Peter Sillin, NYA History Chair

Proficiency Grading, Part III: Grading Should Be An Ongoing Conversation

Peter Sillin is the History Department Chair at North Yarmouth Academy. Peter joined the NYA faculty in 2006 after working at Yarmouth High School (Yarmouth, ME) and in Virginia. A graduate of Williams College (BA, History and German) and the University of Virginia (MA, European History), he teaches a variety of history classes at NYA but is especially excited about a mysterious new class for next year: Conspiracy Theories.  Peter also coaches cross country and advises the Kiva Club, a group that makes micro-loans to developing-world entrepreneurs.


What is a grade in a class for? Should it reflect how much course material the student has learned? Or mastery of certain skills? Should it reflect student effort, even if that effort doesn’t result in higher assessment scores?

For years, traditional grading has boiled all those components down to a single letter (A to F) to report back to students, parents, colleges, and future employers how a student has fared in a class. Traditional letter grades have become engrained in our culture and everyone has a sense of what being an “A student” or getting “straight Cs” means.

But there are weaknesses in this system. Letter grades can fail to distinguish between academic accomplishment and effort. A single grade in a course might not capture the growth of a student over the course of a semester. And a letter grade doesn’t tell you which of a course’s content or skills a student has learned.

Education isn’t merely about amassing knowledge and skills as credentials—it’s about helping a child develop into a fully formed human being. Traditional grades can include all the information that proficiency grades contain with this added benefit: students, parents, and teachers all have a common point of reference and language as they work together to guide the student into realizing his or her full potential.

A few years ago, education reformers frustrated by traditional letter grades introduced a new idea: proficiency-based grading. This new way of reporting grades (on a scale of 1-4 corresponding to “does not meet / partially meets / meets / exceeds the standard”) tries to communicate exactly what the student is expected to learn and how the student measures up on the list of criteria. Behavior (such as effort) is rated separately from academic proficiencies to prevent the “social promotion” of students who aren’t ready for the next level of work.

Despite the good intentions of the reformers, many parents have been frustrated as proficiency-based grading has rolled out in their schools. Confronted with a long list of educational jargon and a blizzard of 2s, 3s, and 4s, some parents wonder if they know less rather than more about how their student is doing at school.

Some parents also wonder if the students, colleges, and future employers also will know less rather than more about how the student performed in the class.

Look, I understand the frustration with traditional grading. It can be vague. I’ve had students for whom a B- was a great achievement and others for whom it was a bitter disappointment. But traditional grades, if well structured, can also encompass all parts of a student’s performance – content learned, skills gained, character traits such as persistence and responsibility developed. Proficiency grading isn’t really an improvement in those areas. It has the appearance of precision but may not be better in accurately reporting the student’s development.

And proficiency grading comes at a cost: the long list of numbers between 1 and 4 breaks out those components but eventually gets boiled down to an overall average that still requires interpretation. It’s a lot of running around to get back to the same place: how’s my student doing in this class?

The answer to that question isn’t really found by checking off a series of benchmarks to satisfy the bureaucracy about advancement. It’s better answered by an engaged teacher who knows her students and can communicate with both students and parents about each student’s academic and personal development.

The purpose of grades is to facilitate that ongoing human conversation.

Education isn’t merely about amassing knowledge and skills as credentials—it’s about helping a child develop into a fully formed human being. Traditional grades can include all the information that proficiency grades contain with this added benefit: students, parents, and teachers all have a common point of reference and language as they work together to guide the student into realizing his or her full potential.

In my classroom, students acquire grades—but as a means to participate in this broader individual conversation rather than an end in themselves. That is why I am comfortable with traditional grades in my classes.