Part 2: The nuts & bolts of proficiency-based grading

By Cristin Bleess
Instructional Strategist

Grades should be effective communication vehicles, and the methods used to determine them need to provide optimum opportunities for student success and to encourage learning.—Ken O’Connor, How to Grade for Learning 

Over the course of a few years, my colleagues and I came up with a proficiency-based grading system that we felt truly reflected how our students were able to use the target language. I want to share a few topics you need to consider when making the shift to a more proficiency-based grade book. You may not be at a place to implement all of these ideas right now (if you are, that’s awesome!) and that’s OK; you can start by changing one or two things now as you are transitioning. 

Choosing your grade book categories

There are three grade book categories you can choose from to move toward a format that will better represent how your students are able to use the target language. 

  • Modes of communication: interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational 
  • Skills: listening, speaking, reading, and writing 
  • 5 Cs (or your state standards): communication, culture, connections. comparisons, and communities 

Weighting your categories

This can vary widely and will depend on your particular teaching situation. To give you ideas of different weight options if you’re using the three modes of communication for your categories, here are a few options. 

  • Weight them according to their relation to real-life use: interpersonal = 45%, interpretive = 35%, and presentational = 20% 
  • Weight them differently by level, for example in level 1 where students are using more memorized phrases: interpretive = 35%, presentational = 35%, and interpersonal = 30% 
  • Weight them all the same because they’re all equally important. 

Setting your grading scale: 

You can show the following scale to any teacher, and they’ll immediately recognize it and know what it means. 

90-100% (A) 
80-89% (B) 
70-79% (C) 
60-69% (D) 
<60% (F) 

However, in a proficiency-based grading system, Ken O’Connor tells us that words will open up communication with our students, whereas numbers will shut it down. We don’t want the final line of the conversation to be a percentage or a letter, so a proficiency-based grading scale may look like one of these options:

AdvancedAbove proficiency level (4) 
ProficientMeets proficiency level (3) 
LimitedBelow but near proficiency level (2) 
BasicWell-below proficiency level (1) 

Most online gradebooks will allow you to edit the grading scale so that you can add to it. For example, you can add AP (for Above proficiency level) and have that be worth 4 points, if you are going to be using points. 

Determining grades

Most schools are still requiring teachers to report a traditional grade (a percentage or a letter) on the official report card. You can still do that even if you have your grade book set up in a proficiency-based format. Matt Townsely has suggested three ways. 

  • Convert to Percentages Method: You will need to have your proficiency-based grading scale with the numbers. Every grade you enter will be the abbreviation you entered for the proficiency level and worth the corresponding points (see above). Since you have the grading scale set up, the computer will do the computing for you and will divide the points earned by the total points possible to determine the grade based on the traditional grading scale your school uses. 
  • Marzano Method: You will use the same scale with numbers that the Convert to Percentages Method uses, but you will create a conversion table to determine the final score. This conversion table can also be added to most online grading programs. To create the conversion table, you will need to decide, using a 4.0 scale, what is an A, B, C, D, or F.
    A sample conversion scale that a teacher shared with me is: 

A = 3.4 – 4.0 
B = 2.8 – 3.39 
C = 2.2 – 2.79 
D = 1.6 – 2.19 
F = 0 – 1.59 

  • Piecewise / Logic Function Method: No numbers are used at all in this method. You will need to create criteria (or a formula) for each letter grade. For example:
    A = All Above or Meets on all summative assessments 
    B = One Below but near with all other assessments being Above or Meets 
    C = Two Below but near with all other assessments being Above or Meets 
    D = One Well-below with all other assessments being Above, Meets, or Below but near 
    F = Two or more Well-below 

Most online grading programs cannot determine grades in this fashion, so you will need to go in and look at the grades and determine the grades and type them in. 

These three grading methods are listed in order of how easy or challenging they are to implement. The first two are fairly easy for students and parents to understand and are an easy transition, but the focus is still on numbers. Another weak point, just like in a traditional grade book, students can not do well in one area, but if they do well in others, it can bring up that grade without the student needing to improve in that area they are struggling in. The Piecewise / Logic Function Method is the most challenging (but not difficult) because it’s a different way of thinking for students and parents. However, with this conversations switch from “How many points do I need to get an A?” to “What can I do to improve XYZ?” 

As you can see, there is a lot to think about when making the shift to make your grade book match your proficiency-based teaching. However, you don’t need to do it all at once. Take what you can and implement it now, and continue to make changes until you feel that your grade book really does represent your students’ proficiency level and encourages them to continue to get better. 

In the last installment of this series we’ll discuss what types of grades to include (or not) include in a proficiency-based gradebook. 

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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