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Aurora Institute

Grades, College Admission, and Competency-Based Education

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

There’s a great quick read in the February AASA School Administrator on standards-based grading and the college admissions process. Four university college admissions staff were interviewed in Getting a Fair Shot about their thoughts about standards-based grading.

Here are some of my big (and small) takeaways:

Standards-based grades and transcripts are acceptable, if not preferable. College admissions officers are well aware of the weaknesses in traditional grades for the college admissions process, including “rampant grade inflation, inaccurate portrayals of student performance and the regular need for remediation.” And nontraditional grading has been around for a while. The interviews were clear that students with standards-based or mastery-based transcripts would not be penalized. In fact, separating out academics and behaviors was seen as beneficial.

What are grades communicating? Is it to compete to get into college or are they indicators whether students will be able to complete college? I’ve never seen this put so clearly. We know GPA indicates something about students doing well in college, but I don’t think we know why it has been such a strong indicator. Is it that behavior is embedded in it? Is it that it shows students good habits of success? It certainly isn’t an indicator of what students can do because you can get a 4.0 at any high school even though we know that high schools have very different sets of expectations. This might suggest that the behaviors, habits of success, or indicators of being able to manage one’s own learning could become an equally powerful set of indicators to complement indicators of what students know and are able to do.

If our hypothesis is that doing well in high school based on standards-based grading might indicate that you are better able to navigate and complete college, then we might want to include this in any research on competency-based education. It’s interesting because preparing students for and supporting them to complete college may be a place where K-12 and higher education could organize around a shared goal.

With efficiency and limited resources driving college admissions processes, should we be looking at a different configuration of the college admissions process across K-12 and higher education? The most interesting part of the article was about what the implications were for college admissions if the trend toward standards-based grading continues to grow. The third finding in the article was “The need for efficiency in the admissions process has forced personnel to place an inordinate trust in grades and standardized test scores.” In response to the question,”What are the implications if students applying with standards-based grades continue to increase?” one of the interviewees replied, “Unless we prepare for it and know what we’re getting into, it will tax our current resources.”

Yes, we could just let the tension build on college admissions and let higher education create new systems and algorithms for admissions. Or we could consider this an opportunity for K-12 and higher education to forge a new way of working together that builds a connective and sustainable competency-based system.

What if we all agreed on a set of performance levels between the end of high school and first year in college? Even with colleges having different admissions policies for academic skills, we could create transitional “levels” with high school teachers and college professors moderating their expectations of what proficiency looked like at each level. Thus, one college might only admit students at level 14 and another at level 10. The system becomes transparent and students would know exactly what they needed to do become competitive for different colleges.

What if a group of representatives from higher education, the state department of education, districts, and high schools joined together to create a few performance-based assessments and worked with teachers to calibrate the grading? This would help upgrade the K-12 system to better support higher order skills and the transfer of knowledge (i.e., competency) and create a mechanism to communicate student performance to colleges.

It’s hard to imagine any new configuration as we’ve been so dependent on the GPA. However, we are in a period of very exciting innovation and we may need to think about deconstructing and reconstructing the roles, relationships, and functions of those organizations involved with the transition to college.

Are we close to a tipping point in changes in high school grading? Tucked away in the article was a tiny little insight I thought possibly indicated an important trend: One interviewee suggested that 25 percent of students applying for college do so without a class rank. That’s not just from competency-based schools, so I assume it’s part of changes in grading in general. It would be very interesting to get a sense of how grading practices in high schools are changing in general, regardless of if they are competency-based or not, and why. It’s possible that competency-based schools do not have to be leading the change, as we could simply join forces or surf along on another wave of reform altogether.

Two initiatives to watch in terms of building support for proficiency-based or mastery-based grading and the relationship with college admissions are the Mastery Transcript Consortium and the New England Secondary School Consortium, which have had 100 percent of the state colleges and universities plus some elites sign the proficiency pledge to ensure that no student is harmed in the college admissions process by going to a proficiency-based high school.

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