We Should Grade Performance & Competency…Shouldn’t We…?!

Someone in my grad program recently mentioned how grading should be completely based on what students can do. This idea was challenged by another who said that it certainly makes sense if you’re “the last step” before a career (e.g., administering licensing tests, or proving you can do an actual job via some performance), but what about when students are still in the learning phase? This was a good point. How long does a typical learning phase last before you’d expect, or even need to grade performance & competency? What if you—the person ultimately responsible for that grade—are not “the last step?”

What if you’re a college instructor for a 100-level survey course? What if you’re a 10th grade math teacher? What if you’re a middle-school science teacher? What if you’re an elementary school reading specialist? Surely, a high-functioning society doesn’t rely on any of these people giving summative grades based on performance & competency as if it were “the last step.” Placing these kind of obstacles during the learning process long before the rubber hits the road isn’t something we should be doing.

This deserves some thought…

Take the rising Sophomore who wants to take Spanish II, for example. Any requirement (i.e., obstacle), especially grade-based, is pointless. Aside from exercising what tends to be very limited control over their academic interests in high school, their ultimate performance & competency doesn’t matter. That 10th grade student isn’t gonna be responsible for interacting with Spanish speakers in any mid-stakes to high-stakes situation that warrants passing some kind of bar. They might not even use Spanish in a low-stakes way ever again. And it doesn’t matter. Spanish II is not “the last step.”

So what’s the point of grading their Spanish competency…really?

It’s jarring, sure, but this thought experiment might highlight a bit of what’s going wrong in education. Rather than encouraging students to have learning experiences in a variety of contexts about a variety of topics—without any required knowledge—young learners are held to a standard of perfection and graded accordingly (i.e., out of 100%)…in every single class to boot. This is insane, especially when the potential actual “last step” exam—for a single job someone wants to do, not seven—is on a pass/fail minimum score basis. That is, I passed the Praxis and MTEL exams for teacher licensure. I don’t even have a “score” or rating for those aside from “passed.” There’s no grading. Just pass/fail. So, despite what we know about the learning process, students are presumed to be perfect (i.e., 100%) and then have their grade deducted with every non-perfect performance, even though that’s exactly to be expected. Mistakes (known, but goofs) and errors (unknown…for the moment) are part of every learner’s development. Everyone’s. Yet grading performance & competency doesn’t really take that into account. For example, a score of 7 out of 10 is nearly always treated as a reduction of 30 points from perfection, not a gain of 70. So, why might teachers want to grade performance & competency? Why might they want to grade against benchmarks?

The reason is actually…grades! And the result is weeding out those who don’t cut it.

For example, all the language programs that require something like “minimum grade of C to continue” do that because teachers grade things at the next level. Presumably, a student getting low grades in Spanish II is going to struggle and probably get even lower grades in Spanish III. Teachers sometimes claim they’re looking out for students by not allowing them to overreach in an effort to protect their GPA. Yet that hinges on grading performance & competency. Get rid of that and you get rid of the supposed risk. Stop grading what students can or cannot do, and school is no longer a competition to see who gets to study what they want. Let ’em study whatever they want! The joy of learning is all but eliminated from schools. My argument is grading is among the root causes, if not THE root cause. Get rid of it so we can reimagine learning.

Reimagine Learning
Reimagine those “C students” in Spanish III just learning at their own pace, reading their own level-appropriate books, and interacting with others in the class at whatever level they can. You don’t need to grade any of that. In fact, once you do, then you start doing a disservice to students who have slower rates of learning. You should set bars (i.e., standards), of course, but realize that grading against those bars doesn’t actually cause learning or improvement. All it does is place obstacles and close doors. In other words, you’ve become “the last step” even though you shouldn’t be.

Speaking of “the last step,” grad school sounds like one of the final last steps, right? Well, wrong. First of all, if you’re in grad school, you’ve basically got a 4.0. Why? Most professors still set arbitrary point values for papers, etc., not unlike secondary teachers, yet they tend to give almost endless opportunities to revise. Professors want you to learn content, become better writers, get grants, and bring in money for the university (or go off and make them and their program look good). I’ve even heard of the rare case when a Ph.D. candidate is asked to redo their defense. No grade. Just one more opportunity for revision.

In sum, I’ve never heard of anyone failing out of grad school. Even this level of education isn’t usually “the last step.” Can’t say the same for middle, or high school. Teachers create all kinds of “last steps” and fail kids for low grades based on performance & competency; this, looooooong before they might encounter some kind of actual “you can/cannot work in this field” licensing exam. I’m not even getting into all the jobs without a “last step” performance & competency requirement at all!

So, how can we possibly justify what’s going on at the secondary level in terms of grading performance & competency through this lens? What are you doing to create “last step” environments, and what can you do to remove them?

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