Written by Kelly McCurdy, Atlas Team
Competency based learning and assessment have been a low humming buzz in progressive education circles since the 1980’s, with hints and foreshadowing as early as the 60’s and 70’s (Nodine, 2016). Competency based grading lives under many names: standards-based grading, proficiency-based, evidence-based grading, mastery-based, and likely many more as the practice is refined and customized across academic programs. This style of instruction, assessment, and reporting is most prevalently demonstrated in the increasing number of Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs growing in schools of all types.
The nature of the typical CTE course lends itself organically to the philosophy of a competency based instruction and assessment model. These courses are traditionally grounded in a set of standards or competencies to be mastered (often sequentially) by the end of a course or unit of study. In these courses, the standards or competencies are used as an instructional tool, a target to guide instruction for educators and for students to orient themselves toward.
Students in the CTE classroom are able to use their grades as a learning tool, to gain a comprehensive understanding of their actual progress and work toward proficiency without penalty. The idea of correctly answering a certain percentage of questions correctly or accumulating a certain number of points in order to achieve a high grade doesn’t have a place here. In fact, CTE classrooms are moving away from even the term “grading,” and instead shifting their focus on assessment and feedback as a continued conversation and cycle for student growth. What this translates to on paper varies widely. Some programs employ a method of modal tabulation, while others won’t even use this practice, as it can slide into simply a different grading game (Bellingar, 2021). Some programs report their student progress as a number or a series of numbers aligned to specific competencies. Some maintain use of a letter grade with competency based methodology of determining the letter grade, and still others report their grading out with a written description. The possibilities are endless.
Lessons for Core, Arts, and Beyond
The simplicity of establishing desired outcomes and reporting grades as student achievement of those goals begs the question: Why do we use the system that currently exists? The short answer is that it is how we all learned when we attended school. It is how the parents of our students know to read a report card. It is how prospective college students demonstrate their academic prowess and how even institutes of higher education celebrate their most high achieving students (this author is a proud graduate cum laude). However, we have known for educational generations that this is not an effective method of determining students’ mastery of content and skills. Veteran and novice teachers alike know that there are students who are “good at school” as well as those who understand the lessons being taught, but do not perform as such when formally assessed. Students graduate (or do not) with marks that fail to represent their actual academic performance and potential every year, with both deflated and inflated reporting. This has plagued teachers and administrators across all types of schools and continues to play a role as a systemic component of education that disadvantages our students of color and other underserved communities.
The gentle increase in online learning before the COVID-19 pandemic had already begun to pique the prevalence of academic programs outside of the CTE classroom using a competency based grading system (Spencer, 2017). But the overnight switch to remote learning hurled this into the mainstream education conversation. As we faced virtual rooms of students and gradebooks with record-breaking fail rates, teachers everywhere began (or continued) to ask themselves: Am I making students do this work to grade them or to make sure that they learn? Out of necessity, many teachers and schools unofficially shifted to a competency based model, and the trend is formalizing as we reflect on the time in the virtual classroom and how to support students and teachers moving forward.
Shifting our perspectives to a competency based model requires a re-education of ourselves, our students, and our school communities. We have to reevaluate our curriculum and distinguish between the tasks that students must complete in order to learn and practice skills and the competencies that they demonstrate when they have achieved these goals (Bellingar, 2021). It is tempting to consider this as a unique feature of CTE programs and to conclude that it simply isn’t compatible with our designated content area standards, but this represents a failure of imagination and is simply untrue. In every content area, we can structure our instruction and assessment to allow students to look at their grades, in whatever form they take, and be able to answer the question: Where am I today and what do I need to get to the next level?
The Anti-Grading Movement
The trend of competency based grading in content areas outside of the CTE classroom is an overall positive and progressive move in education. Some schools and teachers are advocating for an even more radical idea: anti-grading. While variations of a competency based reporting model are essentially examples of the anti-grading movement, even grading schemes that include a letter grade can in-practice look decidedly anti-grading. Consider this excerpt from the syllabus of Atlas community member Portland Public Schools choir teacher, John Eisemann, in Portland, Oregon.
All students will receive an “A” in whichever choir course they are enrolled in. The rationale behind this policy is to encourage intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation for learning. Grades in artistic and collaborative classes are often subjective in nature even despite substantial efforts to use objective based or proficiency based systems. By eliminating the pressure of “getting an A”, students will be able to engage in meaningful learning activities, reflections, and honest refinement of their own skills without fear of repercussions on their transcript. Student progress will still be monitored and evaluated through assignments and in class activities. Verbal and written feedback will also be provided to encourage students to learn, grow, and develop more advanced skills. This grading policy is inspired by the Generals LEAD philosophy as well as by, and reinforces, The National Core Arts Standards of Creating, Performing/Presenting/Producing, Responding, and Connecting.
Students will be evaluated on musicianship (ability to read music, having music folders/pencils ready at every rehearsal, vocal technique, knowledge of music signs and symbols, and musical style). Students will be evaluated on attentive[ness] and readiness in class which includes class participation. The primary evaluation metric will be the Choral Literacies and Standards rubric. Students will use frequent self-evaluation and feedback from the instructor throughout the year to measure their progress and find success. Students are also evaluated on the Career Learning Standards.
Eisemann has designed his curriculum with the desired results of the course in mind, supplemented by the school’s philosophy and the standards of his content area, a strategy of the evidence-based method of backward design. He has applied this practice not only to the desired results and assessments he delivers to determine students’ mastery of content and skills, but also to his reporting of their proficiency levels. While Eisemann’s school district relies on the traditional communication method of a letter grade to communicate student achievement, he has successfully customized his grading scheme to reflect a competency based model. With his blend of the traditional letter grading and the competency based method he employs to calculate it, Eisemann has one primary goal:
The scoring metrics are designed to help you (the student) know where you’re at and what you need to do to improve. They are not used to penalize you, so long as you try.
Bellingar, T. (Host). (2021, August). Evidence Based Reporting with Bernard Brown [Audio podcast episode]. In Career and Technical Education – Competency Based Instruction. Production Company.
Nodine, T. R. (2016). How did we get here? A brief history of competency-based Higher Education in the United States.
The Journal of Competency-Based Education, 1(1), 5–11. https://doi.org/10.1002/cbe2.1004
Spencer, K. (2017, August 11). A New Kind of Classroom: No Grades, No Failing, No Hurry. The New York Times. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/11/nyregion/mastery-based-learning-no-grades.html
Kelly McCurdy is a Professional Development Content Specialist with Faria Education Group, based in Portland, Oregon. She consults with educators domestically and internationally facilitating conversations about curriculum development and pedagogy. Kelly’s first experience in education was teaching secondary Humanities, and has since supported public schools as lead teacher, committee chair, and program director. Kelly earned her Bachelor of Arts in English and her Masters in Teaching from Washington State University.Connect with Kelly on Linkedin!