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Education Reporter

5, 4, 3, 2, 1: New Grading Scale to Measure Student 'Competencies'
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A new grading scale at Concord High School in New Hampshire is just one result of a trend affecting students across New England and the nation. The New Hampshire Department of Education has overseen a state-sponsored effort to move toward "competencies," which proponents have described as having more to do with "what students can do," as opposed to "what students know." This approach to education attempts to promote and measure such areas as "ability to get along with others" and "self-management," which are two of the ten competencies New Hampshire officials want students to master. So far, at least 30 New Hampshire schools have signed up as Competency-Based Assessment Schools.

The competency-based assessment movement affects other states, as well. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), a regional accrediting association, has urged New England schools to move away from traditional academic standards and toward competencies. New Hampshire's state-sponsored effort is just one response to NEASC's promotion of this educational trend.

As part of the shift from "standards" to "competencies," some New Hampshire schools are replacing the traditional A-to-F grading scale with a 5-to-1 scale. Teachers at Concord High School, for example, will mark students' report cards with grades ranging from 1, for students who show no grasp of a given competency, to 5, for students who have mastered it. The school will continue to use a 100-point scale on students' transcripts, used primarily for college admissions. For conversions between the two systems, a 5 counts as 100, a 4 as 92, a 3 as 80, a 2 as 65, and a 1 as 50.

"I'm really excited about the competencies," said Tom Crumrine, director of assessment at Concord High. Crumrine spoke to a group of concerned parents at a meeting in October. "The shift is intended to strip grades of association with judgment, so they become a tool of communication," the local paper summarized Crumrine's explanation of the 1-to-5 scale. (Concord Monitor, 10-19-09)

Jonathan Flower, facilitator of the school's guidance department, was also enthusiastic about the new grading scale. "It's not just a change in grading but a change in the philosophy of grading," said Flower. "It's really trying to get away from value judging a student and getting toward where a student is at that time."

Flower and Crumrine appear to be saying that students who struggle with class material will be less likely to give up if they initially receive a grade of "1" rather than a grade of "F." Decades of research on self-esteem, however, have failed to indicate that teachers can encourage students to learn anything simply by using euphemisms to tell them that they haven't learned it yet. Concord High School students, presumably, are smart enough to know that an A by any other name still represents mastery of the material — unless, of course, the trend away from traditional subjects and standards goes so far that there is no tangible material left to master.

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