What does an A mean?

In US education student achievement is measured primarily by assigning letter grades at the end of a course and averaging all the grades to come up with an overall measure of how “good” a student is relative to their peers. There are several flaws in this system.

• Although failure is part of the learning process, in this system every failure can have a cost to the student.

• Because there are no standards, the determination of what a letter grade means can vary greatly between different instructors.

• Grade inflation has been introduced into this system to the extent that what used to be considered average (a C grade) is often seen as equivalent to failing.

At the same time as grades have been increasing in both high school and college [1,2], college entrants are being required to do more remedial course work [3] and employers have been complaining about the abilities of graduates [4]. If grades are going up and quality is going down, there is something wrong with the system.

I remember being made acutely aware of this situation many years ago when a new graduate student applied to work in my lab. His GPA was 4.0 and because I was looking to employ someone to do object-oriented programming, I was glad to see he had taken two courses in this area. During the interview I asked him to explain object orientated programming in his own words. He was unable to do so even after some prompting. I then showed him some code containing a number of basic errors and he was unable to see anything wrong with it. His grades had been largely based on multiple-choice tests. He had passed his courses with high grades but had failed to acquire even the basic skills needed by an employer.

Just as some advocate completely changing the way we educate in the Internet age, there are many who would advocate changing the way educational attainment is measured. The GPA is no longer useful.

A new approach that is gaining prominence is competency-based education [5]. Basically, this is breaking down assessment into specific skills or competencies. So rather than a student’s receiving an arbitrary grade for an entire course, they receive a certification for each learning outcome that has been defined. In the example above, a student would have to be certified in the component skills of program error detection and key concept explanation before graduating with a qualification in object oriented programming.

Competency-based education requires more instructional design effort to define the competencies and create reliable measures of student performance. Measures may require gradations, e.g. an acceptable level of performance versus an exceptional or expert level. Course completion and graduation are based on a demonstration of competence instead of a prescribed number of credit hours and knowledge recognition memory through multiple-choice tests. In this system, an instructor’s time is likely to be spent more on coaching and assessing competency performance and less on presenting information. The Internet can be employed for online skills demonstrations and instruction via video. Competency-based education is a perfect complement to active learning and flipping the classroom discussed in prior blogs (Sept, 2012, Dec, 2014).


[1] Rising GPAs making it harder to get into college. Justin Pope.

[2] GPAs have steadily risen over decades. Jessica Lichter.

[3] High School Graduates Still Struggle With College Readiness. Allie Bidwell.

[4] Are they really ready to work? Joint report of the Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the Society for Human Resource Management.

[5] What is competency-based education? Dr. Robert Mendenhall, President, Western Governors University.


Competency-Based Education as a Potential Strategy to Increase Learning and Lower Costs. Stephen R. Porter and Kevin Reilly