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Aurora Institute

Building Coherent High School Grading and Reporting Systems in Competency-Based Education, Part 3

CompetencyWorks Blog

Authors: Rose Colby

Issues: Issues in Practice, How to Get Started, Create Balanced Systems of Assessments


Two People Thinking and TalkingThis is the final post in a guest series. Links to the other posts are at the end of this article.

Competency-based grading reform addresses ways that traditional grading falls short in communicating student learning. This final article in the series considers the complexity of grading reform at the high school level. It is important that a very holistic and realistic approach is considered as part of a process to improve grading practices in high schools. This process may take several phases of improvement and must engage educators in developing a valid and reliable balanced performance assessment system, instructional changes that support personalized learning, and grading scales that separate reporting of academic growth from growth in personal success skills (dispositions).

Involving the parent community and students in grading reform at the high school should begin long before a cohort of students arrives for their first day of their high school experience. Grade system reform at earlier grade levels should be introduced as a system wide shift that will grow with students as they move through the system. This introduces the concept of high school grading reform early on to parents.

Many parents appreciate the wealth of information they receive on their child’s standards-based/proficiency-based report cards in grades K-8. However, they feel that at the high school level, “grades count,” and those grades must be reported in traditional fashion to allow their child’s successful pathway to a college of their choice.

The essential question that should guide grading reform at the high school level is: What is the body of evidence needed to demonstrate that the graduate is ready academically and personally for the next phase of their lives? This body of evidence is collected over time and guided by the community profile of their graduate. This profile is the high school’s contract with parents, and all systems within the high school need to teach, learn, and assess these values. This includes the grading system, whose purpose is to report out a student’s growth in these characteristics leading to graduation.

In working with many schools and systems as they transform to CBE, it is often the high school that I find most challenged in doing this. They often rush into changes that at first seem simple and direct but in reality are connected deeply with institutional practices that are accessories to traditional grading. The figure below demonstrates the common elements that are connected to most grading systems.  There may be other subtle ones such as grading criteria used for school privileges. It is important that each high school take a comprehensive review of all aspects of school culture in determining how grading may be implicated by policy or practice.  This will define the scope of grading reform for the school.  Rushing into this too quickly soon becomes a problem than can jeopardize the best intentions in grade reform.

Common Elements of Grading Systems

In taking a step back to appreciate the enormity and the complexity of this work, it is best to take a research-based approach and to engage the community stakeholders in the process of shaping a grading philosophy for the high school. Several schools I have worked with have moved too quickly to new CBE grading systems that are not supported by how teachers assess or grade or are based on what teachers prefer instead of what is best for students. To build and communicate a coherent, reliable body of evidence, you may have to dig deep into your traditional institutional practices that your community may simply be very attached to as part of the culture of the high school. There is wisdom in understanding that some pieces of grade reform may take longer than others.

The first “best” advice for high school grading reform must be to plan and provide professional learning in designing high-quality academic and personal competencies, high-quality performance assessments, and instructional strategies that promote personalization in learning. This can take place without changing a grading system. Yet, it allows time to mine the research and related information that will shape a high school grading system.

Resources that address these areas should be gathered, shared, and discussed by educators, school leaders, students, parents, school board members, local business community members, and regional higher education institutions. (Several resources are provided below.) Some of the most powerful information will come from students—we need to listen to their voices in changing how we communicate their learning.

At the heart of transforming a traditional high school grading system, it is important to recognize what elements need to be dropped, what elements need to be created, and what elements need to be made more equitable.  Here are a few probes to open up these discussions and to research during the formative stages of high school grading redesign:

  • Honor rolls: What is the purpose of an honor roll? Are honor rolls important to our community? Are honor rolls relevant to college admission or workplace readiness? What are the ways to best recognize academic scholarship and personal growth? How often should honor rolls be published and where should they be published?
  • GPA, weighted courses, school transcript/school profile—the traditional artifacts of college admission: How do your regional colleges and universities handle each of these as part of the admissions process? Do your local colleges use their own system for scoring course grades and the rigor of courses as part of the admission process? How do local colleges use the unique high school profile to build a profile for admissions consideration? Is there a common admissions profile in considering traditional high schools, international schools, home schooling, competency-based schools, and charter schools? What information is most important to communicate to local businesses in considering candidates for workplace settings before or after high school graduation? Are there equity issues in the access or readiness requirements for existing course levels? How are each of the course level designations defined and implemented with fidelity by course teachers? How many course levels are needed and why?
  • Class rank: How do students view the benefits or disadvantages of ranking students? Is class rank necessary for college admission or scholarships? Is there a better way of ranking students such as the college system of summa, magna, and cum laude honors? How can a broader range of evidence be used in class ranking?

In the end, undertaking a thoughtful, community-based approach to high school grading reform should be planned over a span of time that best serves the end-product you want: an equitable high school grading philosophy or set of grading practices that yields a body of evidence that a learner is ready to graduate with full confidence of future-readiness for both higher education and the workplace.

Grading Reform Resources

  • Feldman, J. 2018. Grading for Equity. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
  • Guskey, T. R. 2013. The Case Against Percentage Grades. Educational Leadership, 71(1), 68-72.
  • Marzano, R. J. 2006. Classroom Assessment & Grading That Work. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.
  • O’Connor, K. 2017. How to Grade for Learning: Linking Grades to Standards, 4th Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
  • Reeves, D. 2010. Elements of Grading: A Guide to Effective Practice. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
  • Wormeli, R. 2018. Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessment and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom, 2nd Edition. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse Publishers.

Other Posts In This Series

Rose ColbyRose Colby is the author of Competency-Based Education: A New Architecture for K-12 Schooling. 2017. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press and co-author of Deeper Competency-Based Learning: Making Equitable, Student-Centered, Sustainable Shifts. by Karin Hess, Rose Colby, and Daniel Joseph. 2020 (in print). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin. Rose can be reached at [email protected].