Part 3: What Do I Need to Know About Competency-Based Grading?

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Part 3: What Do I Need to Know About Competency-Based Grading?

Getting Clear about Best Practices--Competency-based Grading Done Right

This post is the last in my three-part series on competency-based grading. In Part 1, I describe the key similarities and differences between traditional, standards-based, and competency-based grading practices. In Part 2, I take a deep dive into potential issues with competency-based grading in order to get beyond the hype and ensure students are not “harmed” as a result of poorly-designed and -implemented competency-based grading practices. 

I began this third piece of the discussion about competency-based grading on the premise that schools want to report student progress on a set of defined competencies a student must demonstrate in a particular grade and subject area. Implicit in that premise is the assumption that schools have defined a set of competencies and structured their curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices in a way that promotes student achievement of those competencies. 

Before concluding this series on competency-based grading, let’s step back for a minute and discuss the principles of competency-based education and what it means for a district or school to adopt a competency-based model.

What is Competency-Based Education?

At a 2011 summit on competency-based education, educators from across the country drafted a five-part working definition:

  1. Students advance upon demonstrated mastery;
  2. Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students;
  3. Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students;
  4. Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs; and 
  5. Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

In the following sections, I briefly describe some implications for curriculum, instruction, assessment, and grading practices of implementing an education program based on the above definition. I hope these brief examples make clear the level of commitment and planning that is necessary to implement a competency-based model of education. 

Curriculum

State content standards and competencies are not curricula. Standards are often written at a fine-grain size and competencies at a large-grain size, which creates the classic Goldilocks problem: standards are often too small and competencies too large to guide day-to-day teaching and learning within classrooms. Both standards and competencies need to be “unpacked” and put in relation to the various ways students can progress in their knowledge and skills in a given subject area. Ideally, this process will be informed by a research-based theory of how students learn.

One way to do so is through the use of learning progressions. Learning progressions articulate different pathways along which students are expected to progress from less sophisticated to more sophisticated learning in a given domain. Learning progressions also relate to formative assessment because teachers need to gather moment-by-moment information about students and locate that information along a progression in order to make better instructional decisions that monitor and target student learning needs and bolster academic progress.

Instruction

Instructional practices that support competency-based models of education are student-centered.  They remove the “sage on the stage”—the typical lecture format with which many of us grew up. There has been a lot of research on how people learn best and the ways in which getting students actively engaged and involved in their own education actually supports and improves learning.

It is crucial that teachers model expert ways of thinking, help students set goals and reflect on their progress, and provide ongoing formative feedback to students on their progress toward proficiency. These types of student-centered instructional practices support student mastery and real-world application of content.

Assessment

The importance of formative assessment and feedback during instruction cannot be underestimated. It is critical, however, to also discuss the summative assessments on which student grades will be based. Performance-based assessments are well-suited to measure student mastery of key competencies and the transfer of that knowledge and skill into real-world contexts. Performance assessments require students to produce something (e.g., a report, product, experiment, performance, etc.) and allow them to apply their knowledge, skills, and abilities to authentic problems. 

School systems that attempt to leverage changes to grading practices but do so without changing the quality and rigor of the assessments upon which those grades are based will find themselves on a fool’s errand.

Competency-Based Grading as Part of a Competency-Based Model of Education

Having adopted a competency-based perspective on curriculum, instruction, and assessment, a school must also adopt grading practices aligned with that perspective. I want to highlight two ways in which competency-based grading may be superior to traditional and standards-based grading, depending upon how it is implemented.

  1. Competency-based grading seems to get the grain size correct; meaning, if the purpose of grading is to provide students and parents with information about student progress toward important learning targets, then competency-based grading provides the most authentic learning targets. Well-developed competencies bundle common standards together into applicable units and require students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in ways more similar to real life than discrete lists of standards or a holistic grade for an entire subject or course.
  2. Competency-based grading removes the non-academic components from student grades, which ultimately can make competency-based grades a more accurate picture of student progress toward proficiency. Traditional grading practices bake in factors such as participation, turning in homework on time, and non-specific “extra credit work” into academic grades. Those practices can mask true gaps in understanding that need to be addressed for students to progress in their learning. Standards-based grading practices may remove these factors, but also often fail to connect the standards with essential non-cognitive skills such as communication, collaboration, and self-management. Competency-based grading done right can promote this type of transparent communication about valued learning outcomes and student success skills.

Conclusion

Grading is not a magic elixir. Excellent grading practices cannot fix bad curricular, instructional or assessment practices. Instead, excellent grading practices (whether competency-based or not) must be part of a larger coherent teaching and learning environment within schools. Simply throwing new numbers and new algorithms to calculate grades based on old practices does nothing to improve student achievement and make learning more equitable, which is what improvements to grading practices should fundamentally be about.  

In short, changes to grading practices must reflect and be the result of deeper improvements in curriculum, instruction, and assessment to have any effect on improving equity and student achievement outcomes in schools. 

School systems interested in adopting competency-based grading policies and practices would do well to focus first on describing their ideal vision of teaching and learning. Their next step is to fully understand the implications of that vision for curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Only at that point does it make sense to think about the competency-based grading practices that will be needed to support the changes to curriculum, instruction, and assessment. 

In so doing, school and district leaders would develop a coherent theory of action that explains how changes to these practices are intended to support and effectuate growth in student learning and close achievement gaps.

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