earn up to four points for each standard based on their mastery of the content, meaning we’d have 596 possible points by the end of the school year. Here is what I’m thinking for my mastery levels (category title suggestions welcomed):

Level of Mastery

Example Activities


Notes, Guided Readings, Discussions


Class activities, Worksheets, POGILs, Article Annotations, Quizzes


Experiments, Virtual Labs, Demonstrations, etc.


Summative Exams, Projects, etc.

I envision the initial knowledge mastery as being pretty straight-forward to demonstrate. For the successive levels, I have been torn as what threshold to use for mastery. If a student wants to use an assignment, lab, test question, etc., do I require them to have earned all possible points? I have been considering at least 90% on a given assignment/test item before a student can try to use it to justify mastery. As an example, if I have a free response item on our evolution test with 10 possible points, a student would need at least 9 points before they could use that in a grade conference. If a student only earned 6 points, they would have to revise their response and get new feedback on the item before trying to use it again during their next conference.

So students are still earning points, and the points they earn as a percentage of the overall points possible still determine their final grade. Not very earth shattering there. How they are being assessed, and what is being assessed is different than how I have ever done this before. There is a much greater burden of responsibility (and independence) placed on the student. My feedback is going to need to be both more flexible and more timely to allow students to complete any needed revisions. If not, I will be setting my students up for a very difficult experience.

The one final change is, at least for my AP Biology class, I am moving away from the traditional 90/80/70/60 scale for grades. The purpose of the AP class, to me, is to prepare students for post-secondary success and to show well on the AP Biology test.  So I want the rigor of the class to match the rigor of the expectations and examination. As anyone who has taken or taught AP Biology can attest, this won’t be difficult. I also want my scoring to reflect that of an AP test. If a student has an A in my class, I want them to have an expectation to earn a 5 on the test. If they have a C in my class, they might expect to earn a 3 (which in Kansas would now get them college credit; good change KSBOE/Regents!). Going back through all the data I could find on the correlation of raw exam scores to 5-point AP Scores, here is what I am going to roll with this year:I am going into this completely aware that revisions will happen when I get AP scores back in the summer. If I have a student who earned 499 points in class, but only got a 3 on the exam, I will need to reconsider either the point range for that grade, or how I let students demonstrate mastery. Again, I am very lucky to have administrators who are willing to let me take this chance, fully aware of I will likely make mistakes.

As for pacing, I am planning on emphasizing one Big Idea each quarter. We’ll start with Big Idea 1 (evolution), which will be more teacher-centered as my students (and I) learn how to function in this new system. As the school year progresses, I hope to transition to a more student-centered model with Big Idea 4 being largely personalized by each individual. Shouts to David Knuffke and Camden Burton for the inspiration here.

This will be my 11th year in the classroom, and 5th teaching AP Biology, and I am finally to a point where I am comfortable enough with my knowledge and abilities to make some changes. I hope this will be a better and more accurate way of assessing student knowledge and mastery, providing more meaning to the grade students earn in my class. But what do you think? What feedback can you give me? I’d love to hear from you in the comments, social media (@ItsIsing), or you can email me (drewising@gmail).

Here goes nothing…


–Documents of Note and Muses–
Syllabus: Ising APBio2017
Student Learning Objectives: GoogleDoc
Camden’s BioBlog Post:
Kelly’s Gradeless Classroom:
Bob Kuhn’s 52-Week Gradeless Blog:
David Knuffke’s Published Thoughts on SBG: