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

Jul 02, 2019

Part 2: Getting Beyond the Hype–Potential Problems with Competency-Based Grading

This post is Part 2 of a three-part series on competency-based grading. Part 1 described the key similarities and differences between traditional, standards-based, and competency-based grading practices. 

In this post, I take a deep dive into potential issues with competency-based grading to get beyond the hype and ensure students are not “harmed” by poorly-designed and -implemented competency-based grading practices. I highlight three potential issues with competency-based grading (and assessment) that require close attention—comparability, sufficiency, and generalizability. 

I also highlight documented unintended negative consequences of competency-based grading on student work habits and motivation.

Potential Problems with Competency-Based Grading

Let’s begin with a problem I believe to be most easily addressed. 

Much of the conversation to date has focused on what I call the “high school transcript problem” and ignores problems that have the potential to undermine the very outcomes competency-based systems aspire to achieve—namely, promoting equity and excellence. 

The High School Transcript Problem

As school districts begin taking steps toward competency-based grading, they often encounter significant resistance from parents and other key stakeholders. High schools, in particular, often experience push back when trying to move to competency-based grading practices as parents express concern about how non-traditional grading practices will affect their student’s college and scholarship applications, class ranking, sports eligibility, etc. 

In a competency-based system, students do not receive A through F letter grades, and therefore the typical ways in which GPA is calculated and understood do not apply. School districts often have to slow down their implementation to better inform parents and other community members about the purpose and intent of competency-based grading and how other high schools have addressed transcript and college/scholarship application issues. 

While the “high school transcript problem” may seem like a formidable challenge, school districts have found that colleges are prepared to deal with competency-based grades and transcripts.  Colleges have long dealt with variations in grading policies and practices among applicants’ high schools. Practically speaking, this acquiescence means that colleges typically do not compare student grades among applicants from different schools, but create within-school norms. Colleges report taking the same approach with competency-based transcripts.

The Comparability Problem

Comparability is a fancy word for conveying that both common and shared definitions of competency (or proficiency) is necessary among teachers. This alignment must take place within a school, across schools within a district, and across districts within a state in order to ensure students deemed competent in one school district would likely be deemed competent in another. 

Comparability is important because competency-based grading in high school is often connected with graduation. Students cannot graduate unless they demonstrate competency. Research in Maine found that school districts had very different definitions of proficiency and associated rigor. It’s critical that there are shared definitions and understandings of proficiency and that the meaning of proficiency is tied to the state content standards.

Comparability is a fundamental fairness issue because student graduation from high school, a significant rite of passage in many communities across the United States, should not depend upon the school from which a student graduates. The level of expected student achievement should be the same across districts. 

It is true that this potential problem is not unique to competency-based grading. A through F letter grades are subjective and not well-aligned from classroom-to-classroom, school-to-school, or district-to-district. The difference is that traditional letter grades are compensatory such that students just need to ‘pass’ all required courses in order to graduate from high school and earn a diploma. Students do not need to demonstrate proficiency on all state content standards. Even states with high school exit exams or end-of-course exams have compensatory systems because achievement tests are compensatory.

The Sufficiency and Generalizability Problem

Generalizability is essentially the measurement analog to learning transfer. In other words, while we care how well students perform on a single assessment, we care much more about how well they understand the learning targets that the assessment represents, and whether the assessment provides credible evidence that the student really knows and can do what is being claimed. 

Generalizability is a concern for all instruction and assessment programs, but it might be more of a concern for competency-based systems that are designed to declare that students have “mastered the competency” so they can move on without having to demonstrate mastery of the same competency again (e.g., on an end-of-year test).

Sufficiency is a judgment about having enough credible evidence to support the claims, uses, and decisions that result from assessments. Sufficiency refers to both the quantity of assessment evidence and quality of assessment evidence. 

In low-stakes contexts where student grades are not connected to retention, graduation, or promotion, it may be the case that the worst thing that can happen if there is a decision made without sufficient evidence is that a student receives additional instruction. This outcome may or may not have negative consequences for students depending upon the duration of time that the student is ‘held back’ from moving on in the curriculum. High-stakes decisions about students, however, are different. It is critical in competency-based education systems that high-stakes decisions about students are made with sufficient evidence. 

As Scott Marion and I wrote in an earlier post, sufficiency considerations may well be the Achilles heel of competency-based education strategies and, by extension, competency-based grading practices.

Unintended Negative Consequences on Student Work-Study Habits and Motivation

Recent research studies in Maine and New Hampshire, two early adopters of competency-based (or proficiency-based) reforms, have noted some unintended negative consequences resulting from competency-based assessment and grading practices on student work-study habits and motivation. Concerns center on two related issues:

  1. Competency-based grades are based solely on summative assessments and do not include whether students turned in homework (at all or on time). Consequently, students often have little incentive to complete homework or turn in their work on time as their grades are not penalized. And, while other formative assessments such as quizzes traditionally would provide feedback to students during the teaching and learning cycle they are typically also included in student grades; but, these assessments are not included in competency-based grades. Because of this exclusion, researchers found that some students had little motivation to study for quizzes—the opposite intention of the reform. 
  2. The second set of issues is based upon how students in competency-based grading can retake assessments regardless of 

(a) how well they performed on the first assessment and 

(b) whether the poor performance was a result of a lack of understanding or lack of preparation. 

Teachers and administrators in five school districts in New Hampshire, for example, voiced concern about fairness; describing how students who took advantage of the reassessment opportunities were often the high-performing students looking to increase their grades rather than those students who failed to demonstrate competency. Other educators voiced concerns that students had no incentive to perform well on the first assessment because they knew they could re-assess. 

Re-assessment also requires that teachers create alternative forms of summative assessments, which then leads to other measurement concerns such as comparability among assessments and the extent to which seeing the first assessment provides students with a delimited study guide. 

Again, these unintended negative consequences are the opposite of the reform’s intention—to make learning outcomes more equitable for students and to support the development of student work-study habits.


Because of its focus on potential concerns, this post may come across as an insurmountable indictment of competency-based grading policies and practices, particularly at the high school level. My hope in writing this post is to moderate some of the current hype that presents competency-based grading practices as a solution to all grading problems. 

Many of the problems I raise related to competency-based grading policies and practices are also true of traditional and standards-based grading practices. While competency-based grading may negatively impact student motivation to study for a test because they know they can retake it without penalty, traditional grading practices may also de-motivate students because of the way grades are averaged and therefore really low performance on one test can doom a student to a low grade regardless of how well they do on future assessments. 

Competency-based grading done well may indeed promote more of the understanding we hope students can demonstrate prior to graduating from high school. I believe that many of the problems with competency-based grading can be addressed by schools and districts that 

(a) recognize problems may exist, 

(b) have a thoughtful and coherent plan for addressing these likely problems and unintended negative consequences, and 

(c) coherently link grading policies and practices with high-quality curriculum, instruction and assessment practices. 

I discuss the last aspect in the final post of this three-part series.


Scheopner Torres, A. (2019). Equity, fairness, and student motivation: Challenges and possible solutions. Paper presented at the Northeastern Educational Research Organization annual meeting in Portsmouth, NH.