Understanding the Role of Traditional & Proficiency-Based Grading Systems Upon Student Learning and College Admissions


  • Stella Erbes Pepperdine University
  • McKenna Wizner Pepperdine University
  • Jackie Powlis Pepperdine University


higher education, assessment, grading, college admissions


The purpose of this study was to determine how traditional and proficiency-based grading schemes impact student learning and college admissions. Traditional grading (e.g., A, B, C, D, F) is common in secondary schools; however, proficiency-based grading (also referred to as standards-based grading, mastery learning, or competency-based education) is another system that schools have adopted to assess student learning. This mixed-method inquiry analyzed survey data from 72 college sophomores and interview data from four university admissions counselors. Data revealed that 1) students believe that traditional grading methods inadequately measure learning, yet they still prefer letter grades over the proficiency-based model, and 2) counselors evaluate a wide array of grading systems for college admission based on procedures that are not universal. Given that many post-secondary institutions have removed the standardized testing requirement of the SAT/ACT in the admissions process during the COVID-19 climate, universities must now carefully consider how to evaluate applications given the varied grading systems represented. Educational stakeholders wonder how institutions of higher education will evaluate student learning.