We recently revisited the question, “Why competency-based education?” as a way to step back from our work. As Chip puts it, “Nothing is sacred.” We believe that what we are doing transcends any model or method. They are just vehicles to realize our vision. Currently, I am neck deep in the process of envisioning a competency-based grade book that thinks about grading in a very different way than other grade books we have seen. This process often leads me to think about traditional grading and the type of learning culture it creates. If you know me, then you know that I believe that traditional grading creates a very negative learning culture and I also think that many kids are hurt because of it. Here are some thoughts I recently sent to the team:

Traditional failures cripple kid’s GPA’s and hide progress under an obsession of performance. If a child gets a failing grade for a quarter then that failure is a massive hole that is rarely filled. If a child ends up passing, the GPA calculated from that course is terrible. Also, they will likely get a C or D in the course which is enough to pass but it always makes me wonder about whether or not they are ready to pass. This is one of the dangerous mechanisms of false promotion. We define passing with such a low bar that a child can essentially graduation high school without being held to a standard of gaining proficiency in anything. This is a massive epidemic. Competency-based education says that you don’t get promoted until you demonstrate proficiency in a defined set of skills. It calls for progress based grading rather than performance based. In other words, performance based grading takes a series of scores that represent discrete performances and averages them together. This is supposed to represent the child’s average performance level within a discipline. This is used as a sole metric for promotion and almost everything that went into creating that score is completely arbitrary. Progress based grading is a consistent process that establishes a baseline and then demands that a child persists until they reach the expectation. That progress is tracked and then spit out back to them. They only get promoted when they reach that expectation. One implication of this is that we don’t care about past “failures.” Past failures now get pushed out with current successes. We want to create a system that values where a child is currently rather than making them pay for past failures regardless of where they are. We also demand that a child actually demonstrates proficiency in the skills rather than get passed along.

Progress based grading isn’t without criticism but as we deconstruct school, we need to think about structures that allow us to report useful data to all stakeholders. This includes organizations that place value on traditional metrics. This is a reality of any progressive school, especially progressive schools that choose to exist within larger organizations that may not yet have the capacity to support some of the new thinking. This led me to attempt to create a story of our model so we can help people understand it. The following won’t tell you why we created this model but it will hopefully help you understand how we are thinking about different aspects of competency based education through the lens of grading.

Tenants of a competency based grade book:

  • The competency map is the bare minimum we are defining for graduation.
  • Competencies are containers that represent standards or groups of standards.
  • Each standard will be graded on a rubric that has ratings from 6-13 (6 = 6th grade level, 13 = first year of college level work)
  • Each standard will have one or more required occurrences of proficiency
  • Proficiency is defined as work that is on grade level.
  • Credit accrues when you demonstrate proficiency for all required occurrences of each standard contained within a competency.

Because we are held accountable to the same standards as all other schools in Pennsylvania, we have to convert progress into traditional course credits and grades. Here is our current thinking:

  • Progress needs to be converted into traditional grades and credit.
  • Standards are mapped to traditional courses. Therefore, a course sits across competencies.
  • When all skills for a traditional course are completed two things occur:
    • The student will get the assigned traditional credits.
    • The average grade level of all the occurrences will be converted to a 1oo point scale.
  • This is a temporary solution to fit a new model within a traditional system.

I would love to hear your feedback.