While traditional grading may have worked for previous generations, a competency-based system is better suited for the rapidly changing workplace of the future, said Devin Vodicka, former superintendent of Vista Unified in San Diego County and chief executive of the Learner-Centered Collaborative, a nonprofit that helps districts shift to competency-based learning.
“We need a system that gets beyond the institutional model and provides more meaningful feedback for students,” Vodicka said. “The future is going to require less focus on time and more focus on what we can do and contribute, and the quality of our performance. We need to prepare our students for this.”
At most high schools, grades are linked to time, and a grade reflects how well a student has performed on tests and homework by the end of a semester. Grades can open doors to advanced classes and are the primary component of college admissions, especially since universities like UC and CSU temporarily dropped standardized tests as part of the admissions criteria.
But they’re notoriously subjective. The state Education Code gives teachers the authority to issue grades, but it doesn’t specify how those grades should be determined. Some teachers grade on a curve, with only a set number of students earning A’s or B’s, while others are more lax.
An informal EdSource survey of about two dozen California teachers found that 57% rarely or never gave D's and F’s. Only 7% said they did frequently.
“Grades are punitive and provide no information on standards mastery,” one teacher wrote. “I would love [grading] to be based on mastery of standards and … authentic feedback.”
But for some teachers, D's and F's play an important role in the classroom. They signal that a student did not learn the material and needs extra help. Dropping D's and F's doesn’t guarantee that students will learn the material, even with extra help, and may lead to grade inflation, said Debora Rinehart, a math and science teacher at St. Theresa School, a Catholic school in Oakland.
“I will work with any student before or after school or even on the weekend to help them learn. However, I will never lie about their knowledge level,” she said. “Not reporting D's and F's is the equivalent of lying about a student’s progress.”
But the vast difference in teachers’ grading styles has resulted in a system where grades are nearly useless as an indicator of students’ abilities, said H. Alix Gallagher, director of strategic partnerships at Policy Analysis for California Education.
“What does a grade mean? It’s a mix of things, and it’s different from teacher to teacher. It can actually be radically different,” she said. “As it’s practiced now, grading is idiosyncratic, and that’s not a good thing.”
Too often, she said, grades take on outsized importance for students, and those who get D's or F's become discouraged or disengage even further, never learning the material they missed to begin with.
“Instruction is what leads to learning. Not grading. They’re separate. That’s the problem — we have a disconnect between instruction, learning and grading,” she said.
Patricia Russell is the chief learning officer at the Mastery Transcript Consortium, a nonprofit that advises school districts and colleges on alternatives to grades. Interest in the topic has been soaring, she said. In the three years since the group started, membership has increased from four districts to more than two dozen nationwide.
For college applications, Russell’s group encourages students to submit a portfolio that includes essays, tests with high scores, videos showing oral presentations, lab projects or other items that showcase a student’s best work.