School Reform: The Dance of Competencies and Traditional Grading

Summary: Though the focus on narrow reading, writing, and mathematics competencies serves employers and highlights the need to improve skills, it may also reflect the mirage that traditional grading has become.

Sometimes one has to step outside of a familiar context in order to find a novel perspective.
So it was as I watched a recent PBS NewsHour report on a Southern New Hampshire University program that relies not on traditional credit hours and grades to gauge a student’s learning, but on demonstration of specific competencies within the particular discipline being studied. The traditionalist within university ranks might blanch at the news, and rumble on with reason that there are hallmarks of a true university education that simply cannot be reduced to specific measurable competencies. Critical thinking and the integration of diverse fields of liberal arts thought are a couple of markers of the educated person that come to mind.
Still, it is a bit surprising that competencies have apparently not been more widely and consciously targeted on the university level, because some disciplines may in fact be more adaptable to such thinking. Business and computer science are a couple of fields that come to mind that in part may lend themselves to competency measurement, though broader and more creative thinking in those fields might still confound such linear measure.
Yet with reading, writing, and mathematics competencies ascendant in public schools K-12 nationwide and measured by incessant testing, it was only a matter of time that higher education should explore the same frontiers, particularly as questions are being asked about the intimidating rise in the cost of a college education.
Arguably, the measure of competency may serve one purpose, and the giving of grades serve the traditional purview of both teacher and professor to judge the elusive understanding and growth of the student in the discipline. Of course, traditionally these purposes have been rolled into a letter or numerical grade at the end of a semester.
That’s where my new light began to dawn from the viewpoint of the university innovation. “Well, then,” I says to myself, university practice aside, “why have we gone to competencies on the elementary and secondary level when grades could reflect not only competencies, but the teacher’s assessment of a wider and more elusive set of learning?” Why the public school move to separate the two in the first place?
Though part of the answer is that competency measurement allows focus on a more refined and narrow set of skills, I suspect one deeper reason is that the letter grading system particularly on the secondary level is broken. Letter grades as they have evolved do not predict accurately who employers should hire, nor by extension do they reflect the true range of skills learned.
Though practices vary widely, typically letter grades do not appear until middle or junior high school, and evaluation by elementary teachers seems to me to have traditionally been somewhat competency based. You know, Johnny is either ahead of grade, at grade level, or behind grade level in reading.
By the high school level certainly, from what I have seen first-hand in a reasonably good suburban high school, grading practices have become wildly unmoored from what most adults would consider a sturdy effort with sturdy results.
The reasons are complex. A strong majority of students simply do not give more than the minimal effort, with the result that their learning is also minimal, and worthy of a low pass, at best. Critics would argue that the teaching particularly of our low income students is uninspired and their effort therefore matches the instruction, which has some validity, but pervasive cultural headwinds which diminish the attentions of our youth to school buffet and demoralize even otherwise capable teachers. It ain’t one thing or the other; it ain’t the culture or the quality of teacher; it’s both.
Yet teachers, good, mediocre, and bad all face pressure from community and administration to fail few. And so, inevitably, over time teachers provide passing grades that do not reflect an objective assessment of a student’s work. Those who have really not met minimum competencies of the class receive a passing mark, and those who minimally meet those competencies, in order for the teacher to demonstrate separation, are given grades that exaggerate the level of attainment.
So we should not be surprised that the majority of students who arrive at our colleges need remedial work to bring their skills up to collegiate necessities, nor that the reading, writing, and mathematics competencies of our K-12 students are not up to international standards.
Grade inflation in general is the result of cultural disintegration and smoke and mirrors designed to keep a successful face to the public.
Through this lens the focus on narrow competencies, though serving the particular needs of industry and universities for minimally competent hires and applicants, can be cast also as a dysfunctional response to dysfunction of schools and of youth in culture. That is, it is an attempt to establish meaningful accuracy where traditional grades now fail us.
It’s a bit like runaway inflation in a currency. In certain sets of dysfunctional economic and political conditions, prices and wages rise out of control, to the point one needs a bag of money to purchase simple consumer necessities. At such a point the troubled country’s financial authorities introduce a new currency, typically the “new” unit worth, say, a thousand of the units of the “old” currency. For the time being, bags of money are less essential.
Unless the basic economic problems are solved, the country faces a similar currency reset every so often. By this model, we could predict over time some decay in the value of the competencies our students reach. One sign is the occasional report of teachers and administrators who falsify test results.
Given the fog of our politics, the unavoidable silence of historical perspective, and the apparent stubbornness of our composite test results to rise, it seems fair to me to ask if the transition to a competency based focus, however rational it may seem, in fact serves to obscure our confusion as to how to put a broad base fix on the frailties in our kids’ education and the manner in which those same kids interact with the culture.

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