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Sunday, March 8, 2009

Proficiency Based Grading - Less Punishing (and less rewarding?)

In The Learning Leader, Douglas Reeves talks about the statistical unfairness of zeros and averaging in regards to letter grades. In addition, my kindergarten background compels me to agree with him on keeping assessments of behavior separate from assessments of academic skills.

At the elementary level in our school district we have done away with letter grades in favor of proficiency based report cards. In doing so I believe we have been able to avoid much of the negative consequences associated with unfair assessment in the letter grade system. On the other hand, I wonder if we have at the same time made it less rewarding and less challenging.

Grades of "Advanced" and "Excellent" are far less given than grades of "A" and "B" were under the letter grade system. With most of our students receiving the equivalent of a "C" and not having much hope of receiving an "Excellent" or "Advanced" what do they have to work for? In my eyes a grade of "Proficient" should be equivalent to a "C" in a our essential learnings (minimum proficiency) based checklists and report card. "Excellent" though sounds like it should only be awarded to "A" students and "Advanced" should only be awarded to students that are working at such a high level that they are working on stuff that is at least a full year ahead of what is minimally expected of them now ("A+" stuff). What about our "B" students? How do we recognize their effort in being more than minimally proficient? We have PP1 (just beginning), PP2 (working on it), & PP3 (almost there) to recognize the small differences of our "D" and "F" students. Maybe we ought to recognize the differences in "B" and "C" work. Maybe a Pro1, Pro2 and Pro3 - think that might confuse parents?

I really liked one of the alternative assessment systems that Reeves proposed. It linked the letter grade system to a proficiency based rubric where students were given say 6 assessments during the trimester. Each assessment is grade on a proficiency based rubric like the following:

4 = Exemplary
3 = Proficient
2 = Progressing
1 = Not Meeting Standards

The trimester letter grades would be given based on the following:

A = Four assessments scored "exemplary" and two scored at least "proficient"
B = Four assessments scored "proficient" and two score at least "progressing"
C = Three assessments scored at least "proficient"
* Any performance lower than a C is scored as "IP" or "In Progress" a grade that becomes an F within two weeks after each grading period unless the student submitted work that was sufficient for a C grade.

Can we go back to a letter based grading system at the elementary level that links to our proficiency based assessment system in this manner? Is there state or federal legislation that would prevent this (that made us move to a proficiency based reporting system in the first place)? Would our teachers fall back into bad letter grade assessment habits (using zeros and averages and mixing behavior and academics)? I think parents and students would find our assessment system less of a mystery and students would have more than just "Proficient" to work for if this were our approach. Just a thought.


  1. As I reread your post it occurred to me that we are talking about two entirely separate issues. The first is how to report progress to parents. That should be done in such a way that parents know how their child is progressing in relation to expectations and other students. They want to know what their child does well and where they struggle.

    The second, and most important issue to me, is motivation for student performance. When you ask the question "what do they have to work for?" I think you are touching the heart of this matter. If a student is only working for a grade, they are not working for knowledge. The most highly motivated students in my class work for accomplishment and success. They do not see "grades". If we are challenging students they are engaged and motivated for the sake of learning. A motivated second grade student, for example, is driven to read chapter books and to learn multiplication. They see those goals as success and accomplishment. They are proud to read their writing publicly when it invokes emotion from the audience. Students who are unmotivated will work for candy or stickers. That, to me, is the same as working for a grade. It is an extrinsic reward that is not linked to the learning. Using the inquiry approach to learning should have a motivating effect on students as well. When they seek the answers to their own questions they are working for understanding and will feel satisfied when they achieve that goal.

    Assessment is necessary to guide instruction and to inform. Grades, however, should not be the most important influence in motivation. True intrinsic motivation is a desire to learn and feel accomplishment. When success is truly achieved there is no need for a grade to confirm it.

  2. carnett,

    Thank you for your insightful reflection. I agree that parents want to know how their child is doing in relation to the expectations and other students. That implies both a proficiency based and bell curve or letter grade grading system. Should we give them both? I am undecided on that.

    As I think about what you wrote about motivation, I think that both forms of grading systems are detrimental to student motivation for the same reason. Both grading systems are forms of external student accountability systems. For increased student motivation and progress, internal accountability must precede external accountability (for the school and the student).

    Maybe changing one grading system for another isn't the answer. Maybe we should be looking at ways to minimize the negative impacts they can have on motivation. Assessment and feedback are necessary to learning itself, but grading (the process of assigning a value to the measure of learning) is not.