Rethinking Education: Beyond Grades to Proficiency

I run an organization called Energy Convertors. In that org, we train student fellows and parents to utilize their sense of agency to get the education they deserve. Once we accomplish that, our student fellows define local education issues, conduct scientific research, and then write a report that builds the agency of their whole community to improve education where they live. 

One such issue when training our fellows is the discernment between grades and proficiency. It never fails to shock a young person or a parent that a student can get a grade in their English class and still be multiple grades behind in proficiency. This revelation struck a chord with our student fellows, prompting a reevaluation of their approach to learning.

Proficiency, as defined by, goes beyond grades. It is the documented evidence that a student has met the required level of skill and knowledge set by benchmarks. It was a sobering realization for many of our fellows to learn that one could achieve high grades without truly mastering the coursework. For example, earning an A in an 11th-grade English class does not guarantee proficiency in 11th-grade English—a fact that left many disheartened.

This newfound awareness sparked a deeper exploration into standardized testing, particularly the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), which plays a significant role in evaluating proficiency (this particular cohort of fellows is located in California). The examination of SBAC data revealed concerning trends, especially among 11th-grade students within our cohort.

In delving into the data, our fellows encountered the concept of growth—a powerful metric that measures a student’s progress over time, regardless of proficiency. This understanding emphasized the importance of continuous improvement and learning, irrespective of initial proficiency levels.

Armed with this knowledge, our fellows are committed to taking ownership of their education. They pledged to engage with their teachers to ascertain their proficiency levels in various subjects and to devise a plan for improvement if necessary. At Energy Convertors, we emphasize to students and parents that grades and proficiency are not synonymous. Empowering students to advocate for themselves and their education involves being cognizant of this distinction and actively seeking information on proficiency levels.

As we navigate the education landscape, let us shift our focus from grades alone to a deeper understanding of proficiency. By doing so, we empower students to become active participants in their learning journey, driving toward true mastery and growth. Again, this was evolutionary information for our fellows; it may serve a purpose to others reading this article.

Charles Cole, III is the Founder and Executive Director of Energy Convertors.

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