Competency-Based Education Is Not About Grading

I recently read an opinion piece in The Burlington Free Press that was fraught with misconceptions and inaccuracies about proficiency-based (competency-based) education. I think I’ll take them one at a time over several blog posts.

In the first sentence of the opinion piece, Curtis Hier states “The Vermont Agency of Education is pushing a practice called proficiency-based grading (PBG)”; inaccuracy number one. Proficiency-based education is not about changing a grading system. At the root of a proficiency-based system is transparency about learning expectations so that students can take ownership of their learning. The idea is that schools determine the skills that students will need to be successful in a global economy. These skills allow for the flexibility that is needed given the rapidly changing social and economic dynamics of our society that is drastically different than it was thirty years ago, even ten years ago. Many of these skills have been generated from the common core standards which include literacy and math. Most schools are identifying other content areas as well just as there always has been. Ours include artistic expression, global citizenship, science, physical education and health. There are also transferable skills which are skills that are necessary no matter what environment is considered like being able to communicate effectively or being self-directed. So, for the most part the content is similar but more based on skills needed in that content area which allows for flexibility in what information and knowledge is learned. Teachers are explicitly teaching the skills and providing feedback to students on their progress toward being proficient at those skills using the one through four scale that Hier references.

What Hier neglects to mention is that this one through four scale also has criteria attached to each number which relates to each level of a specific skill. This is very different than a traditional system where assignments are completed and averaged together, combined with other things unrelated to academic skill like participation or attendance to come up with a letter grade. Each teacher uses a different system for grading so a letter can mean a lot of different things. It could mean a learner missed a lot of school or they don’t have a place to do homework in the evening. It could mean that they are diligent about copying homework in the hallway before class. Many schools have decided to move towards a standards based reporting system which ties scores to specific skills. Attaching numbers to the skill levels and reporting the skills independently is different from reporting a grade for a course. A reporting system like this offers more information to both parents, students, colleges and other stakeholders about academic achievement on specific skills.

The rate of technological change and the general pace at which things are changing in our social and economic world is staggering. Teachers have always had a tough job and now we can’t even predict what kids will need to know ten years from now. We need to be cranking out avid learners because the reality is that what we teach kids today may be obsolete in just a few years. If we are going to expect students to be avid learners then we need to model those behaviors. We need to be collaborative with our students. We need to be creative about how we implement these changes so that it is manageable. We need to expect things to change. I am not surprised that teachers who have been in this profession for a while are frustrated by the change. Most of us were educated for a different world. I know I wasn’t prepared. My high school had one computer in the library (I have no idea what it did) and I learned to do research using a card catalog. It’s been a tough learning curve but I have enjoyed drawing on my curiosity and creativity again.

I want to express my concern that generally in education we move from one initiative to another very quickly not giving enough time to each one to do anything well. As a result, many educators are skeptical that anything will last long enough to make a difference. They are complacent, sitting back to wait and see what will happen next rather than digging into anything that might actually make a difference. Sometime back in the eighties, we explored competency based education. It wasn’t perfect but I remember some of the skills I learned through that system very well. What might have happened if we had tweaked that system rather than moving on to the next shiny thing?

Other Links

What about college?

Competency Works



Comments 20

  1. Gabrielle was nice enough to change the comment procedure to allow me to comment without a WordPress account. So I will try to avoid any hint of snarkiness.

    First, I have to take note of a contradiction between this PBL mandate we’re discussing and the tag line of her blog, which is about bottom up transformation. Maine, incidentally, is dropping its mandate because of all the confusion.

    PBL is indeed not just about a grading system. If only it were. I see it as an assault on the content of my area of teaching, which is history. The C3 history standards are atrocious. They’re about historiography, not history. I want my kids to enjoy the richness of history. And, yes, I want them to know some facts. I don’t apologize for that. C3 may not technically be a curriculum, but it crowds out mine. In my district, I don’t get to create my learning targets. I have to follow C3 rigidly. And PBG is what will enforce that.

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      While you may not like the C3, there is nothing inherent about PBL or competency based learning that is related to the C3. It sounds like your district chose to implement things in a way that wasn’t bottom up but that is not a state mandate and does not mean competency based education is not good for learning. In our district teachers defined the graduation requirements from the bottom.

  2. As a history teacher, I disagree that proficiency based graduation requirements are an assault on content. I actually feel like it gives me more flexibility to teach what I feel is important and relevant. Additionally, the graduation requirements that we designed for history (using C3 as a model) can be taught with any historical content. What’s more, I find that students are engaging in content in a deeper way because they have voice and choice in what they are learning. It sounds like the issues you are experiencing are related to the way PBG and C3’s have been implemented at your school and in your district.

  3. Pingback: Motivation Without Grades - Fearless Teachers

  4. As a student attending a school that recently started practicing PBG, I’ve actually enjoyed school a lot more. My learning is now geared toward the things that I want to pursue, and not what a bunch of policy makers think I should. Last year, when I was a freshman, I was able to do my final history project on the fundamentals and past of existential philosophy. Had my teacher still been tied to old curriculums, that is something I may not have been able to do. I was also able to reflect on the work I did for the project and recommend myself a grade based on the proficiencies I was trying to meet. So not only is PBG providing the set of skills that are built into the respective profiency, it is providing honest reflective skills that students don’t particularly exercise in school otherwise.
    And as far as history, we are still getting appropriate content integrated into the classroom. One of my recent assignments was to pick a world leader from history and build them a resume. I picked Elizabeth I. During this project, I learned about King Henry VIII and his six sorry wives, Mary Queen of Scots, the Spanish Armada and much more. The content isn’t being attacked at all. It’s simply allowing students to pick the topics they want to have facts in their head about, and I’m not sorry for that.
    Any new changes can be difficult to grasp, especially if the change is replacing a system that’s been used for centuries. I think anything is confusing at first, but once it has been practiced enough, you’ll get used to it. If Maine could not cope with changes, I would remind you that there’s plenty more people who have, and done so effectively. Perhaps once they see the benefits of this grading system working well, they’ll reconsider.
    My high school is doing great things and I feel that the best has been brought out in me. So there’s some insight from a student being directly impacted by these changes.

  5. John Stuart Mill once said, “The uncultivated cannot be judge of their own cultivation.” Existential philosophy is not in our freshman curriculum. It’s fine to learn about Elizabeth. But there are many dozens of other people to learn about in a survey course in order to be culturally literate. Nevertheless, the resume project is ok. No reason, though, why it has to be done in a PBG school. My high ranking juniors dred what’s coming next year. Others don’t care, generally speaking.

    1. John Stuart Mill also once said, “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good, in our own way.” During my pursuit of philosophical knowledge, I was able to learn that Mill believed in personal freedom and autonomy. Two things that PBL offers as a system. The fact that existential philosophy is not apart of the curriculum is precisely why I will defend the PBL system of assessment. I studied the history of a topic that I cared about and how it relates to the present day.
      The resume project included a look at any leader from history – no particular time period, from no particular country. It was free game. I’m willing to bet that with the old curriculum, such a project would have been confined in some way to meet a specific standard.
      And addressing the quote you chose – I notice that adults have a silly way of underestimating their students. Cultivation does not come from an obsolete curriculum. Look at the current state of young adults. A majority of them are financially unstable and working at IKEA. The world is changing. We do not need students who can recite facts about the Westward Expansion. We need minds that can think inventively and critically, and build their future for themselves based on what it is they want to pursue. And that starts with a population of students that started building the foundation of their life in high school. If high school students are uncultivated, then perhaps something is wrong.
      While we’re quoting brilliant minds – David Bowie once said, “…and these children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds are immune to your consultations, they’re quite aware of what they’re going through.”

  6. I have had so many arguments with people who are afraid of the ramifications of this change and honestly what I’ve had to say to them was simple. The things I’ve learned based on my own personal interests and pursuit have FAR greater value then anything I could have learned sitting in a classroom forced to pretend I have the slightest interest in or maybe even being retaught things I have learned on my own time. In this new system I get to design my learning with the help of my peers and educators. In this settup the things I can do are only limited by my imagination. To imagine an entire world of learners who have learned to cultivate powerful imaginations in a place where all kinds of skills are valued and unique approaches are rewarded sounds amazing and so full of promise and possibilities. I know so many kids burdened with feelings of stupidity and who generally feel forgotten by a system that doesn’t take into account there interests or motivations. I feel saddened that, for many, by the time they reach high school they are no longer interested in learning because they feel they are either not capable or because they have been told that they are problem students. No one should have to suffer because an education system is setting them up for failure. I believe that a system based on this style of learning will allow for smarter, brighter future.

    1. The fact that you’ve had many arguments means that a number of people are concerned. It’s easy to brush them aside and say they’re afraid. The kind of education you describe is available without PBG.

      The whole fearless teacher thing is bogus. It’s not fearless to go along with the education establishment all the time. And it’s not particularly noble to be an education profiteer.

      1. You said it yourself – people are concerned. In every sense of the word, it is /fearless/ to embrace a system that people have concerns about. If we decided to do away with anything every time there’s a concern about it, society would not be as far as it is. The people who worked on those things people were concerned about are the ones who progressed society. It just so happens that we live in an age where one size no longer fits all. We need to progress.

        1. One size fits all? Really? You’re going to use that tired cliche? I Googled education and one size fits all. There were over 20 million results. It’s been used to reject testing, to advance charter schools, and recently to support differentiated instruction. DI has been rejected by research btw.

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            I would appreciate that the dialogue on my blog remain respectful. Remember, also, that you are responding to a student, not a longtime educator. Let’s try and model respectful debate for this learner who has done an amazing job articulating her very real experience.

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      Thanks for sharing your experience in this system. I’m glad it has been meaningful for you. I was one who struggled in the traditional system from day one in public school. I got into education to make it a more equitable and more meaningful experience for EVERY learner not just those for whom things came quickly. It has been a long journey and it is reassuring to know that people are having positive experiences. As I work to get to know the learners I work with, I continuously find that they have so many amazing interests, talents, curiosities and skills that I never uncovered when I was just helping them “get work done”. I do certainly wish I was making a profit off this change as Mr. Hier asserts but I am just enjoying more job satisfaction than ever. I’ll take it. This quote illustrates why I got into teaching “I feel saddened that, for many, by the time they reach high school they are no longer interested in learning because they feel they are either not capable or because they have been told that they are problem students”. Thanks for putting your thoughts out there

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