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A forward-thinking shift: How St. Anthony Middle School is moving to a proficiency-based grading model

A forward-thinking shift: How St. Anthony Middle School is moving to a proficiency-based grading model

“Rather than teach students to be curious about the academic content, to care about their progress as a learner, to invest in the health of the classroom community, to co-construct productive relationships with their peers or teacher, we teach them to care about points. We take children who come to school with innate interest in learning and growing, and we teach them those things are only a means to the ultimate end: lots of points.”

-Joe Feldman, Grading for Equity

Why this shift?

This obsession with points and inaccurately equating points to learning is not unique to St. Anthony. At SAMS, we have spent almost the last 10 years discussing how to best measure learning, simplifying curriculums to reflect essential learning, experimenting with a variety of grading practices, learning how to best provide safe and caring learning environments, and receiving feedback about how to improve student learning in our school. 

Throughout this time, we realized that students were often not learning at high levels, letter grades didn’t mean the same thing from one class to the next, students were more focused on points and getting work done than on learning, and student behavior almost always impacted grades. Most disappointing, we learned that the grading practices led to being able to predict a student’s grades based on their identity and that our students’ mental health was suffering in part due to the stress related to grades, tests, and assignments. 

 If we really wanted to become the school we proclaimed in our mission and vision - where we provide “authentic learning in a caring environment where all will learn and contribute” - things at SAMS needed to change. 

While several SAMS teachers started experimenting with a variety of grading structures and practices starting around 2012, the urgency for a school-wide, systematic shift came in the spring of 2020 when COVID hit our schools. To make communication and expectations clear and consistent for our students, SAMS realigned our system so that all gradebooks looked the same and teachers calculated grades similarly. Then, over the summer of 2020, teacher and district leaders studied research about equitable grading practices and effective instruction. Through our research, we learned that our traditional grading system contradicted many of the efforts we were working so hard to implement. This is what we learned:

  • Learning thrives when three factors are made available to students: rigor, relevance, and relationships. 

  • Scores based on points often stop the learning process as students see it as an end of needing to know or do something. Scores also prevent students from reading or implementing any feedback from teachers. 

  • There are only about 20% of students who are motivated by trying to earn good grades (usually the students who already earn good grades). 

  • Traditional grading systems based on points promote inequitable grading practices.

  • When students can take ownership of their learning, understand the learning expectations, and envision a path to success, they are motivated to continue learning. 

SAMS staff piloted proficiency-based grading during the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years and gathered feedback to make adjustments. SAMS will be fully implementing this grading system this school year. 

What is proficiency-based learning and grading?

Proficiency-based learning and grading is a system where students receive feedback and scores based on how well they can meet the specific goals or standards of a class. We have only one goal with this change: to prioritize student learning. 

That means, we unapologetically and deliberately try to: 

  • Accurately reflect what students know and can do: The grades are accurate representations of what students know and are able to do. We often say “it’s about learning, not earning.” This means that typical things that influence grades in a traditional system (like student behavior, extra credit, timeliness, homework completion, attendance) are intentionally not considered when providing these scores. For example, historically students have received points for things like bringing in boxes of tissues or lost points for turning something in late (even if the learning on the assignment was spot on). This doesn’t mean that tissue boxes and punctuality are not important - they just aren’t related to the learning that we are measuring.

  • Be clear, specific, and transparent about our rigorous learning expectations: Both teachers and students should know and be able to easily articulate the learning goals of the class. This clarity helps students understand the reasons for their daily lessons and motivates students to take ownership over their own learning and achievement.   

  • Provide flexibility, extended time, and equitable opportunities: Students should have multiple opportunities to show their learning including having the ability to retake or redo assessments. Again, we are trying to reinforce that learning is what is most important and to remove some of the barriers and stress that students can sometimes face. 

Unlike traditional grading practices, this type of grading requires a different type of gradebook. Instead of points that are calculated to an overall course letter grade (A-F), students receive a proficiency descriptor for each essential standard in a course in proficiency-based grading. These proficiency descriptors range from “beginning to acquire knowledge related to the standard” (meaning the student is just starting to learn the basic knowledge and skills to build a foundation) to “exceeding and extending the standard” (meaning the student has mastered the required skill to an extent that requires an application of deep understandings and knowledge). 

Improvements in Skyward

For better or for worse, we also made the move to Skyward as our grading platform during the same school year - a new system for teachers and administrators. Making the change to proficiency-based grading was a challenge as the SAMS staff was trying to make the technology match our efforts. Through multiple discussions and feedback sessions with teachers, students, and families and assistance from Skyward, we are more confident that our gradebooks will be able to inform our teaching and inform families and students about their learning process. New this year, students will receive feedback on their formative practice and work during a unit as well as feedback on soft skills like leadership and collaboration. We hope these new additions help support communication with families about where students are in their learning during and at the end of each semester.

Resources to Learn More

There are several experts and researchers on effective and equitable grading practices that we have learned from before and during the transition to this new system. Several, if not all, of them have written books that are well-known and respected among the educational community, but below are a few resources to check out if you are interested. (The highlighted ones might be helpful places to start.)  

Thank You

This transition to proficiency-based learning and grading has not been easy, and we still have a lot to learn. We are hopeful and excited that our grading practices and gradebook are becoming more aligned to research and what we know about teaching and learning. We appreciate the patience of our students, families, and school community as well as the great trust placed in us as we work out the details and issues when they arise. We are a school committed to ensuring all students are successful, can learn at high levels, and can make growth - now our gradebooks reflect that.

  • SAMS grading