Competency-Based Education | News

New Report Guides Redesign of Grading for Competency Learning

Schools that have or are planning to adopt competency-based learning have access to a new report that offers guidance in how to assess student progress. In 42 pages "Progress and Proficiency: Redesigning Grading for Competency Education" walks educators through the process of redesigning their grading practices from one that uses simple letter or number grades to determine whether somebody has passed the class to one that communicates learning progressions in a more nuanced fashion.

Competency learning, also known as proficiency-, performance-, or mastery-based education, shifts the focus of instruction away from a time-based system and to a more personalized model. Students move onto new content only after they prove mastery in the current content. As a result, in the classroom each student moves through the subject at a unique pace.

Because traditional grading, such as A through F, doesn't address specific weaknesses in what students have learned or not learned, competency advocates don't consider it a "reliable indicator of achievement," as the report stated. "It allows students to advance without fully mastering skills."

"Our traditional grading system undermines learning because it allows students to 'slide by' until they stumble over the gaps in their knowledge. It's much better at ranking students than helping them understand what they need to do to succeed," said Chris Sturgis, the report's author. "In competency education, student learning is always the primary purpose. Challenging the traditional system of grading practices will prompt questions that will allow students and teachers to work together toward a shared vision of learning that provides support to students as they build and demonstrate new skills"

The report identifies six elements that most competency-based schools follow in their grading practices.

  • Being "explicit" with their learning progression or standards so that everyone has a shared vision of what students should learn;
  • Being clear about levels of knowledge so that both students and teachers understand what proficiency means;
  • Being transparent about progress so that teachers, students, and families know where students are in their learning progression;
  • Creating a school-wide or district-wide standards-based grading policy;
  • Delivering timely feedback and meaningful assessments to students so they can continue to progress and stay on track; and
  • Providing adequate information to support continuous improvement among students, teachers, and the school as a whole.

The report was issued by CompetencyWorks, a consortium of education organizations led by iNACOL, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, a nonprofit membership association representing K-12 educators, researchers and corporate partners.

"As districts and schools convert to competency-based learning, they quickly find the focus on advancing through mastery and performance means they need to address other practices in their schools around personalized, deeper learning," noted Susan Patrick, president and CEO of iNACOL. "Innovators express that once grading is revised to reflect what a student can show and know instead of just accepting a subjective 'mark,' it requires a redesign of classroom management practices and expanding support systems around personalizing learning for each student. This holistic reform toward student-centered learning has the potential to transform the models of teaching and learning, and how our students and parents acknowledge academic achievement."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.