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Grades & Courses or Competencies?

Context: There has been a great deal of discussion in and around Iowa about “Competency-Based Education”  and “Standards-Based Grading” as an alternative to traditional grading practices and course requirements. This space is designed to provide background information and to spawn a conversation about the possibilities for Iowa schools and children by transforming our evaluation systems to ensure all students become competent and accomplished adults. Please share stories and your views!

In a nutshell, what’s the argument for moving away from current grading systems? Teachers design grades in a variety of ways: points for assignments completed, assignments turned in on time, tests and quizzes, attendance, behavior, etc.  However, there is much left to interpretation and the point and grading system may or may not accurately reflect what was learned and to what depth.  Key arguments against traditional grading practices include but are not limited to:

  • Grades are not consistently determined or calculated. An “A” in one teacher’s class may be a “B” in another.
  • A grade does not demonstrate or validate what a student knows and doesn’t. As a quick example, if a child takes a weekly spelling test of 25 words each week for 30 weeks and scores 87% (roughly a B+ in grading terms) then that means the student didn’t demonstrate accurate spelling of 97 of the 750 words. But which words? Was there a pattern to the errors made? Do we know if the student has since learned how to spell them? A “B” means we send them on to the next grade with some gaps in their learning and the teacher nor the student know exactly what the gap is.
  • Grading puts teachers in the position of “referee” – someone responsible for determining the score and deciding a child’s worth in that class/coursework by a single letter. This can make the relationship between student and teacher strained and more difficult. Is the teacher trying to determine my grade right now or helping me figure it out?
  • Grading often replaces the intrinsic motivation to learn with the extrinsic motivation to accumulate points and to game the system to get the best score possible. This fosters cheating, corner-cutting, and a focus on getting things right the first time as opposed to learning, inquiry, and assimilating the information.
  • Grading sends the message that there is an end point to learning. Once you’ve acquired the points or grade you’re “done.” Over time, this creates a false assumption about learning – that you learn it, memorize it, then forget it and move on.
  • Professional evaluations in the workplace rarely are set up to assign points and grades to determine quality and we don’t score and grade our children on their chores or quality of their play or activities. If we have rejected it in nearly every other aspect of society, why are we subjecting students to the practice?
Key arguments for retaining traditional grading practices include but are not limited to:
  • Colleges and universities still use grades and won’t accept our kids if we don’t give them grades.
  • Parents understand what grades mean and demand to know where their kids are relative to the other kids in the school.
  • The world is tough – there are deadlines and consequences, winners and losers. Grading practices help them deal with these realities.
  • It holds kids accountable for learning and keeping up the pace.
  • If we don’t provide grades and points then students won’t be motivated enough to learn what we need them to learn.
  • Not giving grades is just a ploy to make kids feel better and make them all winners.
Here’s arguments that refute the above:
  • Colleges and universities still use grades and won’t accept our kids if we don’t give them grades.
    • This has been a false assumption for 38 years now. College Community schools asked about 60 colleges if they would accept their students without grades, GPA’s or class rank. . . in 1974. The response from nearly every college? Not a problem so long as we know what method is used to validate that kids know the content/concepts. Colleges today are acutely aware of grade inflation and, as a result, GPA is now a minor consideration. ACT scores, community and school involvement, and the types of classes taken is more weighty.
  • Parents understand what grades mean and demand to know where their kids are relative to the other kids in the school.
    • Parents certainly operate under the assumption that grades actually reflect learning but only because we haven’t given them much beyond a grade. Once parents see the actual concepts, content, and ideas kids are supposed to wrestle with and know, they begin to also demand more than a grade. Our sports culture hasn’t helped in this regard – making us assume that everything is a game with winners and losers. 
  • The world is tough – there are deadlines and consequences, winners and losers. Grading practices help them deal with these realities.
    • Yes, there are deadlines in real life. Do we honestly believe that kids don’t know this and so we have to train them day-after-day to recognize this fact? Not everything we do has arbitrary deadlines. In all of my adult jobs I’ve had deadlines for the major things in my work, but certainly not everyday and certainly not on things that weren’t mission critical.
  • It holds kids accountable for learning and keeping up the pace.
    • Correction. It holds kids accountable for completing work assigned by other people on largely arbitrary timelines. Kids learn constantly outside of school (and adults too) without needing to get points and grades. I love to fish. I’m accountable for learning how to be a better fisherman and I get better based upon my own efforts to experiment, read, and connect with others. I don’t learn as fast as professional fisherman or even guys who are able to fish more than me. I certainly don’t give myself points and grades each time I go out to “keep me motivated.”
  • If we don’t provide grades and points then students won’t be motivated enough to learn what we need them to learn.
    • If the only way a kid will learn is by coercing them with external rewards, are they really motivated in any real sense anyway? People learn stuff that they are interested in or based upon a question that makes them think. Our job as parents and educators is to find the real hook – to help kids find a way to connect to the learning and want to find out more. If this statement were true, we would see businesses and employers assigning points and grades to our work to “motivate” us to learn and develop.
  • Not giving grades is just a ploy to make kids feel better and make them all winners.
    • Grades only make a few kids “feel better” about themselves – for most it make them feel less-than and “stupid.” Kids feel better about themselves and see themselves as “winners” when they realize they’ve learned something new -have grasped a new concept and see things differently/more completely. All people can be “winners” in the game of learning – just not at the same time, in the same place, and in the same way. Schools are no longer about determining the “winners and losers” but to work to ensure that EVERY child can see a path in which they can be “winners.”

Where to start to engage and learn more: 

  • Mr. Matt Townsley, Director of Instruction at Solon Community School District, has provided a great primer around this topic at his blog, MeTA musings. You can read his fine explanation of both Standards-Based Grading and Competency-Based Grading with comparison and contrast here.
  • Shawn Cornally, a science teacher and colleague of Matt’s, shares his journey to become a standards-based teacher at his blog ThinkThankThunk. See it  here.
  • ActiveGrade, an Iowa-based startup by two teachers committed to SBG and CBE, provides software to assist teachers in this transition.
  • The Iowa school district arguably the farthest down the road towards a competency-based system is Van Meter just west of Des Moines.

Other important and useful resources and information: 

Here are the 28 school districts approved for Competency-Based waivers for the 2012-2013 school year:

  • North Polk, Estherville Lincoln Central, Spirit Lake, Muscatine, Collins-Maxwell, Waukee, Dowling Catholic, GMG, Stratford, Marshalltown, Grundy Center, Mason City, Malcolm Price Laboratory School/Northern University High School, Newell-Fonda, Jefferson-Scranton, Fort Dodge, Hudson, Waverly-Shell Rock, BCLUW, Graettinger-Terril, Southeast Webster Grand, Armstrong-Ringsted, Dallas Center-Grimes, Van Meter, Clear Lake, Clarion-Goldfield, Dows, Woodward-Granger

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