Proficiency-based grading: Still more questions than answers

Every time I think I’ve wrapped my head around proficiency-based grading, I encounter a new question, and I’m lost all over again.

At my school, we’ve had a training session and a few meetings since I last blogged about my personal transition (What is a 3, anyway?).

During staff training, we all read a blog post by a teacher who is over-the-moon about this new system, and all she talked about was skills, skills, skills. She loved her newfound ability to track students’ writing progress over time — their use of voice, for example — and identify when they reach proficiency and mastery.

What about content?

It sounded so good, but then I tried to apply her process to my world. She was talking about language arts, a class that’s focused on skills like reading, writing and speaking, which weave throughout the course. What about classes that focus on content, like AP Psych?

In Psych, proficiency on classical conditioning isn’t connected to proficiency on the structures and functions of the brain. You can be an expert in both of those — and still not be proficient in the theories of emotion.

Students aren’t so much making progress toward proficiency as they are accumulating knowledge about the broad field of psychology.

I suppose you could say the students are learning how to learn — that’s a skill — but proficiency in “learning” divorced from the actual class content seems uninformative, at best. They’re learning psychology, which means they are building an understanding of what it is psychologists have discovered over time. 

So what does content mastery look like, and is it something we can track over time? Another question: If a student doesn’t achieve proficiency in a unit, like the brain unit, do they need to stay there and achieve proficiency while we move on, or can they start learning about the senses with the rest of the class?

I know what the theory says, but I don’t get how it works in practice.

There’s another issue: partial proficiency v. full proficiency.

It occurred to me recently that if we truly believe in proficiency-based grading, then a student’s final grade (4, 3, 2, 1) in a course should be tied entirely to their performance on a comprehensive final exam or project. That’s the only way to know whether they’ve really synthesized all of the course skills and content.

But a colleague pointed out that the new grading gurus don’t necessarily favor finals — instead, they believe that if a student demonstrates proficiency on a skill or concept in “Unit 2,” they shouldn’t have to prove it again.

I’m not quite comfortable with that. Learning AP Macro, for example, isn’t about mastering individual, disparate concepts. It’s about learning how to put them together. A student could earn a 4 (mastery) on their understanding of macroeconomic equilibrium in Unit 3, but it’s just a partial understanding. They haven’t really mastered it until they can combine the AD/AS model with the financial system, trade, and the impact of various policies. The big picture is complex and interwoven.

In general, I have a problem with checking off “proficiency” and “mastery” like they are things you only have to demonstrate once. If a student has mastered something — like playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue — it shouldn’t be too much to ask them to play it again.

Proficiency-based grading tries to simplify the process of assessing what students have learned, but the reality is that learning is incredibly complex, and measuring students’ learning is even more so.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit or like the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom