Core clerkship grading creates multiple challenges that produce high stress for medical students, interfere with learning, and create inequitable learning environments. Students and faculty alike succumb to the illusion of objectivity – that quantitative ratings converted to grades convey accurate measures of the complexity of clinical performance.
Clerkship grading is the first high-stakes assessment within medical school and occurs just as students are newly immersed full time in an environment in which patient care supersedes their needs as learners. Students earning high marks situate themselves to earn entry into competitive residency programs and selective specialties. However, there is no commonly accepted standard for how to assign clerkship grades, and the process is vulnerable to imprecision and bias. Rewarding learners for the speed with which they adapt inherently favors students who bring advantages acquired before medical school and discounts the goal of all learners achieving competence.
The authors propose that, rather than focusing on assigning core clerkship grades, assessment of student performance should incorporate expert judgment of learning progress. Competency-based medical education is predicated on the articulation of stepwise expectations for learners, with the support and time allocated for each learner to meet those expectations. Concurrently, students should ideally review their own performance data with coaches to self-assess areas of relative strength and areas for further growth. Eliminating grades in favor of competency-based assessment for learning holds promise to engage learners in developing essential patient care and teamwork skills and to foster their development of lifelong learning habits.