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

Jul 02, 2019

Part 1: Getting Clear about Definitions–Similarities and Differences Among Traditional-, Standards-Based, and Competency-Based Grading Practices

This is the first in a three-part series on competency-based grading. I was motivated to write this series because of recent conversations about competency-based grading within my children’s school district. I’ve noticed confusion about terms, misinformation, propaganda, and a general lack of high-quality resources on the subject. My goal for this series is to help guide honest and transparent conversations about key issues and best practices by: 

  • providing a clear explanation of and any potential issues with competency-based grading,
  • demonstrating why grading is not a magic elixir, and 
  • detailing the conditions and considerations around competency-based grading best practices.

In this post, I provide a detailed description of traditional, standards-based, and competency-based grading, which are the three most common grading methods. I discuss similarities and differences among the methods and highlight concerns surrounding traditional and standards-based methods that animate much of the conversation around competency-based grading. 

Similarities Across K-12 Grading Methods

I thought it would be helpful to begin with a list of similarities across K-12 grading methods that stem from the purpose and use of grades. I do not claim this list to be exhaustive, but it does represent key attributes across grading methods well.

  • Every student gets a grade at the end of a grading period (e.g., quarter or trimester) and at the end of the year.
  • Grades are determined by teachers and are based in large measure on student performance on teacher-made or teacher-selected assessments.
  • Grades are used for reporting to parents and students about student progress towards grade- or course-level proficiency on state content standards.
  • Grades can undermine students’ interest in learning and negatively affect student motivation and engagement if used improperly. 

Traditional Grading–A Brief Description

Traditional grading is what most of us experienced in middle and high school. We received A through F letter grades based on a 0-100 point scale for each course (e.g., Algebra I, Spanish, etc.). Letter grades are typically compensatory in that higher performance on one test can compensate for lower performance on another test. Course grades are calculated using some type of average from homework, quiz, and test scores. This average may be weighted so that homework and other formative assessments contribute less and summative tests contribute more to the overall grade. Some teachers will offer ‘extra credit’ or allow students to retake assessments to boost students’ grades. Student work study habits, such as turning in homework on time, participation in classroom discussions, and effort, are often included in grades.

Concerns About Traditional Grading

Thomas Guskey (Guskey, T. R., 2015) and others have written many critiques that raise concerns about traditional grading. 

  1. A 100-point scale gives the illusion of precision and objectivity. For example, are there actual differences in achievement among students who earn a score of 92 or 93; 72, 73, or 74? Moreover, often the lowest possible grade on a test is 50, but scores of 0 are given for missing homework or quizzes, which can significantly deflate an overall grade—and yet not reflect a true underlying lack of mastery.
  2. Another criticism of traditional grading is that a single, overall letter grade does not provide sufficient information to students and parents on which aspects of that course the student may need additional support to reach proficiency. It also may hide significant gaps in learning because students who pass a course with a grade of ‘C’ or ‘D’ are likely to have significant gaps in learning that remain unaddressed and compound over time. Practically speaking, letter grading also makes it difficult for high schools to allow students who have failed a course to retake and demonstrate proficiency in certain aspects of the course rather than retake the entire course. 
  3. A final criticism of traditional grading is that the single letter grade a student receives is often affected by late work, missing homework, and other habits of work or dispositions (such as participation) that differ from mastery of academic core content. In this way, traditional grading conflates student achievement and student work-study habits, which then also makes it difficult for students and parents to have a clear understanding of student progress towards proficiency.

Standards-Based Grading–A Brief Description

Standards-based grading has become popular–particularly at the elementary level–as a result of the standards-based movement in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Because of this movement, schools wanted to report on student progress toward meeting state-adopted content standards in the early years of a student’s education–prior to annual state achievement testing. Standards-based grading is more of a natural fit at the elementary level because A through F letter grades were not typically used, and the level of detail provided to parents about students’ early literacy and numeracy skills is an important home-school connecting point. 

Standards-based grading is the most fine-grained of the grading practices. Some standards-based report cards include lists upon lists of state content standards and require teachers to report student progress on upwards of 10 or 20 standards per content area. Other standards-based report cards group similar content standards into domains (or power standards) such that there are only 5-7 per content area. The level of detail provided is intended to help parents know where their child may need additional support or enrichment. Similar to traditional grades, standards-based grades may be based on a mixture of formative and summative assessments, homework completion, participation, and effort.

Standards-based grading typically reports on student progress toward proficiency either using a numeric or alphabetic four-point rating scale (e.g., E or 4=exceeds expectations; M or 3=meets expectations; S or 2=sometimes meets expectations; etc.). Standards-based grading can seem subjective in that it is unclear how a teacher arrives at any particular rating and there can be inconsistency among classrooms within a school and across schools within a district as there is no common definition or shared understanding of proficiency. 

Concerns About Standards-Based Grading

As a parent whose children receive standards-based report cards, I have found that the level of detail provided makes it difficult (if not impossible) for me to make sense of my child’s academic strengths and weaknesses. The fine-grained information is organized as a discrete list of knowledge and skills, which seems to reflect a behaviorist view of learning rather than providing information on how my child can put that knowledge and skills together to solve a problem or demonstrate competence in a domain. Additionally, student work-study habits are often mixed in with academic achievement, making it difficult for a parent to disentangle their student’s progress toward proficiency from their ability to organize their materials effectively or listen to instructions. 

Competency-Based Grading–A Brief Description

As some schools and districts across the United States have shifted to competency-based models of education, there has been a desire to align grading with the teaching and learning model. Schools want to report student progress on the defined competencies a student must demonstrate in a particular grade and subject area. 

Competencies are generally more coarse-grained than standards and indicate not only what a student must do, but how well they must do it. In some states, students’ graduation from high school is dependent upon demonstration of mastery or proficiency of each competency rather than on the number of credits received for passing courses.

Because many elementary schools already use standards-based report cards, the shift to competency-based grading is more natural and less fraught with parent pushback and community upheaval. This reaction is not the case with shifts to competency-based grading in middle schools or, especially, high schools. 

Competency-based grading means that schools or districts have adopted or created competencies that students must demonstrate in each grade level and subject area. These competencies are typically clusters of grade-level state content standards written so students must demonstrate their ability to apply those standards in some way. Like standards-based grades, competency-based grades are typically reported on a four-point rating scale (e.g., 4=advanced proficiency; 3=proficient; 2=not yet proficient; 1=well below proficient). 

Competency-based grades are not compensatory in that teachers do not average across tests to give students a competency grade; instead, teachers oftentimes give “trending” grades, whereby students are given the grade that represents their most recent level of competence. This practice is related to the reassessment allowed in competency-based education systems where students can retake an assessment to demonstrate their learning. 

Homework and other formative assessments are not included in competency grades and neither is student effort or participation. Most competency-based report cards include a separate section to communicate student progress on non-cognitive skills and dispositions (also known as 21st-century skills, work study practices, student success skills, etc.). 

In my next post, part 2, I’ll 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 issues that require close attention—comparability, sufficiency, and generalizability. I also highlight documented unintended negative consequences on student work habits and motivation resulting from competency-based grading. 

Part 3 argues that the shift to competency-based grading must reflect deeper improvements in curriculum, instruction, and assessment to have any effect on improving equity and student achievement. 


Guskey, T. R. (2015). On your mark: Challenging the conventions of grading and reporting. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.