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Transitioning to Standards-Based Grading

CompetencyWorks Blog

Sign on Wall That Says Are You Proficient YetThis is the final post in a series about the Northern Cass School District.

Northern Cass is making an ambitious transformation to competency-based education, as described in earlier posts in this series. They are shifting to standards-based grading over multiple years as the district develops needed policies and learning management systems, teachers develop materials and strategies, and students and parents have opportunities to learn about the changes.

The district’s grading scale is ‘1’ = Emerging, ‘2’ = Foundational, ‘3’ = Proficient, and ‘4’ = Extended Learning. The Proficient level means a student has demonstrated competency, and Extended means they have gone beyond the expected level of competency.

Wall Poster Showing Definition of Level 3Last school year Northern Cass teachers still reported grades on a 1 to 100 scale, and they began implementing standards-based grading to different degrees. This school year all grading is standards-based, and teachers no longer report numeric grades. To reach this point, teachers needed to identify each of their competencies and develop corresponding performance levels and rubrics. For many schools, this is one of the most challenging demands of moving into a competency-based system. (Thomas Gaffey shares Building 21’s competencies and rubrics in this CompetencyWorks post.)

The district also faces the challenge of how to handle students’ traditional grades from previous years of high school. This year’s 9th-graders (the class of 2023) will start and finish high school under the new system, but older students will graduate under a mix of the old and new systems. During the transitional years, each subsequent class will have graduation requirements that come closer to being fully competency-based:

  • Class of 2020 – 100% of learners get a 2.0; learners must achieve a 3 in 80% of the standards in a specific class
  • Class of 2021 – 100% of learners get a 2.0; learners must achieve a 3 in 85% of the standards in a specific class
  • Class of 2022 – 100% of learners get a 2.5; learners must achieve a 3 in 90% of the standards in a specific class
  • Class of 2023 and beyond – 100% of learners get a 3.0; learners must achieve a 3 in all of the standards in a specific class

In short, the more years a student spends in the new system, the more they will need to meet its expectations. Students in the class of 2023 and beyond will need to demonstrate competency (a score of ‘3’ or ‘Proficient’) in all standards.

Wall Poster Showing Definition of Level 4Beyond Competency: Defining Level 4 Grading

How to support students in exceeding proficiency (the ‘4’ level) came up in my conversations with several teachers. Students might want to go deeper because they have a strong interest in a topic or they want to demonstrate high achievement for college applications or future employers. Teachers might encourage students to go deeper if they have reached proficiency quickly, rather than rushing on to the next topic. Going deeper avoids the “checklist mentality” that can be a shortcoming of some personalized learning settings.

Some Northern Cass teachers also said that they have needed students to go deeper because materials for the next unit weren’t ready yet. In the first year of implementing a competency-based system, teachers may not be able to keep ahead of the students in terms of developing a full year of materials. They said this will be less of an issue next school year.

The school has had ongoing discussions about what should be considered Level 4 work. One teacher said, “I do give kids those options sometimes, but we’re also partly leaving it to the student to come up with ideas and proposals and take on the motivation to do it themselves. They do need some guidance to get there, at least initially. We’re still discussing what constitutes a ‘4.’ One example is a learner teaching another learner, as long as they’re doing it appropriately. In general, it’s about going beyond the standards, which we’re thinking about in terms of higher cognitive skill. If the standard requires ‘explaining’ to reach proficiency, exceeding the standard might require ‘modeling’ or doing something authentic outside school related to the standard.”

For example, he mentioned a student who went beyond a physics standard by building a vacuum cannon to shoot ping pong balls at the speed of sound. Another teacher talked about a biology standard that required student proficiency with basic Punnett squares. A student exceeded that standard by gaining proficiency with higher-level Punnett squares and discussing how they applied to genetic engineering. In developing their approach to Level 4 work, Northern Cass is informed by Bloom’s Taxonomy and Costa’s Levels of Questioning. Another outstanding resource for thinking about depth and complexity across academic disciplines is Karin Hess’ Cognitive Rigor Matrices.

Northern Cass has developed a Standards-Based Grading FAQ for parents that tackles some common questions related to Level 4 learning and assessment. Here are a few of the questions and answers:

Q: Can [parents] give learners guidance on how to get a ‘4’ or encourage them to advocate for ‘4’s with their educators? What about kids who are quiet or uncomfortable and wouldn’t ever approach an educator?

A: There is time built into the secondary schedule for advisory every Tuesday and Thursday from 3:00-3:30. This would be an opportune time for learners to meet with educators and discuss Level ‘4’ learning as well as work on Level ‘4’ learning. Learners are able to identify areas of focus during advisory. One of the options is Level ‘4’ learning which has an educator attached to the area for support. Like educators have done in a traditional system, they will engage in conversations with all learners on a regular basis.

We provide coaching sessions during classes and this is a time to seek out those learners who are more reserved. However, self-advocacy is a skill all learners must have. We will continue to help build these skills in a deliberate manner, but also need your help (as parents) in challenging your child to advocate for themselves. Throughout the course of the year, we will provide ideas in the newsletter to encourage/promote advocating by your learner.

Q: Can educators reach out to learners who they feel are capable of working toward a 4?

A: When educators recognize a learner is quickly proficient in a standard and when appropriate, they may seek out the learner to challenge them to work on Level ‘4’ learning. Throughout classes, educators will prompt learners to continue looking for opportunities to reach Level ‘4’ learning.

Q: Other than Advisory on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when do learners have the opportunity to work on changing ‘3s’ to ‘4’s?

A: Every month on our late-start days, we offer learners the opportunity to ‘backfill’ standards. This includes catching up or extending on a standard. If a learner didn’t have an opportunity earlier in the year to achieve a Level ‘4’, this time will allow them to work with an educator and utilize this day to extend their learning. There is some content which builds on itself and there may be opportunities later in the year to achieve a Level ‘4’ on previous standards.

What are your experiences with implementing standards-based grading in a competency-based school? What resources do you recommend? How does your school think about and assess proficiency and going deeper? Your thoughts are welcome in the Comments box below, or email me so I can share your knowledge in future writings.

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Eliot Levine is the Aurora Institute’s Research Director and leads CompetencyWorks.

Follow @eliot_levine