When I was interviewing for my current position, I was provided with a copy of the school-wide grading policy and asked what I thought about it and what challenges I might foresee in adopting this grading policy in my class. Our school has adopted competency-based grading, similar but not the same as standards-based grading. Here are some highlights of our grading policy:
- Grades are based only on summative assessments. Formative quizzes, drafts, quick-writes, homework, etc. do not affect grades. Work habits do not affect grades. No deductions for late work and no extra credit. Grades are strictly based on what you know not how you get there.
- If you don’t pass the first time, you just don’t know it yet. You can attempt to pass a summative assessment as many times as you need. Until you pass you receive no grade, entered as a No Mark (NM). Passing is considered a 2.5 on a scale of 4.
- You have a total of 3 grading terms to pass all assessments (current term and 2 following terms), basically an additional 6 months after the term has ended. If ALL summatives have not been passed by then, you receive an F.
- Grades are not calculated. We give grades based on trends in performance rather than percentages.
Competency Based Grading in Practice
Here’s how that philosophy has played out at our school. Teachers design summative assessments, which we call competencies, for their course. Competencies take many forms: tests, essays, presentations, projects, etc. Most classes end up having 10-12 throughout the year. Students complete the competencies, usually at the end of a unit. They are graded on a 4 point scale, usually based on a rubric of some sort. All students that get below a 2.5 receive a NM and have to re-do the competency, whether than is revising an essay or retaking a test or whatever.
Challenges and Concerns
When I was sitting in that interview, I voiced my concern over the nature of competencies. I was fresh out of a Universal Design for Learning course and was very concerned that this grading policy, while positive in progressive in many ways, could fall down a slippery slope if not executed right. What if a teacher only assessed using tests? Students like me who were good test takers would excel but another student with test anxiety would perpetually struggle. I flashed back to high school where we had “Standards,” tests in each class we could retake that, if passed, guaranteed at least a C in the course but if failed, guaranteed an F. Or what about lowering standards to make sure everyone passed. The benefits of our grading policy were great, but in my 4 years living in this system, there have definitely been some pitfalls and learning experiences.
What is a competency?
Over the past 4 years using competency based grading, I keep coming back to the same question: What is a competency? If you asked the students, they would probably tell you a competency is a test or essay or project. And therein lies my biggest concern about how we think about competencies. When I think of a competency, I think of it as a clearly defined bundle of knowledge and skills related to the content. However, the line between the competency and the assessment has become blurred. A display of competency shouldn’t be tied to whether a student passes a particular test. Is there another way to show competency? Honestly by talking to a student you can generally tell if they are competent or not. What if I have a conference with a student and they clearly understand the main ideas and skills but struggle to convey that on a paper-and-pencil test? Should they get a 2.5? Or is the bar held at whether a student can do it on a test? If that’s the case what is really being assessed: the knowledge or the ability to take a test? To quote Alfie Kohn,
“Tests mostly test how good you are at tests.”
Some Parting Words for Pursuing Competency Based Grading
For those interested in competency based grading, I’d like to offer some advice.
- It’s best to have the support of the school. One of the key pieces of this system is the extension of time. Sometimes it takes a particular student takes longer for the content to click. They just don’t get it yet. Being able to extent beyond the current grading period is crucial.
- Clearly define your competencies, and make sure the assessments line up with those competencies. Maybe it’s a bundle of learning objectives, or maybe it is one overarching statement (I prefer the latter).
- Consider multiple ways of assessment. Be careful that the competency doesn’t become about the assessment. Keep the focus on the competency.
- Have good retake/revision procedures. Give good feedback but also have ways for students to monitor themselves and each other.
- Have a good rubric. Generic for use across multiple assessments or specific for each competency. I’ll write more on this later.
So there’s an overview of my experiences with competency based grading. I will share more specifics on how any why competencies have evolved in my class in a future post.