Since I started teaching two years ago, I’ve been teaching in part the Swedish (standard based by law) system and in part the IB (final exam) system. It’s therefore very interesting and funny for me to read about the issues US teachers are having with SBG, and the arguments people have against it (no, students do NOT come and demand a retest infinitely many times – they’re too lazy and anyway the teacher can limit the assessment opportunities). In this post, I’m going to share my experiences and thoughts about the two systems I know, and propose a compromise.
Standard based – well, let’s be honest: the difficulty of the course is set by the person setting, and interpreting, the standards. In most cases: a government body issues the standards, but the real legwork is done by the teachers. Now, like all teachers, I want two things: to keep standards high, so my students develop a lot of high quality knowledge, skill, and understanding, and to be a teacher whose students all earn A’s.
SBG is supposed to let me do this. In theory, I tailor the standards to my and my student’s interests and local needs and resources. Students are evaluated on knowledge and understanding, not attendance, homework, and other irrelevant stuff. And there is nothing, no bell-curve or other atrocious normalizing rule, that prohibits me from developing, and awarding brilliant learning in all students.
In practice, however, I find it very difficult to keep these two objectives (high standards and high student performance) equally prioritized at the same time. It easily happens that I reinterpret a standard to accommodate the lesser than expected performance of the students. It happens in part because I can never be sure I’ve set the standards at a good level. It could be that I’m interpreting the state standards too harshly. Another reason is that I simply feel bad for the students when they perform poorly. Unfortunately, there’s a third reason: student accomplishments are tied to my feelings of self-worth as a teacher.
On a school and city level, there are more problems with SBG: when students choose schools, they look at average grades in the schools they are considering. When there is a competition for students, as there is right now in Sweden (city schools competing against each other and against private schools), it’s tempting for teachers and principals to lower the standards or simply award undeserved high grades. This has led to a formidable inflation of grades. While international comparisons show declined performance in mathematics among Swedish high school students, average grades has increased dramatically in math and many other subjects since SBG was introduced and made mandatory some 20 years ago.
In some ways, I therefore like the IB-system better. Students write a final exam, identical for all IB-students worldwide, and an external examinator marks it. The task of the teacher is to prepare the students for the exams, and so the teacher does not have to balance teaching and marking. Of course, it completely sucks that you have to follow a strict and in-flexible syllabus and just hope for the best when the exams come. And it’s quite stressful for the students to only have one chance of showing what they can do. But at least teacher bias does not affect student performance, teachers get more unbiased feedback on their teaching, and schools cannot raise grades to compete with other schools.
I think, what I’m proposing, is a system in between these two extremes: something where perhaps two teachers are working together (in the same or different schools), examining each other’s students. There is really nothing stopping me, and perhaps many other teachers, from working this way already. If teachers formulate the school interpretation of standards together, then they can design tests for each-other’s classes. It would limit, of course, the ways in which knowledge is assessed, but it would be increase fairness and provide opportunities for feedback and discussions between teachers.