The Risks and Rewards of Getting Rid of Grade Levels

Competency-Based Learning

The Risks and Rewards of Getting Rid of Grade Levels

By Bing Wang     Jun 12, 2018

The Risks and Rewards of Getting Rid of Grade Levels

This story is part of an EdSurge Research series about how educators are changing their practices to reach all learners.

“But, Ms. Wang, why am I in this class?” asked a 9th-grade boy on the first day of school. This was about three years ago and it was a first day of sorts for me as well. I had just transitioned back into the classroom at Latin School of Chicago from a job in publishing and this was not the kind of question that I had prepared myself to answer. Back then, the Chinese language program at Latin had begun piloting a proficiency-based model, which is structured differently from a traditional grade-based model.

The transition raised multiple challenges including course placement, grading, and community communications. I embarked on this journey along with the foreign language department and the one other Chinese teacher at my school believing in the effectiveness of this student-centered approach. Yet there were still so many questions to answer.

“Why am I in this class?”

Back on that first day, this 9th-grade student continued to press me. “Why am I not in the class that Noah is in?” My mind spun for a moment. I eventually decided to put aside my planned activities to address this elephant in the room: placement.

The proficiency-based model is closely related to competency-based learning, where students are grouped with those who are closest to their language abilities, regardless of age or seat time. This helps them learn at a pace and level that fits them best, but it stands in contrast to the traditional model where students progress to the next level—for example from Spanish 1 to Spanish 2—by default after a year of study. In this new model, students progress through six levels, starting at “ Low Novice” before gradually moving into “Intermediate” and potentially “Advanced” levels. This is not a new idea, but logistically and culturally it still raised challenges and stirred reactions.

Course scheduling, for example, becomes more complicated with school-wide, mixed-grade language classes. On that front, we were lucky the school had our back. Now class schedules are planned with the consideration of the language department’s needs. We also make sure that placement decisions are made before students leave for summer break to leave enough time for the registrar to resolve class conflicts.

Things are bit trickier given our school’s culture. In a competitive school like Latin, not being able to climb up the proficiency ladder after a year’s worth of language study is interpreted as failure. Every year when the language class placement is announced, you can feel the worry in the air. This unsettling feeling also circulates among the parents, who are used to the traditional placement model. During the first few years of implementation, we would receive numerous emails from concerned parents and students inquiring about language placement.

In my opinion, this tension reflects a sense of insecurity in today’s elite high school culture: first, the eagerness to show competence in every possible way in preparation for the cutthroat college application process; second, the tendency to evaluate growth and values solely based on assigned labels, such as a letter grade or a placement decision.

Latin is a great school with passionate students who are genuinely curious in the intellectual world. However, many of our students are also not spared from the insecurities that many ambitious young learners experience today. To help students understand the placement decision, to some degree, is to help instill a “growth mindset” that sees the language-learning process as a journey rather than a race or competition with other learners. In other words, everyone has a different trajectory, and that’s OK.

Four years into implementing the new placement model we’re still making diligent efforts to educate parents and the school community.

We have worked with the admission office to hold sessions explaining to incoming students what they should expect of their language classes and how we will place them; we have hosted morning coffee Q&As, so parents can drop by and speak with our department head about concerns or questions that they have about the model; we also communicate with parents about ACTFL’s proficiency guidelines—which influence our placement decisions—during parent-teacher conferences. Lately we’ve seen less fidgeting around the placement decision, and more questions about how students can improve in this model.

“Can we get rid of letter grades?”

That was another hard question we had to confront when it was asked by a Spanish teacher at a department meeting not long ago. This is definitely not the first time that educators have raised eyebrows at the traditional A through F evaluation standard. Given that proficiency-based teaching emphasizes mastery over grades, this topic has triggered another thought experiment.

On the one hand, we found the letter grade system reductive as it boils down the rather complicated and descriptive rubrics, that we have developed based on the ACTFL proficiency guide to a simple letter that sometimes becomes counterproductive. On the other hand, we are concerned that a less common approach might harm the perceived credibility of our language programs, and hurt our students’ chance when it comes to college admission.

After much consideration, we decided to continue using letter grades for our language programs, but shifted our focus onto what we can do within our classrooms to help students better understand the role of assessment. We want the students to spend their energy on the feedback instead of the end result. Different teachers have different strategies. I personally began explicitly explaining the intention behind the new rubrics; I experimented with handing out graded rubrics without a final score on it. To clarify my expectation, I repetitively use a simple sentence in Chinese: “Today you cannot do. It’s OK, as long as you learned from this.” It takes time to change culture and shift mindset, but we are gradually seeing a difference.

“Can we have one more essay practice?”

Recently, when I was about to wrap up a lesson in a Novice-High class (which is the level before Intermediate) a girl chimed in with a question: “Can we have another essay practice?” This was during a unit about daily routines, and one of the unit’s learning goals was to be able to describe a series of activities with proper sentence connectors. “To say what I did in a day,” the girl continued in Chinese, “I still need more practice.” I looked around and saw a couple other students nod their heads. “Alright, let’s have another writing practice tomorrow,” I said.

I loved seeing the class’s eagerness to write more, their openness to communicate and the girl’s sense of agency to hold herself accountable for achieving the learning objectives. In many ways, the proficiency-based model facilitates the development of these characteristics. The model guides teachers in organizing instruction around proficiency goals that are aligned with the students’ abilities. These goals also make it easier for students to check in their own learning and see a purpose in practices that we do everyday. The model also prompts teachers to prioritize learners’ needs over efficiency and convenience.

It may seem obvious that teaching should center around our learners, but the reality is teachers’ responsibilities involve many dimensions, and because of the high demand, it is easy for us to default to a cookie-cutter style of teaching, such as standardizing the number of weeks spent on each unit. The proficiency-based model embraces the messiness of teaching and learning. So my students know that the pace of the class is not controlled by an arbitrary number of units that we have to cover in a year, but solely by how well they have mastered the knowledge, and it is normal to feel not yet ready to move ahead.

The implementation of proficiency-based learning took many of the teachers and the students outside of their comfort zones. We as a department are still figuring out best practices to support our students’ proficiency development and to maintain fidelity to the priorities guided by the proficiency framework. As we see the changes and results, we are also embracing the uncertainty and messiness of the process. As I tell my students, maybe today we cannot do, but it’s OK as long as we’re moving closer to our goals each day.

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