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Aurora Institute

The Advantage of Separating Behaviors and Academics Through a Competency-Based Grading System

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Jonathan Vander Els

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction, Activate Student Agency

If we were to return to giving grades that are a combination of academics, behaviors, and anything else a teacher decides to include, we, as educators would be remiss in our responsibilities.

As I watched one of our teacher’s training sessions this past Wednesday, I considered how far we had come in grading practices in a fairly short period of time.  Our school made the transition to competency-based grading four years ago, and despite some of “bumps in the road”, we really have never looked back.

Terry Bolduc, a fifth grade teacher at our school, is also one of our training team members for our staff.  Terry was sharing with other classroom teachers at our Wednesday afternoon training session how her grading practices have continued to evolve.  This particular session was related to how Terry continuously assesses students on their behaviors or dispositions, both through daily assignments, and weekly formative assessments.  Terry was explaining that by doing this, there are a number of points of data that can support where a student is in each particular area.

These dispositions, or 21st Century Learning Skills, we assess our students on are based off of the Responsive Classroom’s CARES (Cooperation, Assertion, Responsibility, Empathy, and Self-regulation).  Each of these has indicators that teachers use to assess student growth.  What has typically happened over the past few years is that teachers have had minimal data in their gradebook related to CARES behaviors.  Academic areas had multiple assignments attached to standards, but the data related to our CARES was somewhat limited.  Most teachers were continuing to input a CARES assessment grade just prior to the distribution of progress reports and trimester report cards.  We have worked very hard to get away from “subjective” grading in academic areas, so why should work habits be any different?

Ms. Bolduc is even breaking apart the “Responsibility” portion of the CARES with different assignments within this particular indicator.  Responsibility includes such things as completing homework, completing assigned tasks (classwork, etc.), and working to one’s ability. Within the area of Responsibility, a student may have specific areas to work on, depending upon where they are.  Ms. Bolduc’s grades now reflect multiple data points even within different areas of the CARES.

By inputting multiple data points, it really discredits the common myth that work habits/dispositions such as participation, completion of work, effort, and collaboration “don’t count” in a competency-based grading system.  CARES behaviors are an integral part of EVERY assignment and by separating this information from their academic proficiency related to the standards we are assessing them on, students, teachers, and parents have even more information available to them about a student’s growth, mastery of content, and work habits.

Our work related to the assessment and reporting of behaviors is not done.  We foresee moving toward an individualized assessment of student behaviors that can be included on assignment rubrics.  There will be a level of student-choice/input within this rubric.  For example, one student may choose to work on his/her self-regulation on an assignment while another may want to be assessed on his/her Cooperation during the group work portion of the same assignment.  These may be areas in which the individual students may need to grow, and in consultation with their teacher, they would be have the opportunity to continuously work on, and have in their sights, the expected behaviors within their area.

We also foresee our CARES grades being on a trend-line.  We are currently averaging our CARES grades.  A trend-line allows the most recent data to be weighed more heavily.  Each student’s most recent performance would be what carried the most weight when we run a progress report.  With what we know about grading now, we realize that averaging is not the most accurate or timely indicator for where a student is at a point in time.  We determine our academic grades with the most recent mode (the trendline), and we feel that moving to this with dispositions is the next logical step.

I remember clearly attending a PLC at Work conference with the DuFours and Dr. Rick DuFour stating that it would be, at a minimum, unprofessional and more likely, that it would be educational malpractice to continue to do what we know is not best practice.  Knowing what I know now about grading, and what I have experienced over the past four years related to our school’s competency-based grading system, I agree with this statement.  If we were to return to giving grades that are a combination of academics, behaviors, and anything else a teacher decides to include, we, as educators would be remiss in our responsibilities.

Jonathan is the Director of Innovative Projects for the New Hampshire Learning Initiative, overseeing the personalized and competency-based work related to NG2: Next Generation Collaborative Learning Design and the State of New Hampshire’s efforts integrating Work Study Practices into curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

Formerly, Jonathan was principal of Memorial Elementary School in Sanborn Regional School District in New Hampshire. Under his leadership, Memorial became a nationally recognized model professional learning community (PLC) on All Things PLC ( and competency-based learning elementary school.

Jonathan lives with his wife and three children on the New Hampshire Seacoast. You can follow Jonathan via Twitter @jvanderels