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Aurora Institute

CBE in Practice: Grading

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Laurie Gagnon

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started, Commit to Equity

Lots has been written about competency-based grading at CompetencyWorks throughout the years (see below for a short sampling). As I settled into my role this summer, I had the opportunity to observe two professional learning sessions on grading practices with the Competency Collaborative in NYC and with the Great Schools Partnership (GSP). This post curates resources for those who want to reflect on how grading practices in your setting are aligned — or misaligned — to the values of learner-centered, competency-based education. It supplements the CBE Starter Pack post 2 on meaningful assessment

Grading and Reporting

A kindergarten teacher uses number cubes during a small-group math activity.
Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

It is important to note the distinction between grading and reporting. Grading and reporting touch multiple levels of the system. It is worth taking the time to define what we are talking about. GSP offers the following definitions:

  • Grading System: The system that a school has developed to guide how teachers assess and grade student work.
  • Reporting System: The system that a school has developed to communicate student grades formally on report cards and transcripts

Grading and reporting closely interconnect. Here we will focus more on the grading system, which is the foundation of the information that is then reported. 

Grading and Equity

As a system, CBE is intentionally designed to be equity-seeking, including in grading practices. Grading for equity has also become a standalone educational change lever, largely due to Joe Feldman’s book, Grading for Equity: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Classrooms, which was used as a key resource in both sessions I observed. While the book is not explicitly about CBE practices, many of the topics align with CBE topics such as learners developing agency to lead their own learning, transparency in how to succeed, authentic assessment, and having multiple opportunities to demonstrate learning and growth. 

Are Grading Practices a Keystone Issue? 

Over the years, various practitioners and technical assistance providers have often advised not to start transformation efforts by changing the reporting system. After all, how can you report on competencies before you have implemented them? But could classroom grading practices actually be a viable entry point into CBE?  

At some point in your process of transformation, you will need to examine and reflect on how student work is assessed and graded. 

  • How clearly do grades in your classroom or at your school communicate whether students have learned the learning goals? 
  • How clear are the learning goals? 
  • What happens if a student needs more time to learn and practice a topic or a skill?

Reflecting on grading practices might have the ideal mix of a) surfacing the flaws, inequities, and harm of predominant, status quo practices; b) connecting us to our values to prompt the adaptive mindset work we know is needed in change work; and c) presenting opportunities to pilot small, practical, research-based changes.

The Power of Grades

NYC’s Competency Collaborative’s Summer Institute on Reigniting Student Motivation Day 3 focused on Establishing Supportive and Equitable Grading Practices. While on the surface we might think of grades only as an objective signal of how a student is doing in school, the research shows that grades have a far-reaching impact. Grades are communication, and we need to think about what they are communicating to students — is it about their learning or is it about something else? The session showed that grades also affect students’:

  • Learning identities (belonging mindset)
  • Feelings of worth, capability, agency (growth mindset)
  • Connection to or alienation from academics — and school generally (belonging and value mindset/purpose for learning)

A vision for grades at their best was offered: that grades are “accurate, supportive, bias-resistant feedback based on evidence of what a learner knows and can do at a given point in time.” A similar vision was offered in the GSP session (and on the GSP website), that the “purpose of the grading system is to clearly, accurately, consistently and fairly communicate learning progress and achievement to students, families, post-secondary institutions, and prospective employers.”

What is Competency-Based Grading?

The GSP Grading for Equity workshop offered the following core tenets for equitable school grading and reporting practices:

  1. Communicate Information About Learning
  2. Design Clear Grading & Reporting Guidelines
  3. Use Common Rubrics or Scoring Guides
  4. Provide Low-Stakes Practice & Feedback
  5. Report on Habits of Work Separately
  6. Organize Grade Books Consistently

The Competency Collaborative has a webpage on competency-based equitable grading and the following slide in their session illustrated how equitable, competency-based grading practices might change from traditional, status quo practices.

Graphic illustration of traditional and competency-based grading

The session offered a list of key practices for equitable grading that also drew from Feldman’s work. 

  1. Use a 0-4 or 1-4 scale.
  2. Don’t grade cross-cutting skills / habits of work. Do give feedback on these habits and skills.
  3. Base grades on evidence of learning.
  4. Give multiple opportunities.
    •     Base grades only on where a learner is with learning outcomes.
    •     No “points off” for missing deadlines or cheating. (Avoid using grades as punishments.) 
    •     No added points for effort, extra credit, and other non-evidence factors.
  5. Transparency. Share (unpack, revise, put in student-friendly language) course outcomes from the start.
  6. Disaggregate skills, and don’t average multiple outcomes.
  7. Connect feedback to learning outcomes.
  8. Use growth mindset language. “Not yet” “Approaching” “Developing” “Emerging”
Illustration of how averaging grades obscures information about learning
Image credit: Gary Chapin of Educating for Good

How do we get started in talking about grading? 

These ideas may already be infused into your school’s or district’s culture and practices. If so, I hope you will share your journey with someone and help them get started. Or, you may be at the beginning of your journey. Read on for a few big ideas and resources to get started.  

There is a range of approaches to CBE grading and reporting systems. For example, there are fully portfolio- or competency-based systems and there are systems that convert proficiency on standards or competencies into traditional grades only for reporting purposes. Making the shift to a competency-based reporting system can be a complicated one. Even if it feels like your community isn’t ready to shift reporting systems, reflecting on grading practices at the classroom level can and should start sooner. Creating a consistent, equitably oriented philosophy and set of guidelines can be a great entry point for mindset work. 

Grading practices can seem like tough territory to tackle. However, if you don’t have consistent practices and a shared philosophy, it’s likely that grades are sending mixed messages to students and families. It’s also likely that there are equity issues that need to be considered and addressed — whether they are blind spots or intentionally ignored. 

Learn More

There are many resources on the topic of competency-based grading and grading for equity. Here are a few to get started.

Deeper Resources

Blog Posts and Articles

Videos and Podcasts


  • The Mastery Transcript Consortium is working at the systems level to rethink transcripts. 
  • The Modern Classroom Project is a practical approach that includes both mastery-based grading and blended learning through flipped instruction. It started with the classroom practice of the founder when he was a teacher. 

Laurie Gagnon is the Aurora Institute’s CompetencyWorks Program Director.

Follow @LaurieGagnon98 


Laurie Gagnon

Program Director, CompetencyWorks

All blog posts from Laurie Gagnon