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Badges Instead of Grades

The Democratic Knowledge Project proposes another way to measure student learning

Mention “earning a badge” to most people and they think of the scouts, where you collect sew-on patches for learning skills such as fire safety or how to play the bugle. 

Harvard professor Danielle Allen and her team at the Democratic Knowledge Project think it’s time a similar “badging” approach be used in schools across the country to replace traditional letter grades. As they spell out in their new white paper, A Call to More Equitable Learning: How Next-Generation Badging Improves Education for All, badging is a more accurate, equitable way to measure, record, and report K–12 student learning.

“What badges do is replace that very rough, crude way of reporting on student learning with something that is much more transparent with regard to the components of what’s been mastered,” Allen says. “It’s much more flexible because students can really bring out different components of their mastery and make their case for why their specific learning journey has been the right one for them and so forth.”

Badging isn’t a completely new idea, or a fancy one, says Allen — in some ways, traditional grading is its own basic form of using badges. “There’s a sense in which every grade is already a badge,” Allen says. “If I have an A in trigonometry, that’s my trig badge.”

What elevates badging from the traditional letter grade system, however, is what’s “behind” the badging, says David Kidd, the project’s chief assessment scientist and a research director at Project Zero.

“The badge itself is just a signifier. It signifies that a competency has been developed with pre-defined definitions,” he says. “Essentially, what we’re trying to do is make sure the badges have credibility that they’re backed by meaning.”

The problem with using traditional grades to measure and report learning to colleges and even future employers is that it’s not clear what the student has actually learned, says Allen. A student does an assignment and is given a grade and then a transcript of grades. “You really don't know what the student has mastered,” she says. A student earns a “C+” on a history test but turns in a neat binder on time, and the grade gets bumped to a “B-.” Their mastery of the history material never changed — another, unknown factor (being neat) did. 

“The key culprit is the Carnegie Unit,” says Kidd, referring to the unit developed in 1906 to measure the amount of time students spend “learning” each subject, and to standardize experiences across schools. A total of 120 hours of “seat time” in a subject earns a high school student in the United States one unit of credit. “It’s come to dominate how we learn in this country.”

Unfortunately, seat time, and the way we currently measure what goes on during that seat time, doesn’t accurately show what skills students master.

“When we talk about ‘GPA’ or ‘test scores,’ there’s an assumption that those things mean something,” Kidd says. But they don’t, and they don’t mean the same things across districts or states. They might not even mean the same thing across one department in one school. The traditional system also doesn’t acknowledge learning that happens outside the classroom, in extracurriculars like writing for the student newspaper or being captain of the cross-country team. Skills gained working at part-time jobs rarely get noticed. There’s also the issue of accuracy. A second-generation immigrant may not take Portuguese classes at school but speaks fluently with elderly residents who come into their family’s store. “This understanding of Portuguese wouldn’t show up on a transcript,” Kidd says. “We have no real way of showing this to admissions officers.”

In contrast, under the Democratic Knowledge Project’s proposed badging plan, badges would be awarded not on seat time, but once a student masters a skill and demonstrates that mastery (and not just in school settings). Students also wouldn’t earn just one badge per subject, like they currently earn one grade per subject (an A in geometry). They’d earn multiple badges within a subject. For example, students taking an English language arts course might earn a badge for identifying ideas and details in text and another for their ability to collaborate or problem-solve. At one school, badges might be earned through projects, at another using quizzes and essays. 

Kidd says future employers looking for workers would get more out of knowing a student has mastered a certain skill than knowing they got certain letter for a grade. A lawyer he knows, for example, wanted to hire a junior staff member who would be great at writing memos. Knowing that person got an A in English class isn’t as helpful to her as knowing they earned a badge in understanding structure in building an essay and another in writing persuasive arguments.

The Democratic Knowledge Project is currently gearing up to pilot badges in civics and math with partner groups, including the XQ Institute. With math, they’ll “unbundle” algebra I, create a list of important competencies, and then develop related badges. For civics, Allen says, “badges range from things like does a student understand the framework for thinking about rights and responsibilities in our legal system? You can badge that as an area of knowledge. Have they built up the skills, the actual practices and habits that support collaboration across lines of difference? That would be another kind of competency that you can badge.”

The plan, she says, is not to create a national set of badges and badge standards, or even a statewide standard, but “with any given badge you’d be able to say, here is the evidentiary base used for awarding this badge."

Ideally, Kidd says curriculum designers would draw on decades of strong research and assessment design as they develop badges and then submit them to “badging boards.” Badging boards would ensure that badges are backed with credible assessments. 

Allen and Kidd acknowledge that making a major change in the education world at this level is a challenge.

“Any time you’re trying to change basic practices and education, it's a long haul,” says Allen. “The real question next is, can we build a pilot that really supports educator use and embraces badging as a way of communicating about student learning? This has to be good for educators, it has to be good for learners. And not just good in theory, but good in terms of lived experience for everybody. That’s really the next challenge. Can we actually design concrete pilots where the stakeholders — again, especially educators, learners, and their families — really feel that we’ve improved their educational and professional experiences?”

Kidd says they are laying the foundation with their white paper and pilot.

“This is a transition period from the current transcript system to a badging system,” he says. “We can’t just ask everyone to jump in blindfolded, especially parents and student learners. There’s so much on the line for them.”

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