Shifting Toward Proficiency-Based Grading—Two Key Strategies

Guest post by Alan Tenreiro

Like many schools, Cumberland High School in Rhode Island has been wrestling for years with the standards-era question: How do we shift our grading system to reflect genuine mastery and not just compliance? This question, reflected most recently in NASSP’s position statement on competency-based education, prompted us to design a proficiency-based grading system based on student performance levels, which is then translated into a numerical grade. The performance-level rubric promotes consistent scoring across all teachers in all disciplines, relying on moderate, strong, and distinguished command of the standard. And, perhaps most important, students also receive feedback on how they can improve their performance.

In short, our academic expectations are organized around four to six measurement standards for each content area (e.g., demonstrating the use of evidence-based claims in social studies). Within each department, teachers created common scoring guides and learning progressions around sub-standards to define what students need to know and be able to do in order to meet the standard. Students are expected to do two to three performance-based summative assessments each marking period, and every measurement on every summative assessment is tracked in our learning information system (LIS). The academic council employs a validation process to ensure that performance-based assessments maintain a high level of rigor—a practice that is now being adopted by teachers within each content area.

On a separate axis, Cumberland teachers also assess students on Learner Qualities (LQ): attitude and mindset, quality producer, respectful citizen, self-directed learner, and collaborative work. Assessing these “soft skills” gives us insight into why a student might be struggling on an academic measurement standard. They also highlight those students who are only partially proficient according to the performance-based standards, but are really working hard. The LQs—assessed only formatively in all of their courses—are used in determining inclusion on the honor roll and in Latin honors at the graduation ceremony. We also use LQ scores to determine a postsecondary and workforce readiness score, what we call an LQ Index, for each student. These scores are reported on the student’s Preparing the day's lessonstranscript for college and military admission officers, as well as local businesses that might be considering students for employment.

There are countless details that underpin the success of our proficiency-based grading system, but we discovered—and are regularly reminded—that two themes are paramount:

Transparency. Standards-based grading is the linchpin, but transparency is what transforms the system. A lot of pieces have to be aligned behind the scenes to make this work, but the “behind the scenes” work should not be a secret. By bringing the rubrics and process of measurement into the open, we can build consistency and predictability for the expectations of all students and eliminate any surprises about teachers’ judgment of student work. Most important, transparency puts the school on a direct path to student equity.

Autonomy. We maintain a laser focus on the quality of instruction, but we provide our teachers—all professionals in their field—the autonomy to design instruction that provides a high-quality personalized learning experience for all students. To be clear, autonomy is not independence. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. A teacher’s autonomous practice is accountable for moving students toward a learning goal. And as a member of a professional community, successful teachers are encouraged to share their practice with one another. As a learning community, we are then constantly asking questions about what strategies are working and how faithfully we implement them, about how we can use technology to deepen learning, and about what else we can do to increase student empowerment. Teachers need autonomy and trust to experiment and learn, but we are all accountable for asking, “What should we be doing that we currently aren’t, so students want to work harder, go deeper, and learn more?”

What have been your experiences with proficiency-based grading?

Alan Tenreiro (@alantenreiro) is the principal of Cumberland High School in Cumberland, RI. He is the 2016 National Principal of the Year. He is a founder and moderator of #edchatri, a state-wide education chat on Twitter every Sunday night at 8:00 p.m. (ET).  Please visit www.edchatri.org and www.alantenreiro.net.

1 Comment

  • Michael Thomas says:

    Excellent post, Alan. Making the switch to proficiency-based grading is so important, but it has been a challenge for some of our teachers who feel overwhelmed with “another thing” on their already full plates. Did you encounter resistance from teachers in adopting the proficiency-based grading? What did you do to train or prepare your staff to embrace this grading philosophy? And how long did the transition take?

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