Going Grade-less & Credit-less

We don’t give grades at LiHigh School.

This can be confusing for a lot of people — especially parents and guardians whose earlier experiences with school involved a lot of stress around grades, whether for themselves as young students or as parents trying to understand their child’s performance in school.

In the past, and depending on the program, we at least told parents whether their students had Passed or Failed a class, but with the report cards we sent home last week, we aren’t even doing that anymore. We are, for all students now, a grade-less school.

What does that look like?

We assess our students using a version of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Objectives. Developed by a committee of educators in the middle of the 20th century and revised at the beginning of this one, the taxonomy provides guidance in the assessment of a student’s cognitive abilities.

There are six levels to the taxonomy we use at LiHigh School, and we refer to those levels as the student’s Depth of Understanding.

  1. Knowledge: At this level, students can remember specific facts, terminology, principles, trends, etc. They have basic knowledge of a topic without perhaps understanding what they mean and where they stand in relation to other things. For example, a student may be able to recall the year the Declaration of Independence was signed.
  2. Comprehension: At this level, students can organize and compare the knowledge they have, add their own level of interpretation to it, and summarize the main ideas. For example, a student may be able to explain why the Declaration of Independence is an important document in the history of ideas.
  3. Analysis: At this level, students are able to examine and break information into its component parts. They’re able understand how different parts relate to one another, identify causes, and support their generalizations using specific evidence. For example, a student may be able to break down Jefferson’s rationale for the Declaration of Independence and explain how the logic supports Jefferson’s conclusion.
  4. Synthesis: At this level, students connect their understanding of the topic to something else outside of the topic. For example, a student may look at Jefferson’s argument and apply it an argument in support of a child’s right to emancipate themselves from their parents.
  5. Application: At this level, students can apply their understanding of the topic in the real world and use it to solve new problems. For example, a student might apply Jefferson’s concept of the natural law to the animal rights movement and write a declaration of independence on behalf of domesticated animals.
  6. Evaluation: At this, the deepest level of understanding, students are able to make judgements about opinions, the validity of ideas, or the quality of other people’s work. In short, they have become experts who are capable of evaluating the work of others.

We believe using the Depth of Understanding model to assess our students provides a better representation of where the student is at in relation to a given topic. It provides more context than a letter grade and a heck of lot more context than a simple Pass/Fail. Where an “A” or a “C” usually represents the (relatively) successful completion of a certain number of assignments or a score on a specific test, our language assesses just how deeply their student understands the topic and the development of their intellectual skills.

On the question of “credit”

One of the questions we hear is whether a student received “credit” for a course.

As a Vermont-approved independent school, we are required to follow the education laws of the state, which include Act 77, which was approved by the legislature in 2013. That law, in conjunction with the State Board of Education’s Education Quality Standards, dictated that all schools awarding a high-school diploma in the state of Vermont move to proficiency-based graduation requirements beginning with the graduating class of 2020.

In other words, like every other school in Vermont, we no longer use a “credit” system, where students are required to earn a certain number of credits before they can graduate. Instead, students are required to demonstrate a certain number of skills before they receive their high-school diploma.

At LiHigh, we’ve broken up the skills into three different phases of expectations. For example, when it comes to reading skills, students in Phase 1 have to demonstrate the ability to understand a text and make logical inferences from it, while students in Phase 2 have to be able to analyze high-quality and increasingly challenging literary and informational texts; students in Phase 3, meanwhile, have to demonstrate a skill for independently evaluating and critiquing complex literary and informational texts.

This is the first year when all of our students are working on their phase level expectations, and most of them are going through the transition as we speak. During our first quarter, we worked with the students and staff to determine exactly which phase-level expectations each student needs to demonstrate. By the end of the next quarter, we should be able to highlight for parents and guardians which skills their student have shown and which ones they still need work on.

The best thing parents and guardians can do to support their students right now is to ask them which skills they’re specifically working on right now and to provide any assistance they need to develop and demonstrate those skills. The demonstration does not have to happen at school. If your student is playing video games online, for example, they may be able to use their conversations with their online friends to  demonstrate their interpersonal skills, the first phase of which asks them to communicate with others using appropriate verbal communication skills and to actively listen to others.

Going grade-less and credit-less can seem weird, especially to a generation of adults who were raised on words like “Pass” and “Fail,” but trust us when we say that this new model really is better. It helps educators, parents, students, and employers receive a more complete picture of the student, which then helps us understand how best to support them in the future.