Part 1: Getting started with proficiency-based grading

By Cristin Bleess
Instructional Strategist

I have always focused on getting my students to use the language in the classes I have taught, even before anyone was talking about the “path to proficiency”. But I never really thought much about my grade book and if it reflected what was important in my classroom: how the students use the language. I now realize that for more than half of my teaching career my grade book was not focused on what I was saying important. It was focused on tests, projects, quizzes, homework, and participation, not communication. 

In 2008 there was a lot of talk going on about Alfie Kohn’s book The Homework Myth and it really got me thinking about homework and its effects on students. I started to realize that I did not want to include homework as part of my grade anymore. 

Around this same time, the math department at my school started talking about standards-based grading. Instead of talking about the specific math standards, they were talking about buckets and what were the important buckets of knowledge that students need to know and be able to use. That got me thinking about what my buckets would be. I decided on the four skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) along with additional buckets for vocabulary, grammar, and culture. They also decided on the following grading scale: Exceeds, Meets, Partial, In-Progress, and Lacks, so I rode on those coattails, too. I was the lone ranger of the World Language Department in making this shift in my grade book. 

The next year, a colleague joined me in my efforts to have my grade book reflect what students knew and could do in the language. Together over the next couple of years, we eliminated the In-Progress level to only have four proficiency-levels and we decided that we could eliminate the vocabulary, grammar, and culture categories by including those aspects in our rubrics for the four skills. 

Years before this point, I had learned about integrated performance assessments (IPAs), during a class I had been taking for my master’s degree. The three modes of communication were now just becoming a hot topic at conferences and in professional development. Once we shifted our teaching to focus on the three-modes of communication, we made that same shift in our grade book. Our new categories were the three modes: interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational. 

Ken O’Connor, in How to Grade for Learning, says that words open up communication and numbers shut it down. Sometime around 2011, we had finally reached this point. There were no numbers related to our grades at all. Not on assessments, not in the grade book. After many different iterations of a proficiency-based grade book, we were finally happy with what we had. 

This is how we had it set-up: 

  • Our categories in the gradebook were: 1) Interpretive, 2) interpersonal, and 3) presentational 
  • Only summative assessment grades counted toward the final grade. 
  • Formative assessments were recorded in a separate zero-weight category (not worth any points) for accountability and feedback only. 
  • We created criteria to determine the final grade (via the Logic Function method, mentioned in Ken O’Connor’s book) 
  • A = All summative assessments were at a Meets or Exceeds
  • B = One assessment was at a Partial, and all others were Meets or Exceeds
  • C = Two assessments were at a Partial, and all others were Meets or Exceeds
  • D = One assessment was at a Lacks, and all others were a Partial, Meets, or Exceeds
  • F = Two or more assessments were at a Lacks. 
  • Students could do re-takes on assessments to show improved learning. 

This is a brief look into where I started on my path to proficiency-based grading. It made a huge difference in my classroom. That final piece, removing numbers from the grade book, allowed a shift in thinking to happen. Grades were no longer about what students earned; they were about what students learned. It changed those “How many points do I need to get an A?” conversations to “How can I improve in my presentational writing?” Moving to using words for grades opened up communication, just like Ken O’Connor said it would! 

To learn more about proficiency-based grading, check back for the next installment: “Nuts and Bolts of Proficiency-Based Grading”. 

Cristin Bleess has been a language teacher for over twenty years both in the US and abroad. She has been involved in professional development at the local, state, and national level and is currently an Instructional Strategist at Wayside Publishing.

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