Assessment of Learning with Competency-Based Grading

August 13, 2012 by

From SRHS website

This past spring, two members of my administrative team at Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, New Hampshire had the opportunity to present our school’s competency-based grading and reporting system to admissions representatives from each of the New Hampshire Colleges and Universities. A very interesting conversation unfolded when the team passed out two competency-based report cards from two students at our school. Both students had earned a final grade of an “80” in their Forensic Science class, but both had very different grades in each of their competencies for that particular course. One had an “exceeding” grade of 95 for the crime scene management competency (students will demonstrate the ability to use and understand how observation is used in order to collect and gather evidence in scene investigation). The other student had an “inconsistent progress” grade of a 75 for the same skill. This evidence suggests that one student perhaps had a more complete understanding of the scientific inquiry process that goes into a forensics investigation, while the other still had work to do to bring that skill to competency.

The ability to be able to “dig deeper” into what a final grade represents and how it can be used to report learning not only intrigued the admissions officers, but it generated an entire discussion around what else a competency-based grading and reporting system could do for students. Indeed, this model should be the way of the future for all high schools. Our school made the leap from a traditional to a competency-based model over a period of about three years, and I challenge you to explore how you might make the same leap at your school.

Sanborn Regional High School has been acknowledged by Bramante and Colby (2012) as a leader in a movement from traditional to competency-based grading for all courses in the State of New Hampshire. A “competency” is the ability of a student to apply content knowledge and skills in and/or across the content area(s). At Sanborn, all courses use a competency-based grading system. (See wiki for powerpoint presentation on grading system.) By this, it is meant that assignments are linked back to the competencies that they are designed to assess and student performance is reported in a way that tracks student mastery of the competencies that have been identified for each course. This shift in focus allows the school to use report cards and transcripts to more accurately report what it is a student knows and is able to do.

Where to Start: Common Grading Expectations

To make this work in a school with 725 students and 60 teachers, all teachers adhere to a common set of grading expectations that are derived from the works of educational researchers including Marzano, O’Connor, Reeves, Stiggins, and Wormeli. The highlights of these grading practices are below:

Summative versus Formative Assignments: O’Connor (2009) defines a summative assessment as “a comprehensive measure of a student’s ability to demonstrate the concepts, skills, and knowledge embedded within a course competency. It is an assessment of learning and it is heavily weighted in the grading system” At Sanborn, our teachers link summative assignments to the course competencies that the assignment is assessing.

In contrast, O’Connor (2009) defines a formative assessment as “an assessment for learning and can broadly be described as a “snapshot” or a “dipstick” measure that captures a student’s progress through the learning process. It explains to what extent a student is learning a concept, skill, or knowledge set. In a sense, a formative assessment is practice and is, therefore, not heavily weighted in the grading system.” At Sanborn Regional High School, summative assignments must account for at least 90% of a final course grade.

Rolling Grades: At Sanborn, we use the expression “rolling grade” to highlight the fact that we have eliminated the need for quarter and semester grades. Our grading term starts on the first day of class, and it ends on the last day. We do not make use of averaging by quarters or trimesters to compute a student’s final course grade. Instead, our students know that their grade will be calculated based on all of their work for the entire course.

Reassessment: Reassessment is an integral part of any competency-based grading system. Students learn at different rates, and they need multiple chances to demonstrate mastery of a competency or skill. Most state-level department of motor vehicle agencies that I know of let new drivers reassess their driving test until they have reached a proficient level. Most state-level department of education offices allow future teachers to reassess a licensure test until they have reached mastery. Why should a high school assessment be any different? At Sanborn, any student who does not obtain an 80% or higher on a summative assessment has the option to reassess, provided they complete a reassessment plan with their teacher which may include a deadline for completion of the reassessment as well as the completion of several formative assessments at a proficient level prior to taking a reassessment.

The Elimination of the “Zero”: Wormeli (2006) argues that despite the long-standing assumption of American school teachers that a zero can motivate a student to work harder, the truth is that it does not. Rather, a zero skews a student’s final grade in such a way that it no longer accurately represents what a student knows and is able to do. Giving a student a zero is akin to giving them the option to fail. In the Sanborn model, failure is not an option for any student. Teachers will do whatever it takes to get student’s to complete an assignment.

We encourage our teachers to use the following checklist when dealing with a student who refuses to complete an assignment. These strategies are listed in the order that they should be attempted until the student produces the work:

  1. The student and teacher must have a face to face meeting about the late/missing work to clarify the assignment;
  2. The student and teacher must agree to an extension of a due date;
  3. An agreed upon time must be established to allow the student to complete the assignment in the classroom;
  4. The teacher must make contact with a parent or guardian;
  5. If appropriate, the teacher must provide an alternative assessment;
  6. The teacher must contact the appropriate case manager or counselor to make them aware of the situation;
  7. The teacher must give the student a grade of a incomplete either for the assignment or the course due to “Insufficient Work Shown” (IWS) until the student completes the assignment.

When this model was first implemented, my teachers were skeptical and concerned that this practice may make it difficult, if not impossible to keep track of make-up work and could drag out the grading deadlines indefinitely. While this may be true to some extent in the short term, my teachers quickly realized that the more they “hounded” students early on in a course, the less likely students were to give them issues later in a course. Our teachers continually impress upon students the idea that they cannot give them a grade on their learning if they have no proof that learning has taken place.

Course Credit: At Sanborn Regional High School, a passing grade for a course is still a 65% (One of our next hurtles to address as a school community is moving this to something higher, possibly as high as an 80%). Credit is awarded for a course if a student meets both of the following two conditions:

  1. The student earns a grade of 65 or higher for each course competency as determined by the final report card for the course; and
  2. The student earns an overall final course grade of a 65 or higher

In the event that one (or both) of these conditions are not met, the student must complete competency or credit recovery to bring the student up to mastery. Competency and credit recovery programs at Sanborn are organized as course-specific, skill-based learning opportunities for students who have previously been unsuccessful in mastering content/skills required to receive course credit. These opportunities can include things like:

  • Completion of an online course or competency module at a proficient level
  • Completion of a teacher-directed project or recovery plan at a proficient level. The plan may include reassessments of key summative assignments or the completion of an alternative project
  • Completion of an appropriate extended learning opportunity that is connected with the skill or competency that must be recovered

Sanborn Regional High School had a very successful 2011-2012 school year in which it was recognized at local, state, and national levels for its work in school redesign for the twenty-first century. The school is committed to ensuring that its competency-based grading and reporting system helps it realize its vision for all students of Learning for All, Whatever it Takes. For more information on our school, visit us online at


Bramante, F. and Colby, R. (2012). Off the Clock: Moving From Time to Competency. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin

O’Connor, K and Stiggins, R. (2009). How to Grade for Learning, K-12, Third Edition.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin

Wormeli, R. (2006). Fair isn’t always equal: Assessing and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom.  Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

About the Author

Brian Stack is the Principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, N.H. He is a strong advocate of personalized learning, competency-based grading and assessment, and high school redesign for the 21st century. He has BA and BS degrees from Boston University in Mathematics and Secondary Math Education and a M.Ed. degree from the University of Massachusetts Lowell in Education Administration. He has presented his education reform and redesign work in local and national conferences and think tanks from coast to coast. He lives with his wife and five children on the N.H. Seacoast. Follow him on Twitter @bstackbu or visit his blog.


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  1. Comment by Vince Santo 6:58 am, June 1, 2016

    Not sure this is right for all students. Not everyone learns at the same pace

  2. Comment by Chris Sturgis 7:23 pm, June 1, 2016

    Hi Vince –You raise a very good point. Most people when they think about competency-based education see it as something that allows students to learn at different paces. I tend to think about it more about providing students more instructional support that may or may not be at the same pace. I also think about rate of learning (the growth divided by time) and tempo (do students like to take deep dives at first or do they like to move methodically through a path of learning) as much as the pace (are you going at a pace relative to how the standards are set up).

    As far as I know Sanborn Regional High School is primarily doing periodic assessments rather than a “just-in-time” assessments when students have demonstrated proficiency. This means that they spend more time on re-assessments of learning when students indicate they aren’t proficient on the assessment. It might be part of their strategy or it might be part a design choice on their part. However, I’ll check with Brian.

    It’s definitely a big shift to move to a personalized strategy so that students are at different units or different levels in the classroom. I’ve only seen it work well when there are self-directed learning practices in place and/or when digital tools allow for easier access to the units and to help teachers track what is happening with students.

    We’d love to hear about your experience with competency-based education

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