It is important to gauge your growth in all aspects of life as it is a way to reflect upon what has occurred and where you want to go. This is no different in the martial arts. So should the progression level of a student be graded periodically or sporadically?
Some schools like to run gradings periodically which test a student and allow them to rank up. Though this can act as a short-term incentive to work towards a higher skill set, it eventually becomes an expectation of the student to be able to grade after a set period. It may work as a motivator for some students but a large majority will follow through to reach a high rank (such as black belt) without actually having the skill set.
An education based example for this can be seen with a university student who knows that they have an exam at the end of the semester. This student may spend the entire 14 weeks barely trying then cram the night before the exam to achieve a pass mark; this leads to them progressing to the next level but not having properly ascertained the skills required to do so. It is not a pleasant thought if this particular student was in the medical field however it happens quite regularly.
Grading a student sporadically can ensure that the student has had enough time to learn, develop and reach a proficient skill set before they are tested to move on to more advanced skills. Though this does have a disadvantage as it may lead to a student feeling as though they are not progressing at all if the instructor does not validate their advancements.
To students reading this, remember that it is not the colour of the belt/sash around your waist that defines you but rather your ability to react to any situation with the skills you have learned; let time be measure of your skill.
To instructors, define your school by the types of students that you want. Are those that seek a high rank without the hard work worth while? Teach students the skills that will keep them safe on the street and consider other ways to validate their progression. It is our job as instructors to sculpt the marble in front of us into a statue – never settle for anything less than perfect as it can be the difference between a student surviving a confrontation and serious injury.