What is a 3, anyway?

This lucky cat was trained to push a button.

In the world of standards-based grading, a 3 means proficient. Does that means it’s kind of like a C? Or more like a B?

Don’t tell me it doesn’t matter. It does. It has to go in the gradebook.

In late August, I wrote this post about my first foray into the world of proficiency-based (or standards-based) grading.

Since then I’ve made some serious progress. I’ve rewritten the learning targets for five units in AP Psych, which is no small task. I’ve re-coded four tests so that questions are tied to the new learning targets — that’s a lot of legwork and time, if not really an intellectual challenge.

I’ve also written two PBG-style rubrics for psych assignments. (One is linked here.)

And this week I faced my first real test — using one of those rubrics to actually assess student work.

On Sunday, my psych students turned in their “Learning Unit Mini-Experiments.” Basically, they had to use classical or operant conditioning to teach a person or a pet (like the cat pictured above).

One student, Michael, used classical conditioning to get a friend to turn and be ready to catch a ball whenever he heard a whistle. Another, Charlie, used operant conditioning to teach his sister a drum routine. Catie and Anya trained a dog to jump through a raised hoop.

My new rubric is very clear about what these students are expected to do to demonstrate proficiency: properly identify the type of conditioning, use the terminology to describe the procedure, explain what happened in the actual experiment, and reflect on how well it worked.

But if they do all of these things — and they get a 3 on a 4-point scale — that looks like a 75%. That can’t be right.

My rubric is intentionally vague about what it takes to earn a 4. At our school, we’re encouraging students to tell us what they did that makes it mastery instead of proficiency. How exactly did they go above and beyond?

I’m also looking for exemplars that help me define this fabulous 4, without being too prescriptive. Michael, for example, made this graph – which was definitely not required.


So I get what a 4 is — it’s outstanding. It’s mastery. It’s definitely an A.

But how does a 3 translate?

My colleague who is tasked with helping us through this transition told me that part of my problem is straddling two systems. In other words, if I was going whole hog on PBG this year, I’d just record the 3 in my gradebook and it would make sense. It would mean exactly what it says: Proficient.  No one would have to convert it to a 75% or 85% or whatever. It’s only because I’m still hanging onto a traditional gradebook during the transition that I face this issue. In the meantime, he said, I can make a 3 a 75 or an 80 or a 85 if I want. (As long as my PLC agrees.)

That’s helpful, but also not the whole story, as I found out.

Even when I do switch my gradebook over to all 4s, 3s, 2s and 1s, that is not what will appear on students’ report card and transcripts. Our district will still translate the scores back into letter grades. So 3 does mean something, aside from proficient

I don’t think I’m the only one finding this a little confusing.

On the bright side, I think the new rubric provided much better guidance to my students when they were working on the experiments. The work I got this year was much more detailed and polished than what I received in the past, and there were plenty of 4s.

Oh, and I decided to make the 3 a B+. Turns out that’s what it is on the district’s grading conversion scale.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or like the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom


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