Imagine a school where missing class wouldn’t hurt a student’s grade.
Where extra credit wouldn’t be a way to boost a B to an A.
Where students would be graded only on their mastery of concepts and nothing else.
No need to imagine. Some Utah schools are already grading students based solely on academic proficiency, and if some Utah education leaders get their way, such competency-based grading could eventually go statewide.
A state Graduation and Grading Task Force is recommending the state school board urge school districts to move to competency-based grading, and the state school board will likely consider the idea in June. The new grading would likely be optional, left for districts to decide, and schools could possibly include attendance, extra credit, participation or behavior as separate citizenship grades on students’ report cards.
The state as a whole is still probably a long way from making such a broad change. A number of education leaders, however, are enthusiastic.
“We want the academic grade to reflect the person’s academic progress, the competency in that academic area,” said State Deputy Superintendent Brenda Hales, “not whether or not they’re tardy.”
When the Box Elder School District moved its grades K-7 to competency-based grading a handful of years ago, many parents weren’t thrilled.
“We’re so used to percentage-based [grades],” said parent Amber Rust, chair of Brigham City’s Mountain View Elementary school community council. “I think it was probably a harder transition for the parents than it was for the kids.”
It’s not uncommon for elementary schools to eschew letter grades on report cards in favor of numbers or other measures.
But kids in Box Elder elementary schools almost never get letter grades — not on essays, quizzes, homework or tests. Instead, they get a 1, 2, 3 or 4, with a 3 representing grade-level proficiency.
‘A 3 is great’ • Competency-based grading doesn’t have to disallow letter grades, but that’s how Box Elder has chosen to implement it in its elementaries.
District students who get a 1 or 2 generally get additional help from teachers. In some classrooms 4s are rare, given only when students understand a topic beyond grade level. On report cards, kids get numbers for different concepts within subjects as well.
Students are evaluated separately on life skills, such as work completion, participation and behavior.
“What we wanted to do was try and give parents more tools as far as working with students and identifying what students know,” said Mary Kay Kirkland, Box Elder assistant superintendent over instruction.
The district also asks its high schools to grade students on proficiency.
“If they have the proficiency, we shouldn’t penalize that student because they didn’t come to class,” Kirkland said.
That’s not to say, however, truant students don’t face consequences for truancy; it’s just not reflected in their grades.
The high schools, however, have kept A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s and F’s. Kirkland said parents just wouldn’t buy into number grades at that level.
“There’s just so much emotion and tradition around these letter grades,” Kirkland said. “Parents said, ‘A 3 isn’t motivating to my child.’ ”
At the elementary level, parents generally accept the number assessments now, but many still miss the days of letter grades.
Rachel Post called the number system confusing. She said it can be hard on her daughter, now in seventh grade at Adele C. Young Intermediate School.
“She’s very self-motivated, and when she was only getting 3s, she felt like she wasn’t doing her best ... even though the teacher said, ‘A 3 is great,’ ” Post said.
‘Changing the conversation’ • The Granite District has been exploring competency-based grading as well, said Linda Mariotti, its assistant superintendent. A committee studying the issue has agreed that the district should focus more on competency.
In Granite, that might mean not docking students’ grades for turning in late work and/or giving them the opportunity to re-take tests. It might mean separate grades for citizenship.
She said Granite is still likely years away from such changes and specifics would have to be worked out. But many feel that things like participation, homework and behavior shouldn’t be part of academic grades in Granite.
“The first thing you want to do is focus on changing the conversation,” Mariotti said.
Schools nationwide are still generally a ways away from fully implementing competency-based grading, said Scott Ellis, CEO of Learning Accelerator, a California-based nonprofit that aims to promote competency or mastery-based progression.
He said he hopes to see schools move a step beyond such grading, letting proficient students move forward and giving others more time on certain concepts as needed.
“If they’re lost or need extra support, they don’t move on just because the rest of the class moves on,” Ellis said. “They get the help they need.”
He agreed, however, that it can be difficult to persuade parents to embrace a new type of grading system.
Hales said parents are accustomed to grades meaning one thing, and change can be difficult.
“There’s bound to be some rough moments,” Hales said, “but a lot of times, it’s worth the pain if the end result means you get better information about your student.”