Everybody gets an A


Grades in a World of Competency-Based Learning

On the one hand, we’re beset by the “Everybody gets an A” blight that is grade inflation. On the other hand, we have voices like that of Mike Barnes saying in Education Week, “No, students don’t need grades.”

So, what to do?

On balance, Barnes has it right. To be sure, there’s a need for accountability on the part of learners, teachers, and administrators. I won’t pretend that I know how to deliver on that accountability. Ultimately, though, we should be shifting formal education from a seat time model to one that’s competency-based.

In the seat time model, learners earn credit for each hour of learning. No real accommodation is made for people who start with very different levels of understanding. (One such accommodation, coarse as it is, is placing out of college classes via AP testing.)

Imagine two learners exiting a course that’s a prerequisite for a follow-on course. One learner has earned an A+, the other a C-. On paper, both meet the requirements for the follow-on. In practice, though, the A+ student may have mastered the content while the C- student barely scraped by.

What happens when even the best student only earns a B? The instructor might apply a curve to boost everyone’s grade. The objective should never be to compare students on an artificial curve–rather, it should be to help each learner to an absolute level of mastery.

In a competency-based learning (CBL) model, on the other hand, learners take as long (or short) as they need to demonstrate mastery. Within reason, CBL works. Learners don’t have an infinite about of time–if a learner who struggles takes years to master what most learners manage in months, the mastery bar may have been set to high.

I subscribe to a “competency-plus” model. Define mastery at a level manageable by most if not all learners in a practical amount of time. For learners who achieve mastery quickly, move them along to “plus” content in elective or optional areas.

If we equate mastery to the letter grade A, and if every learner achieves mastery, then “Everybody gets an A” isn’t grade inflation, it’s delivering on the learning objective.