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Aurora Institute

What is Proficiency-Based Grading?

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Create Balanced Systems of Assessments


The New England Secondary School Consortium has produced a GREAT resource, What is Proficiency-based Grading? The briefing outlines three elements of proficiency-based grades: 1) Connected to clearly defined learning objectives. 2) Separate academic achievement from behaviors, and, 3) Focused on learning progress.

The I Want to Know More supplement uses Casco Bay High School as an example to explore proficiency-based grading. They break down the grading policy into eight sets of principles and practices. I highlight this because I think it would make it so much easier for us to learn from each other if we start to talk about the principles that guide our practices.

Take a peek at the principles and practices below. It’s Principle 3 where we start to see schools begin to innovate around staffing, scheduling, and embedding supports into the school day. Too many schools say that they are doing standards-based grading, but just pass kids on with Cs and Ds to the next course and curriculum. That’s unacceptable according to Principle 3. Competency education is about designing for the students who are not yet proficient to keep them on pace. It’s about creating the flexibility to provide more instructional time, more enriching experiences to help students understand the value of what they are learning. It’s about giving more attention to students who are not yet proficient – when they need it, not at the end of the semester.

Principle 1: Grades should clearly communicate what students know and are able to do in each class.
Practice 1: We report on student mastery of specific skills and concepts within a course (called “course standards”); traits like participation and effort are reported separately.

Principle 2: Students should have multiple opportunities to show what they know and can do.
Practice 2: We ask students to build a body of work to demonstrate their mastery of each course standard.

Principle 3: Schools should support students in acquiring all of the essential knowledge and skills in a course, versus just a portion of them.
Practice 3: To earn credit, all of the course standards must be met.

Principle 4: Academic knowledge and work habits are both important to acquire for college and life.
Practice 4: Students receive both academic grades (based on course standards) as well as habits of work (HOW) grades for each class.

Principle 5: If students are working hard (as shown by their habits of work grade) to meet standards, they deserve more time and support to learn the material.
Practice 5: Students receive additional time after the term has ended to meet course standards if they have a 3 or above in habits of work.

Principle 6: All students should have the opportunity to excel.
Practice 6: Achieving “with honors” is an option for all students in all courses.

Principle 7: Regular communication with families about student progress supports deeper learning.
Practice 7: We formally report progress ten times a year through report cards, progress reports, and conferences. Infinite Campus, our online grade book, is updated frequently by teachers and is always open to parents.

Principle 8: Learning cannot be averaged: students need time to practice and learn from mistakes.
Practice 8: We determine trimester grades based on trends, and take more recent performance into account. Trimester grades reflect a student’s current level of achievement.



Chris Sturgis is Principal of MetisNet, a consulting firm that specializes in supporting foundations and special initiatives in strategy development, coaching and rapid research. She is strategic advisor to the Youth Transition Funders Group and manages the Connected by 25 blog.