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Aurora Institute

Grading Policies Need to Be Re-Examined to Support the Shift to Competency-Based Education

Education Domain Blog

Authors: Alexis Chambers

Issues: State Policy, Redefine Student Success, Create Meaningful Qualifications, Redesign Accountability Systems for Continuous Improvement, Base Learning on Mastery, not Seat Time


The third blog in our new blog series explores how to redesign grading systems to best help students gain the skills necessary to be successful, and how education leaders can take advantage of policy flexibility to award credit for graduation based on demonstrated mastery.

Grade calculations are often used to sort students. Grades typically include behavioral elements (attendance, homework, participation, etc.), and send mixed messages to parents on student academic performance by conflating performance measures and hiding skill/knowledge gaps. Grades should clearly communicate what a student knows and can do, with consistency, transparency, and integrity. Expectations for earning a particular grade vary substantially between teachers and schools and undefined expectations for what knowledge and skills are required for a specific grade also lead to lack of clarity on what a student knows and can do. 

These issues are exposed during COVID-19 school closures. Competency-based grading means that schools or districts have adopted or created competencies and rubrics students must demonstrate in each grade level and subject area. It is time to take a closer look at how schools design grading policies, to ensure that educators, students, and families have a clear understanding of levels of knowledge and a shared understanding of what proficiency means.

 Leading states in competency education vary in their approach to establishing their grading policy. In 2012, Oregon’s State Board of Education established a policy that parents will be informed whether or not their child is proficient in grade-level standards and that academic standards will be reported separately from behavioral factors. In addition, it establishes the expectation that students will receive additional services and have multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery of academic content standards.

 To move to competency-based grading, districts should:

  • Embrace explicit learning progression or standards so that everyone will have a shared vision of what students should learn and examples of student work as evidence of meeting standards;
  • Develop a clear understanding of levels of knowledge so that students and teachers share an understanding of what proficiency means;
  • Ensure transparency so that educators, students, and parents all understand where students are on their learning progression;
  • Create a school-wide or district-wide standards-based grading policy;
  • Offer timely feedback and meaningful reassessments so that students can continue to progress and stay on track; and
  • Provide adequate information infrastructure to support students, teachers, and school-wide continuous improvement.

Other Blogs in This Series