Vermont Public is independent, community-supported media, serving Vermont with trusted, relevant and essential information. We share stories that bring people together, from every corner of our region. New to Vermont Public? Start here.

© 2024 Vermont Public | 365 Troy Ave. Colchester, VT 05446

Public Files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact or call 802-655-9451.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Martin: Proficiency-Based Grading

A little while ago during our family dinner, my wife told our youngest son, Theo, that he was really smart, and I remember being surprised at his response. “I’m not smart, Mom, he said, I’m just good at getting good grades.”

In fact, my son is smart, but in a way he was right. In any given class, students have two things to figure out: the content being taught, but also how the teacher grades. Does the lowest grade get dropped? What’s the late penalty? How much is this quiz weighted? Is extra credit possible? Are there retakes? Students looking for a high grade need to ask these questions. Learning the course material is important, of course, but sometimes learning how to navigate each teacher’s grading system may be the straightest path to success.

What’s more, a grade in any given class may represent any number of things. A grade should indicate mastery of the subject, but it may or may not include points for good behavior, effort, or punctuality. Some times points may also be garnered by seeing a movie or play after class, helping out with classroom duties, or participating in a civic activity that may have value, but has nothing to do with the coursework. The danger is that grades become a sort of currency for rewards & punishments between teacher and student, instead of what they should be, namely, a way to measure new learning and identify specific areas for future growth.

This fuzziness around how grades are averaged—and what goes into a grade—explains why a B+ in 5th Grade Math can mean many things across different states, schools, or even classrooms. Some researchers argue that wide-ranging grading practices pose serious problems relating to fairness and equity for students.

This is why Vermont schools, like those in other states, are now making the change to proficiency-based grading. This means explicit learning targets, evidence of skill development, and lots of clear, timely feedback so students can see what they need to work on. This intentional, transparent approach is supposed to strip away some of the mystery and idiosyncrasies of some grading traditions. More importantly, proficiency-based grading is based on the assumption that grades are intended to spur new learning, and not just to rank and sort students.

Starting in 2020, Vermont high schools will award diplomas based on evidence of meeting graduation proficiencies instead of traditional course credits. That’s next year’s 9th Graders. So when it comes to grading, the future is now.

Mike Martin is the Director of Learning for South Burlington School District and a Senior Associate with the Rowland Foundation.
Latest Stories