We have a problem. More and more districts and schools are supposedly converting to competency education, but they are doing so without committing to the big idea that we want to make sure every students succeeds. Committing to the big idea is essential — some might call this demanding excellence, others equity. In competency education, it really becomes the same thing.
At CompetencyWorks, we’ve realized that it isn’t going to help to keep talking about the exemplars (from districts that are able to show that students are benefiting) and the “look-fors” (what we think are effective practices based on visiting so many schools) that we include in our case studies of districts and schools. We also need to talk about the red flags (a sign that something isn’t working right) and missteps (either problematic design or implementation) to help districts identify potential problems sooner.
This morning I read an article about a community in Maine that may be taking a misstep with their new diploma system. The article focuses on the issue of grading, and it appears that they are missing the concept of why 1-4 scoring is more valuable than A-F grading. It’s not clear what else they may have or are planning to put into place – so I’m not referring to their overall plan.
From the article: An initial draft of the proficiency based diploma was introduced at the May 15 School Committee meeting. Using the new proficiency based learning system, the draft stated that students are evaluated on a 1 to 4 scale, with 1 corresponding to “does not meet proficiency” to 4 which is “exceeds proficiency.” The initial draft took the proficiency grades (1-4) and converted them into numerical grades (100 point scale)… An example from the Proficiency Based Learning and Diploma Implementation Proposal: A student earns a 77, 85, and 88 (out of a 100 point scale) on three assessments for a graduation standard. The average of these three is 83. Therefore, the numeric grade is 83; the proficiency score for that graduation standard is 3.0 (a.k.a. proficient).
From what I can tell, it looks like the district shifts from A-F (which is usually based on a 100 point scale), turned it to 1-4, and then turned it back into the 100 point scale.
To begin this conversation, it is important to think about the purpose of grades. Is it to report progress and help students learn everything they need in order to meet the graduation standards? Or is it to help colleges sort students as part of the higher ed admissions process? In competency education, it is definitely focused on progress. It’s worth taking the time to watch Rick Wormelli on zeros and the 100 point scale.
The concept of 1-4 scoring in standards-referenced and standards-based grading is that it tells students where they are in the process of learning based on a learning objective. It is designed to motivate students by giving them very honest feedback (and MUST be complemented with formative feedback that addresses any misconceptions and/or provides more instructional support) on their learning process. Students keep learning until they hit proficiency – most often defined as a 3. A 3 is not equal to an 80-90 score or a B. In competency-based schools, there must be agreement on what proficiency looks like and, as objective as possibly, a way to ensure that students are reaching it. It is an altogether different idea than traditional grading.
The 100 point scale is designed to sort students on their performance, not actually to help students learn. It doesn’t make any difference if students really achieve proficiency. If there was a very strong strategy to provide formative feedback, more instructional assessment, and additional opportunities to demonstrate proficiency, the issue of the structure and number of points becomes less important.
The other issue here that is definitely a misstep is to take three scores that are demonstrating that a student is making progress toward the graduation standard and then average it. Doug Reeves refers to this as a toxic grading practice. When someone is learning something new, they of course have a lower score. Why would you penalize someone by averaging out their process of learning? If someone gets a low score because they have gaps in their skills or had a misconception that resulted in them doing horribly on the first score, they can never recover from that. That diminishes motivation.
There are a lot of resources on grading. I encourage districts to take the time to watch the Wormelli videos or the Doug Reeves video on toxic grading practices or read their books. Most of all, take the time to think about what it would mean to design a school where every student is going to thrive and successfully meet the graduation standards. As for this district, I would say that they are emerging or at a level 1 on the steps toward building an effective grading system.
We are all learning in the world of competency-based education – we are all making mistakes and missteps. What’s important is that we keep learning from our mistakes.