One of the challenges we face when trying to innovate in traditional public school systems is the higher level of scrutiny required to immediately prove that what we are doing is actually working and is good for students. Changing from traditional grading structures to competency-based scoring does not itself solve the problems our schools and students are facing, but it does provide us with a far more reliable and transparent view of student learning and growth. It allows us to break down traditional structures, it requires students to apply skills and knowledge, and it allows us to assess what we believe are the most important indicators for post-secondary success for our students.

It also shines a big, bright spotlight on the actual levels on which students are performing when they enter high school.

Our Learning What Matters Competency Framework assesses students on their performance level for each set of competencies. This approach to measuring student progress brings consistency and transparency across grade levels, subjects, and groups of students. All student work is assessed against a common, schoolwide set of competencies and performance indicators. No longer is the grade a mix of homework, participation, effort, quizzes, tests, etc. that varies significantly from grade to grade and teacher to teacher.

In a pure competency-based model, we would not report grades or the number of students who are on track for credit. Rather, we would show where students are on our continuum of learning and show their progress towards the level they need to achieve to be graduation ready. But most of our schools are located in public school districts in states which require some kind of ongoing reporting which includes grades and credits. To address this, we have created threshold levels for each portfolio of work that students complete and each portfolio equals credit. In other words, we are living in two worlds: a pure competency-based structure, and the traditional carnegie-credit unit structure. This tension creates obstacles.

The results, so far, have been that much higher numbers of 9th graders are not on track for credit because their actual performance levels are much lower than the grades they have been receiving. This transparent tracking of actual student progress hits schools like a brick wall because typical measures of student success are current grades and credits. One might say that 70% of students are on track because they have a D or higher for their courses for freshmen year. States might use this measurement to evaluate schools effectiveness. Is this actually transparent?

I would argue that traditional grading structures are not transparent at all and are not held to the same level of scrutiny.

Imagine yourself going to “Back to School Night” at your child’s high school.

You are walking from classroom to classroom, listening to each teacher tell you what he or she expects your child to do and how they will be graded. One teacher adds homework and participation together for 20% of the grade, quizzes are 30%, and tests are 50%. Another teacher counts homework for 20% and participation for a seperate 10%. Another teacher just grades everything with points, adds them up, and divides by the total number of points possible. An honors teacher says, “I don’t count homework because this is an honors class and why should students get extra points for something they should be doing anyway?” Have you ever heard something like, “That teacher is such a hard grader and he only recommends a few students for honors.” Or the teacher who says, “I don’t give As.” Or the teacher who adds 15 points to everyone’s test grade because they all failed.

We hear things like this all of the time in traditional schools and no one questions it.

We accept that this is “just the way it is.”

Why? Because it is familiar.

But that does not mean it is transparent or equitable.

This variability from one classroom to another as well as the lack of a common reference point for assessing student work makes interpreting grades and achievement difficult, if not impossible, in a traditional model. In addition to being confusing, a traditional grading system also fails to connect grades with what students actually need to know and be able to do to succeed after high school. And, as Competency Works reports, Learning Heroes’ recent study finds that traditional grading systems can lead to parents overestimating their child’s academic ability. These inconsistent grading policies and the common lack of transparency into what makes up a grade is part of the problem we are trying to solve. We designed our competencies and continua to be used by all teachers in all learning experiences. How students earn credit is the same in all grades for all students for all experiences. Students have to fill up their competency portfolio at the minimum target performance or growth level and that is how they earn credit. Always. For everything.

In a competency-based model, you can no longer look at point and time “grades”.

We fully expect students to be off track when they start in this model. For most students, it is the first time they are being rated on performance alone and the first time they are receiving feedback on skills that they get to continue to work on over time. The beauty of CBE is that you are allowed to continue to work on skills until you reach a certain level of proficiency. As you improve, your lower scores are replaced by higher ones and where you started becomes the benchmark against which your growth is measured. Learning is a process and CBE celebrates the growth students make along the way. Traditional grades actually penalize students for the process of learning and even when students make substantial growth, this growth is not reflected in their final grade because those initial low grades still play an equal role.

So we have changed the rules for 9th graders.

There is no longer a way to obfuscate performance. And now we have to be honest with ourselves and with our students about how well we have prepared them to master the skills we believe are so important for their success. The results so far- the majority of our 9th grade students, across our schools, are not on track to reach the the minimum performance or growth level for their first portfolio. This is troubling. But the reaction to the high percentage of students not on track has been even more troubling. Instead of trying to identify the root cause of these low performance levels, the schools, the model, and the competencies are being blamed for so many students not on track to earn credit. The argument goes something like this, “Last year 80% of the 9th graders were on track (based on traditional grades) and now you are saying that, with your new model, only 20% of 9th graders are on track. What are you doing wrong? This clearly isn’t working.” In effect, we are blaming our system for its accuracy because we are scared of what it is telling us about what our young people actually know and can do when they arrive in high school. Hence, the double-edged sword of transparency.

Here’s how I see it.

Like I said earlier, we changed the rules. And the initial results are scary. But change is scary and uncertain and unsettling. What we do next is what matters most. We do need a higher level of scrutiny, all of us. And we need to get to the root of the problem. Why, when we started rating students purely on performance levels, did we have such a drastic decline in the number of students on track for credit? What does this tell us about how well we are preparing students for high school and what we should be doing differently? What does this tell us about how we have traditionally defined success for students? Is it too late in the game to change the rules for high school students when they have been playing by the same set of rules for 9 years?

It seems there is a choice to be made.

Do we question, reflect, iterate, and reflect some more to try to embrace the transparency and work on all levels of our instruction, helping students improve their actual performance? Do we adopt a new way of measuring learning that provides a more transparent and accurate view of where students are, even if that news scares us?

Or does the transparency cripple us and prevent us from continuing down this uncertain path, moving us back to where we started, navigating a maze of inconsistent grading systems, based not on objective growth and mastery but on the subjectivity of individual educators?

As a society, we are failing far too many of our young people who leave high school unprepared for college and careers, so why wouldn’t we adopt a more transparent and accurate way to measure their progress while we still have time to intervene? The choice is here; it’s up to us whether or not we move bravely in the direction of transparency.

Felice Hybert, Assistant Superintendent at Kankakee High School, has experienced this shock to the transparency first hand.

“As we look at our past state report card we can point out successes – Graduation rates are going up and our 9th grade on track percentages have gone up. In reality, these were likely false positives. As we take a deeper look into the low percentage of students who are not meeting proficiency levels on the SAT or the number of State Scholars we have, an uneasy feeling develops in the pit of our stomachs. We have low college remediation rates, too few students who graduate from 2 or 4-year colleges or universities, and community businesses tell us students are not graduating with the skills they need to be successful in the job market.”