Search form

Rethinking the Role of Grades and How We Look at Student Success with Competency-Based Learning

In the era when there’s more pushback against standardized testing than ever before, schools around the country are starting to take a new approach when it comes to measuring academic progress. Gone are the traditional number and letter grades that label a student as succeeding or failing.

Known as competency-based or proficiency-based learning, the approach instead focuses on students demonstrating a knowledge of the material before moving ahead. For these schools, there is no passing or failing, it all just boils down to mastery of the material. Struggling students get the time needed to catch up and those who learn the material quickly move ahead.

Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, and Idaho, have all taken steps to phase the approach into their school systems.

New York City schools have begun to test variations of the method in their 1.1 million student-strong school system, with 40 schools so far volunteering for it. Known as the Mastery Collaborative, students demonstrate their knowledge of the material through a number of different ways such as identifying themes in a story, writing out a scientific hypothesis, or demonstrating how to find the perimeter of a polygon in the real world. The hope is that students won’t simply memorize test answers.

The program seems to be showing success as well. After adopting the program at Brooklyn’s Middle School 442, 29 percent of students showed proficiency in English and 26 percent proficiency in math. A sharp jump from two years earlier when seven percent of its students read at grade level and just five percent met math standards.

In the upper part of New York City at M.S. 343 in the Bronx, they’re still handing out grades, but they’re doing so only after giving students the opportunity to perform at their best. When staff noticed that the material wasn’t sticking with the students in the long-run, they developed a program that provided “learning targets” for students, giving them three chances to prove mastery of the tested skills with only the highest score being recorded. Between tests teachers in each department come together to analyze students’ answers, zeroing in on problem areas to focus on before the next test. The approach presents the material to the brain multiple times, leading it to sink in deeper.

“That actually tells the brain: You’re being tested on this, it’s important,” the school’s principal, Vincent Gassetto, told Chalkbeat. “And that stores it in a part of the brain that’s easily retrievable."

So far the results have proved positive and the school netted a $25,000 prize awarded to them through the Felix and Elizabeth Rohatyn Foundation for fostering great teaching.

For high-school instructional coach and 2016 Kentucky Teacher of the Year, Ashley Lamb-Sinclair, the approach has had a positive impact on the attitudes of her students in taking on assignments.

Lamb-Sinclair decided that for six weeks she wasn’t going to hand out any grades on work. This was simply going to be about having students demonstrate their knowledge without fear of negative red marks on a paper or test. Writing for The Atlantic:

At one point, we spent three days on a single thesis statement alone—students writing their claims, discussing them without fear of negative retribution in the form of a grade, and then redoing them happily. Before, such a lengthy lesson would have been met with endless questions about how many points it was worth, and if the teenage math didn’t add up for them—if the cost outweighed the benefits—I would have been forced to increase the points to improve motivation or move on more quickly than they needed. In this situation, however, everything was low risk for the students, so they approached assignments more positively.

Competency-based learning isn’t without its critics, however. Elliot Soloway, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Education, argues that the approach isn’t what the fundamentals of learning are about and that simply showing they can demonstrate a skill once doesn’t mean they’ve learned it.

Though with just 61 percent of students last year who took the high school ACT test deemed college-ready in English (41 percent in math), more schools are open to new approaches like competency-based learning now more than ever.


Article by Joel Stice, Education World Contributor

Latest Education News
Read about the latest news in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
Read about the latest news in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
Read about the latest news in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
Read about the latest news in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
Teachers around the country are weighing the merits and potential fallout of engaging in politically-charged class...