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Standards-Based Physical Education

Lessons from the great state of Vermont


NOTE: If you like what you read, visit SBPE for a summary via a free poster download.

This spring, I was contracted by the Vermont State Agency of Education to teach a graduate course to 21 outstanding physical education professionals. This course blended on-line and on-campus learning through both synchronous and asynchronous learning experiences. The purpose of the course was two-fold: to support teachers’ leadership development and to prepare them for the state-wide mandated shift to proficiency-based physical education. Proficiency-based education is sometimes called standards-based or outcome-based education. For the purpose of this post, I will refer to it as standards-based education.

Before I dive into the standards-based physical education content, I want to highlight the ingeniousness of this project. The physical education coordinator for the state of Vermont, Lindsay Simpson, hired me and then collaborated with me very closely for this course, and I want to be certain she gets major kudos for her tireless efforts. Lindsay supports the PE teachers in VT incredibly well although she would never say that - it is the teachers in VT who made sure I knew this! She realized the only sustainable approach to a state-wide shift to standards-based education would be for physical education leaders throughout the state to work with their physical education colleagues within their local districts. Therefore, the very intense graduate course focused on both the leadership and standards-based physical education components. Course evaluations suggest the teachers learned lots during this course and loved the collaborative nature of it. Lindsay gets all credit for this. She is an exceptional leader and I was humbled to support her vision. If you know Lindsay, you know she is a thorough, responsive, competent and caring professional. You may or may not know what an athlete she is! So, if you talk to her, be sure to wish her major congratulations as she just finished the Vermont 100  - a 100 mile ultramarathon. Not only did Lindsay complete 100 MILES of running, she placed as the 5th overall female. I have goosebumps as I type this! I am in awe! 

I also need to thank the 21 incredible educators who hung out with me virtually every Monday night and then for several days in May. You are champions and true professionals. Your determination and commitment to success inspired me daily and I want to thank you for not leaving a stone unturned in our journey together. If my own children have physical education teachers like you, I will be the happiest mum in St. Louis! 

Back to the post -

If you work in the physical education sector and are interested in this topic, the first thing you should do is purchase and read this text. Lund and Tannehill do an excellent job of explaining and supporting a district to shift to standards-based education. While I know people want everything to be free and open-source these days, sometimes you get what you pay for. This book is worth it. I strongly recommend the 3rd edition as it's based on SHAPE America's most current national physical education standards and research in the field. This book is necessary to develop sound curriculum and, once that is complete, teachers can focus on yearly plans and then lesson plans. Once teachers are ready to design a physical education lesson based on standards-based instruction, I highly recommend Southwest District Teacher of the Year, Terri Drain's presentation which is presented following this paragraph. Just don't watch it yet. Sometimes teachers make the mistake of examining standards-based instruction at the lesson plan level before they have the big picture, and I think that is too overwhelming for many. I encourage you to bookmark Terri's presentation and watch it once you grasp the big picture of standards-based physical education.



You should know that I am a firm believer in standards-based education. Here are a few reasons why:

- Standards-based physical education assumes that student learning is the primary objective of the course. Sounds good to me! In SBPE, the learning often happens through movement as per sound physical education pedagogy, and it definitely does not settle for movement with no purpose or connection to learning. Traditional programs that focus solely on keeping students moving are outdated and it's impossible to advocate for our profession when that's the primary objective. 

- Standards-based physical education acknowledges that students learn at different rates and in different ways. It calls for differentiated instruction and time modifications as needed.

 - Standards-based physical education adheres to the notion that students' grades should be an accurate reflection of students' learning. In case you were wondering, assigning a grade based on what one wears to physical education or how much one participates are not accurate reflections of students' learning. Students have to participate in physical education in order to demonstrate learning of the physical education standards. Thus, participation becomes an expectation rather than something that students are rewarded for doing. For an excellent short video standards-based grading, I refer you to this wonderful clip from Rick Wormeli who, by the way, has been working with standards-based learning since 1982. In this clip, he explains why grading on a 100-point scale via averaging does not communicate student progress. If I were teaching K-12 physical education and shifting to a standards-based system, I assure you I would have this clip on my website in hopes that parents and guardians would watch it.


I am sure those of you reading this post will agree that student learning and accurate grading are important in physical education. But, I also want to bring to your attention a few issues that arose as I taught the graduate level course. Before I do so, let me explain that standards-based education is based on a four-point scale usually numbered 1, 2, 3, 4. While numbers or descriptions may vary, they are often described as the student demonstrating:

1 - No evidence of learning

2 - Beginning/emerging evidence of learning

3 - Proficient evidence of learning

4 - Advanced evidence of learning 

A key issue that came up in class is that when some people were assigned a 3 (Proficient) on an assignment, they equated this with the word average. On the contrary, a 3 (Proficient) is a standard of learning this is the goal but it must be a very high standard - not an average one. The teachers in this course are incredible professionals and so conscientious that they most often did demonstrate proficiency in learning, but a few did not equate this with a positive initially because they viewed it as something less than an "A" in the old grading system. As I explained in the course syllabus and to the students, a 3 / Proficient is excellent, and a 4 / Advanced is exceptional. It's critical teachers explain to students and parents/ guardians that exceptional = the exception. It's not an easy level to achieve. I doubt I'm exceptional at anything...but excellent would be a great goal for anyone, wouldn't it?

This clearly suggests that communication and professional development with teachers are critical to implementing a shift. Moreover, time and communication are vital if parents and guardians are going to understand how their children are being assessed and graded in a system such as this.

Back to the levels.

I have heard some cool ways to explain levels 1-4 to students. One, from Sarah Gietschier-Hartman who shares her cupcake analogy here on Joey Feith's blog. Building on this wonderful post, Sarah and I later collaborated on a post that you can find here. In this post, we moved from the cupcake analogy to integrated learning with nutrition as we introduced the 4 levels along with Harvard's My Plate. Heather Gardner shared that OPHEA uses a fruit salad or yogurt parfait as healthy food options to represent the four levels. More recently I heard Naomi Hartl  share another great way to explain the 4 levels, as was explained to her by her former colleague Katie White: 1 - readiness stairway, 2 - learning hallway, 3 - proficiency doorway, and 4 - enrichment landscape. Naomi actually remembered it a bit differently, and I like her version for it fits very nicely with both activity and grit in a physical education context: 1 - being at the bottom of a set of stairs, 2 - working your way up the stairs, 3 - summiting the stairs, and 4 - a world awaits with endless opportunities and options.


Physical education teachers, consider yourself warned.

Teaching the graduate course to the amazing professionals in Vermont also reminded me of the time commitment required to adequately deliver a standards-based grading system. This, in some ways, worries me. If teachers are mandated to work within a standards-based system, as I hope they are, it is essential that administration and school board members understand the time commitment required to do so effectively. For example, in the class I taught, when students demonstrated their learning was a 2 (beginning/emerging evidence of learning) they were, as they should have been, granted additional time to demonstrate higher levels of learning. In other words, they were encouraged to redo the assignment or submit additional evidence that better demonstrated their understanding. Consequently, more time was needed on my part because I had additional assignments rolling in that had to be graded as students became very motivated to demonstrate learning at a proficient level. It also reminded me that collecting student evidence early on is critical so that I can best guide my instruction and can give them reasonable amount of time to demonstrate learning if they learn in a way that requires more time. Finally, large class sizes must be addressed if physical education teachers are expected to shift to a standards-based system. It simply won't be possible for PE teachers to carry current numbers and provide the feedback and opportunities to demonstrate learning required within a standards-based system.

More time and effort was also required to fully explain and support the concerns around how exceptional work must be in order to represent a level four. Jo Bailey worded it so well while at my house last week,

"Grade inflation has been mad for years now and there is so much work to do to implement a standards-based system because of it."

(Don't you love how the British use the word mad?) 

When you shift to this system and your most athletic student may not be demonstrating evidence of learning, or someone who used to always bring his/her shoes and participate but is truly at a beginning level of mastery related to her/his skills, you will receive push-back. Home will be calling and students will be questioning. For far too long, physical education teachers have given grades that have nothing to do with learning - and everything to do with bringing sneakers and participating. I never received a high grade in math for bringing my textbook, a scribbler, pencil, and calculator, or for attempting answers on my quizzes and tests. It's time that we all commit ourselves to truly supporting students' understanding of the concepts that will best support their physical literacy development. It's so worth it.

I encourage you to host a physical education night at your school to explain standards-based physical education, what it will look like, how lessons will be delivered, how students will be assessed and later graded, etc. As well, send a newsletter, update your website, and send emails home! Whatever form(s) of communication you choose, be sure to tell the parents and guardians that physical education grades will actually mean something and this system will motivate their children. Specific feedback will be given as per clear standards and opportunity to practice within authentic settings. Do not drive yourself crazy by holding off on communication. Reach out and work with the greater community to shift to a system that is better for our students. They deserve it. 

Stay tuned for a future standards-based education post which will be dedicated to our students with special needs!

  • Sarah Gietschier-Hartman

    YES. I feel like this is the Cliffs Notes version of standards-based grading in physical education that includes EVERY possible resource you need in order to get started. It reads so smoothly, doesn’t leave anything out, and explains every point in a way that is easy to understand. I’ve explained these same points to other physical educators and my conversations always come back to implementation. If standards-based grading is not implemented effectively and if it isn’t explained to students and their parents in a way they understand, then the system will never work. Figuring out HOW you will explain SBG to your students, their parents, your administrators (principals), and colleagues is just as important as creating lessons that align to standards/outcomes and authentic assessments. I truly appreciate the last paragraph of this post, which gives me new and creative ways to reach members of my school community. Thank you so much for writing this post, for exposing a topic so dear to me to a large audience, and for justifying that what I’m doing in my classroom every day is oh, so right for my students, me, and physical education.

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Sarah! Your work in this area the past several years is inspiring to me, and should be to anyone who teaches K-12 physical education. You refused to settle for the status quo and are such a hard working professional. Your students are so lucky to have you!

  • Donald Levine

    Amanda thanks for this great information regarding Standards-based physical education. It’s critical information and so important. Teaching our youngest students(Pre-K to 2’s) I feel it’s important to give them the best we can to begin to formulate their understanding of the importance of Physical Education. Through active play, knowledge based instruction and assessment, we can begin to give our students a life-long basis for their use to remain healthy and active. The key is to follow through from grade level to grade level with similarities that will enhance their well-being and their knowledge of the how’s, why’s, and the like. In viewing Terri Drain’s video it was obviously the way to go. Unpacking a standard, formulating lessons towards one of the five, is a detailed approach, but trust me the way to go. Giving our students the best possible effort ourselves will only benefit them. Showing during each and every lesson what we expect, what they will be learning, and how they will go about it, and then brainstorming their success and shortcomings becomes the avenue you want to take. It legitimizes our profession and can only as I keep reiterating aid the development of our students.
    I’ve shared this with my Director of Student and Learning as well as my Principal and they both have already Tweeted back to me take it and run. Yes Sarah, it’s important to get this message out to all concerned, from our students, to their parents(guardians), to our Administrators, to the general public, the key is to keep advocating and showing everyone what we are made of, we are educators, and we care about the well-being and health of each and every child(student) we educate. Thanks for sharing Amanda and writing a great post. I look forward to seeing your next.
    Your last line “stay tuned for a future standards_based education post which will be dedicated to our students with special needs”. Teaching adapted physical education we have individual education plans(IEP’s as they are called) for each and every child. Writing specific goals and objectives for each child is key to their success. In the classroom setting it’s important to adapt to their specific needs and strengths. For now thanks again.

  • Mark Foellmer

    Amanda, just a top notch post regarding Standards Based Physical Education. You were able to explain it in a very succinct way. It adds to the professionalism or credibility of our field. I agree it is a process to sell this to administration, parents and community. However, we need to embrace the process and continue the advocacy journey. I realize we want everything “now”, but if we accept the journey, we can take pride in what we accomplish when we look back. Thank you

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