Trying Something New With Grades

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:


TBT: Fastplant Growing Tips

Editor’s Note: So, Brad Williamson is a pretty big influence on science educators here in Kansas and across the country. Here is a post he originally put on the BioBlog in August 2013. Fastplants are a good way to teach genetics, botany, evolution, ecology… maybe it would be easier to say they are a very robust model organism. 🙂   Enjoy, and let us know if you plan on using Fastplants this school year!

Since many AP Biology teachers are trying to grow Fastplants for the first time, I thought I’d do a few blog posts that follow a generation of Fastplants in my lab.  When I was in the high school classroom I always had a surplus of seed stock available because I was always growing the plants.  Now,  I just grow them occassionally because I think it is fun and also to provide starter seed stock for the new biology teachers that graduate from our UKanTeach program.  Back in July I was fortunate to travel up to the University of Wisconsin for another Fastplant workshop.  Paul and Hedi had Fastplants growing in a number of different types of containers

but I was particularly interested in the deli/discovery cup growing systems because they are very close the the technique I used to use in my classes back when film canisters were available.

The water reservoir (the deli container) can be used to also deliver soluble fertilizer so there is minimal care needed.  These containers are a bit small for weekends so I chose to use 16 oz. containers.

I returned from Wisconsin with some new ideas to try out as well as some seed.  Note that I brought the seed back stuck in tape.  We used the tape to pick the seed up and folded it back over itself to seal the seed in after making a couple of folded over tabs on the end.

You’ll find a description of this technique in several of the resources on the Fastplant website:

In the mean time one of my former students asked me about growing Fastplants so I decided to go out and get some more current cost estimates for supplies.  Assuming you have a light source but otherwise are starting from scratch here is what I found.

Soluble fertilizer from a local garden store:  20-20-20 with micronutrients

Artificial seed starter mix soil:

or a larger bag:

Deli Growing containers from Party America or Party City:

along with lids:

The portion cups from Party America cost about $3.50 per 100 1.25 oz. cups.  I already had quite a bit of yellow braided nylon mason twine from Home Depot so I don’t have a cost for that.  The neat thing about this system is that the individual cups can be moved about and that module based system is pretty easy to manage in a classroom.  I also purchased a can of Flat Black Spray Paint (one coat) that I used to paint the deli containers and lids to hopefully reduce algae growth in the water reservoirs.

I marked and cut 1 and 3/8 inch diameter holes in the lids to hold the cups.  I purchased a 1 and 3/8 inch spade bit to do this for about $5.  The holes are cut very carefully and slowly by running the drill backwards or counterclockwise.  In that way the bit just kind of scratches its way through the thin plastic of the lid.  Going in the forward or clockwise direction will likely lead to different levels of disaster—the bit is not designed to cut into such thin material in the forward direction.  If you drill that way you’ll just tear up the lid and likely not produce any holes that will work.

Marking the hole locations with a paper template.

Carefully drilling in reverse to cut the holes:

I added 250 ml of dilute fertilizer solution to each deli system.  I mixed the 1 measure (a full bottle cap from a 20 oz. soda bottle) fertilizer in 1 liter of water and then diluted that stock solution 1 part stock solution to 7 parts water.   I also drilled 1/8 inch holes in the bottom of the 1.25 oz. portion cups, added a 6 inch length of twine to serve as a wick, added moist soil mix to the cups to get ready to plant.

You can see the bluish fertilizer in the systems to the left and the wicks extending out of the cups on the right.  I moisten the soil so that I can work with it in a gallon plastic bag by squeezing water into it.  You can see the bag at the top of the tray.  Before I place a cup of soil into one of the systems I first make sure that the wicking system is working.  To do that I gently poured water from the pitcher in one of the cups until water was dripping from the wick.  This ensures that the soil is moist as well.  Once the water was dripping from the wick I transferred the cup to one of the growing systems.

I then planted 4-6 seeds in each cup (I will trim this back to only two plants in each cup in about a week).  The seeds were simply dropped onto the surface of the moist soil.  They are not “planted” beneath the surface.

At this point I added a little bit of horticultural vermiculite to the surface of each cup.  I got this tip from Paul W.   You could sprinkle a little bit of soil at this point but vermiculite helps the germinating plant to escape its seed coat.  I did not include the vermiculite in the costs above but I imagine it is around $8 for a small bag that will last for years of classroom plantings.

The systems then went under the lights.  Notice how close I have positioned the lights for now.

Day 0.

Day 1:  No apparent change:

Day 2:  We have germination

Day 3:  Most of the plants have germinated.  The cotyledons are expanding.

I’ll continue to report on this round of growing Fastplants.


A Mentoring Program for New AP Biology Educators

From the Editor: I received this message from David Knuffke, moderator of the AP Biology teacher community, and all-around Rock Star-level educator. As someone who was new to AP Biology in the not-so-distant past, I will vouch for the benefit of such a program. I, luckily, kept my head above water long enough to produce/modify the resources I needed reach the high expectations from the College Board, my administrators, and students. However, many do not, and are miserable. We absolutely do NOT need to be losing  good teacher to stress. If you have any questions about this program, teaching AP Biology, or anything at all, please reach out to us here at Happy Holidays, and have a great Finals Week!   -Drew Ising 

Hi friends,

One of the major issues that I hear about (from new AP teachers and veterans) is that some of the structure that the CB has in place (e.g. the Teacher Community) can be a bit overwhelming.

One initiative we are interested in working towards is the establishment of a mentor network for new AP Bio teachers. Robin Groch has volunteered to serve as the point person for this project. We envision a pretty casual mentoring relationship between a new teacher and a veteran mentor. At the same time, we aren’t clear if this is something that is tenable, and won’t know for sure until we see what kind of interest there is in serving as a mentor among our veterans. In that vein, we have created a form for anyone who is interested in serving as a mentor to fill out. Once we have a handle on the number of veteran teachers who are willing to do this, we hope that we will have a great pool of people to connect to new AP Bio teachers. This is very much an interest assessment form. By filling it out, you are NOT committing to actually becoming a mentor, should the project move forward.

As far as I’m concerned, outside of a certain weekly conversation that I have, my role as a district mentor is incredibly rewarding and helpful for my own practice. I hope many of the talented AP Bio teachers on this listserv might consider signing up to serve in a mentoring capacity. I think we have a pretty great opportunity to help new AP Bio teachers get more comfortable.

Here is a link to the mentoring interest form:

David Knuffke
Deer Park, NY