It’s Not a Grading System Change, It’s a Learning System Change

It’s Not a Grading System Change, It’s a Learning System Change


Over the past two decades, the world has changed at a pace exponentially greater than at any other time in history. Advances in technology, and globalization have given rise to new ways of living and working. Jobs once capable of supporting a middle-class lifestyle have disappeared either by being automated or outsourced, and the competition for high-skill/ high-wage jobs has increased. The notion that a four-year college degree is a ticket to a successful career is a risky assumption. The world has changed, and as educators, it is our job to prepare our students for the world they live in now and for their future, not our past. Relying on the mainstays of education in the 20th Century is insufficient. To be successful with our continued efforts to transform teaching and learning will require a fundamental redesign of everything from assessments to classroom materials to the basic relationship between teachers and students.


An assumption baked into the traditional system of education is the idea that we must sort and select our students; some of who are college-bound and others who may be headed toward a career or the military, and that we must use a grading system to assist in this distinction or ranking. Curricula in the past were composed of discrete pieces of key content separated across the traditional distinct core course areas. Students were most often measured in terms of how much of that content they could reproduce or recall during and at the end of the course. Decades of research have proven this to be inadequate in preparing students for their future and the value of this type of learning has become obsolete with the access and availability of information always at our fingertips. Furthermore, College and Career readiness research has shown that there is very little distinction between the types of skills students must possess before moving onto college or career; the goals are far more alike than they are different. 


According to research by American College Testing (ACT), focusing in greater depth on fewer areas of knowledge is more likely to lead to (post-secondary) college success.  Further research has shown that 21st Century learning outcomes must be based not only on content but on the integration and application of that content through collaborative learning experiences. This requires that educational outcomes must be based on essential skills for success in today’s world, such as critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, and collaboration.  As a result, assessments must also be adjusted to reflect a new focus on deep understanding rather than shallow coverage of a broader number of topics. The metrics that were used in traditional settings are inadequate for communicating this type of deeper learning. Just like you wouldn’t use a ruler to measure the distance between two cities, it isn’t appropriate to assess the development and application of skills by scoring in terms of the 100 point scale (which was never a proven method for the purpose of communicating learning in the first place by the way). 


Criterion-referenced assignments and assessments are designed to measure student performance against a fixed set of predetermined criteria or learning standards (performance indicators). These concise, written descriptions of what students are expected to know and be able to do are outlined in scoring guides shared by staff across courses. This is an improvement from past practice when teachers graded in isolation without any common criteria. We could use any labels (letters, numbers, words) to refer to the levels of performance in this model. We use happen to use numbers (1-4) and a mathematical algorithms is  used to delineate for documentation purposes, a score, that represents student performance at a moment in time. 


To further improve outcomes for all learners, a student-centered learning environment prioritizes agency. Agency occurs when students are engaged in the learning process through choice and action. In the past schools have employed a one-size-fits-all approach to education by catering to whole groups through standard courses and grade-level groups. In this traditional model, students learn that the purpose of school is to do what they are assigned to do as accurately as possible within a time frame given. In a student-centered learning environment,  students are active decision-makers in the learning process. Through the development of their own personal learning plan, students are able to choose flexible learning pathways to work toward graduation expectations. Students may progress toward meeting expectations at different paces, and by selecting courses, internships or other learning experiences that address the same expectations in different ways. Students curate evidence of their learning and are responsible for communicating their own progress through student-led conferences, exhibitions of learning, and other presentations. While teacher feedback is critical for students’ growth and achievement in this model, grades are not the primary mechanism for communicating learning. 


In Vermont, these practices are encompassed by Act 77 of 2013. This law has supported the creativity of school districts as they develop and expand high-quality educational experiences that are an integral part of secondary education in the evolving 21st-century classroom. This transformation has worked to promote opportunities for Vermont students to achieve postsecondary readiness through high-quality educational experiences that acknowledge individual goals, learning styles, and abilities; and increase the rates of secondary school completion and postsecondary continuation. 


ACT 77provides for:

  • Expansion of the existing statewide Dual Enrollment Program

  • Expansion of the Early College Program

  • Increased access to work-based learning

  • Increased virtual/blended learning opportunities

  • Increased access to Career and Technical Education

  • Implementation of Personalized Learning


We recognize the parent concerns as presented. In ANWSD we also want our students to graduate with the best possible outcomes so as to access whatever post-secondary pathways they choose with success. However we can not perpetuate a grading system that produces inequitable outcomes for students and which is not in alignment with the goals of student-centered learning.  Will colleges understand this changed system? Yes, colleges do understand this system. It is their job to use the school profile to interpret transcripts. Even when the transcripts appear to be the same (e.g. letter grades) there are still vast differences from school to school about what these letter grades mean and therefore the Admissions counselors use the context provided by the school profile to understand what information is being communicated on the transcript. As long as the school profile is comprehensive and understandable, and it clearly explains the rigor of the academic program, the technicalities of the school’s assessment and grading system, and the characteristics of the graduating class, the admissions office will be able to understand the transcript and properly evaluate the strength of a student’s academic record and accomplishments. In short, schools use so many different systems for grading, ranking, and tracking students that a school’s system can only be properly understood when a transcript is accompanied by a comprehensive school profile. A GPA, for example, doesn’t mean much unless the admissions office also has the “key” (i.e., the school profile) that it needs to understand the applicant’s academic accomplishments and abilities in context. We will organize more parent and community engagement sessions on these topics in the near future and throughout the school year. 


Resources to Better Understand Student-Centered (Proficiency-Based) Learning & Grading and Reporting in a Proficiency Model


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