My New Hampshire high school made the shift to a competency-based grading and reporting system two years ago. Educators who talk to me about that experience often want to know what that change process looked like from a student’s perspective. Surprisingly, most students were comfortable with the shift provided that they believed the school and teachers were effective at explaining how their grade would be calculated. The students who seemed most reluctant to change at the beginning were the ones who were already performing at a high level in the old system. These kids knew how to play what I like to call the grading game. They didn’t always test well, but they knew they could always compensate for that by doing all their homework, raising their hand every day in class, and bringing in canned goods on Thanksgiving week for extra credit points. The problem is that these behaviors made the assumption that if students had good study habits then they must have learned. When we think about it this way it seems outrageous to support a system that doesn’t directly connect to competencies – the ability of a student to apply content knowledge and skills in and/or across the content area(s).
To help educators understand what I went through when my school made this shift, consider the following set of fictitious letters between a student and I. These letters are adapted from actual scenarios that I faced in the first year of implementation.
Dear Mr. Stack,
I am writing to you to express my displeasure that our school changed its grading practices for the upcoming school year. I have always been an “A” student. I do all of my homework, I always raise my hand to participate in class, and I always turn in my assignments on time. I am not; however, a good test-taker. In the past my teachers have always known this and they have compensated by giving me extra credit opportunities, making my homework worth more points, and giving me lots of participation point opportunities.
With this new grading system, it seems all the emphasis is being placed on doing well on tests. Homework is worth practically nothing. It seems due dates don’t matter. I am very concerned that I am no longer going to be an “A” student.
Why would our school change to a system that is going to hurt kids like me? I am very discouraged.
Thank you for taking the time to reach out to me. I value the opinions of students just like you. After reading your letter about our school’s recent change to a competency-based grading system, I think you have some misconceptions about what the system is and how it will better help you as a learner. I would like the opportunity to clarify some things for you.
First of all, our new system is designed to separate “behaviors” from grades. You alluded to the fact that in the past you were an “A” student partially because you did your homework, you raised your hand in class, and you turned things in on time. While these are all great study habits to practice, these behaviors don’t tell your teachers what you know and are able to do. Our new system is based on your ability to demonstrate your knowledge understanding of course competencies through comprehensive summative performance assessments such as research projects, presentations, labs, writings, and tests.
Homework, class participation, and formative quizzes are still very important in our grading system because they inform your teachers on how you are progressing on your learning. They are designed to help you determine when you will be ready for a summative assessment. We recognize that not everyone learns at the same rate. That is why our school uses a “rolling grade” system. We don’t average your grades each quarter to get a final average. Instead, your final grade is a culmination of all of your work throughout a course. We also recognize that everyone needs a second chance. If you don’t do well on a summative assessment, there is always an opportunity to reassess.
Our new system is designed to help you master all of the competencies for each course. My goal for you is still to be an “A” student at the end of this year. Please let me know how things progress for you this year.
Dear Mr. Stack,
You asked me to check in with you after my first year in the new competency-based grading system. This year I felt like I was on quite the learning curve to understand how this new system would work for me. I wasn’t alone. My friends, my parents, and my teachers all seemed to be on similar curves. I had to rethink my priorities when it came to school and my grades.
At the beginning of the year, I noticed that a lot of kids tried to get out of doing their homework. Once we had our first summative assessment and several kids received grades of NYC (not yet competent), that attitude began to change. Kids couldn’t reassess until they went back and did many of those formative assignments that they tried to skip. As we moved into the next unit, my teachers started to pay more attention to kids who weren’t doing formatives. I’ll admit, I tried not doing some of my work. Then my teacher called home, and once my parents were involved that behavior stopped for me. My friend tried to hold out longer. A call home didn’t seem to get her to do her work. Then her teacher did an IWS (insufficient work shown) referral to the administration. Her assistant principal suspended her from the field hockey team and made her attend mandatory after school make-up sessions with our teacher until she was caught up on her work. I guess in the end deadlines are still an important part of the grading system.
Remember when I told you that I was never a good test-taker and I was worried that tests being weighted so heavily would hurt me? Well it turns out that I became a better test-taker this year. I know why. My teachers moved away from tests that were multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank. I used to hate those tests because I wasn’t good at memorizing facts. Now, my teachers give lots of varied tests. I get to write about my learning, I give oral presentations, and I do research projects. In class tests looked different too. They actually tested me on things we practiced every day in class. I learned to take my formative assessments seriously because I knew my performance on them would tell me when I was ready to show what I know on the summative.
I learned a lot this year. I learned a lot about myself and how I learn, but I also learned a lot about the material in my classes. I have never worked harder to get an “A” in a class than I did this year. Thank you for your willingness to listen to my concerns and check in with me throughout the year. I think this new grading system is going to really help me in my future.
If your school is considering the shift to a competency-based system, I would urge you to stop considering it and starting doing it! It is never easy to make a change, but sometimes change is the right thing to do. As long as your school can clearly articulate to students what it is they need to know and be able to do and the ways in which teachers will determine if and when students have learned, then students will be able to adapt to whatever the changes are. They’ll thank you for helping them become better learners.
Brian is the principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH. If you want to learn more about this topic, please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bstackbu.