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Grading and getting ahead in school

This week my brother and I have been enjoying some Spring Break vacation time with my parents, and we've been remembering our childhood report cards from Fairfax County Public Schools.

In the (ahem) 1970s, my teachers wrote out report cards by hand on tissuey, airmail-like paper. I received both letter grades and rankings of “O” (Outstanding), “S” (Satisfactory) and “U” (Unsatisfactory) on a whole range of things including cooperation, self-control, carefulness, and the infamous “plays well with others.” I’ve seen other report cards from the same era that included grades for cleanliness, teeth, posture, and more.

As a teacher in the 1990s and more recently as a parent, I’ve sometimes wondered whether I’m thinking about grading and assessment and advancement through school in ways that are too limited. Is my own brain stuck thinking about ideas that are outdated? Put another way: Am I worrying about what features we could add to make a better 8-track tape player while other people are checking out virtual- and augmented-reality music concerts and festivals?

Where my brain is.

(Yes, the 1970s again, courtesy of the Columbia Record & Tape Club.)

Where maybe my brain should go.

(The Black Eyed Peas toured in augmented reality in 2018.

Cooler people than me already knew things like this were going on.)

To expand my own thinking, I like to check out what other school districts and states are doing. There’s an approach that I’ve been learning about that I think is really interesting, and maybe you will, too.

I want you to imagine an education system that is designed to allow students to move at their own pace as they’re able to demonstrate mastery. In this system, students aren’t rigidly organized into groups (classes and grade levels) based on their birth dates, nor are they required to clock a certain number of hours in the class to receive credit (in secondary education, this is called the Carnegie Unit.)

This system exists, and it’s called competency-based education (CBE). More than 30 states, and additional individual schools and districts, are either exploring or already implementing CBE. New Hampshire was one of the early adopters, having abolished the Carnegie Unit in 2005. In its place, the state mandated that all high schools measure credit according to students’ mastery of material rather than seat-time hours spent in class.

More recently, other states have launched or expanded CBE because of COVID. Vermont, Michigan, Utah and Rhode Island are among the states that have responded to pandemic disruptions in this way. The Hunt Institute writes, “States and districts have an opportunity to rethink the structure of their education system and consider building systems that are flexible, engaging, and equitable during these difficult times. CBE can provide students the opportunity to gain a personalized learning strategy that meets individual student need through an equity lens.”

Sandra Moumoutjis, an administrator affiliated with a lab school network in Pennsylvania, writes: “As we continue our third year of school affected by a global pandemic, we are not the same as we were before. Our normal way of doing school did not prepare us to support students, families, and teachers when everything changed. We are now forced to reckon with the glaring inequalities of our one-size fits all, grade-based, age-based, and time-based traditional school structures.”

Eric Gordon, the head of Cleveland’s school district, told his school board that by replacing the normal time-bound, traditional grade levels, students would be in a better position to catch up, learn what they need and not feel stigmatized by having to repeat a grade. “We’ve got opportunities here to really test, challenge and maybe abandon some of these time-bound structures of education that have never really conformed to what we know about good child development,” he said.

Here’s what I really like about CBE: it’s a system that is designed to fit the student, rather than expecting students to fit the system. Are you ready for more advanced material and more challenge in one area because you’ve demonstrated mastery? Then you can move on. Need more time in another? That’s OK too. You are not “bad at” a certain subject simply because you aren’t marching in lockstep with your same-age peers in all subjects at all grade levels. (That said—it does require some monitoring and effort to identify and support students who aren’t making “reasonable progress,” which may signal a need for disability screening.)

The National Center for Learning Disabilities has stated, “One advantage of CBE is that it recognizes that all students have strengths and challenges and learn best at their own pace, sometimes with supports. The flexibility and individualization of CBE is also at the heart of effective instruction for students with learning and attention issues and is a core tenet of many special education laws.”

What does it look like in practice?

One practice (already familiar to many Montessori families and educators) is multi-age grouping, or grade bands. For example, instead of Grade 1, a student is enrolled in a “lower elementary” or “upper elementary” group. In its coverage of grade-banding in New Hampshire, Education Week reports: “When provided opportunities for learning within their developmental sweet spot (where they were challenged but not in over their head), students made tremendous progress."

This was reinforced from the perspectives of both students and parents. One parent in Pittsfield, NH, commented, “I was skeptical at the beginning of the year that this room was going to work for Z... He still struggles, but I feel that he has made great improvements both academically and socially this year. I think his confidence is boosted when he is paired with kids that are at his level, and the curriculum is meeting him at his level. I really like the concept of this classroom.”

A few years ago I got to visit Parker Charter Essential, a school outside of Boston that serves middle- and high school-aged students. Parker uses mastery-based progression to move students from Division 1 (roughly grades 7 and 8) through Division 3 (roughly grades 11-12). In Parker’s performance-based promotion system, students usually take four semesters per division, but students can move at a pace that’s appropriate to them, sometimes advancing to the next division more quickly in certain subjects and more slowly in others.

Gateway portfolios “make the case” for promotion to the next level and are featured at public exhibitions of the student’s work. Portfolios typically include multiple examples of high-quality student work products, accompanying feedback and rubrics, and a reflective cover letter. Matt, a senior at the school, told me,“Every student has control over their own learning. I can take as much time to master the curriculum as I need.”

Instead of grades each quarter, students at Parker receive detailed, quarterly narrative progress reports in each class. The guiding question for these reports is, “What can the student do, and under what conditions can she do it?” At the end of the student’s junior year, the staff assembles a final narrative that draws from each of these quarterly progress reports across grades 9-11.The academic dean, the student, and the student’s family all have the opportunity to review the narrative and give feedback. This narrative summary, with accompanying school profile and explanatory notes, constitutes the bulk of the student transcript for college admissions.

CBE students, who most often don’t receive traditional letter grades or a GPA, are not operating at a disadvantage when it comes to college admissions. For example, 75 colleges and universities in New England including Harvard, Dartmouth, MIT, Tufts and Bowdoin have signed on to support CBE. One admissions officer commented, “The context of it is we see transcripts from around the country and around the world. And there are countless variations on transcripts.”

I am pretty intrigued by what I’ve learned so far about this approach to education. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts and reactions, too.


Why "I am still learning"?

The artist Michelangelo reportedly said this when he was 87 years old. Whether or not that attribution is correct, I love the idea that all of us are continually learning, curious and revising our viewpoints based on what we experience and who we're listening to.

​Much has been said about how important it will be for today's students to be lifelong learners in order to thrive in our rapidly-changing world. But I believe lifelong learning is important for us older folks, too. It can help us bridge our divides, it keeps us humble and it opens us up to more of the world. I am still learning. I am excited to learn from you and with you.


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