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Aurora Institute

Aurora Institute and Center for Assessment Recommend Ways State Leaders Can Build Balanced Assessment Systems

Education Domain Blog

Competency-based education systems hold promise for maximizing the learning and growth of all students. If well designed and implemented, they can serve critical equity aims by ensuring that all students are supported in meeting key learning and development targets. However, competency-based education systems can’t do this without high-quality assessments and assessment systems to document learning with evidence of student work.

The Aurora Institute and the Center for Assessment jointly released a report that offers guidance and a vision for balanced assessment systems to support competency-based education’s equity goals—and maps out design requirements to turn current barriers into levers for change. How Systems of Assessments Aligned with Competency-Based Education Can Support Equity responds to the following questions:

  • How might a balanced assessment system support competency-based education, and what are the requirements for such an assessment system?
  • As district and state leaders transform educational models to support competency-based learning, what role could assessment play at each of these levels to advance important equity goals?
  • What are the barriers and levers in districts and in states to build and sustain systems of assessments that support competency-based education over the short- and long-term?

Authors Scott Marion, Maria Worthen, and Carla Evans note that:

An assessment system is balanced when the assessments are coherently linked through a clear specification of learning targets. Balanced assessment systems comprehensively provide multiple sources of evidence to support educational decision-making, and they continuously document student progress over time. These criteria—coherence, comprehensiveness, and continuity—create a powerful image of a high-quality system of assessments, rooted in a common model of learning.

We also find that utility, efficiency, and evidence are helpful considerations in thinking about the functioning of such systems. The report discusses how these ideas can play a role in supporting competency-based education. Specifically:

  • A coherent assessment system must be compatible with how student learning is expected to progress in a domain.
  • Assessment systems are comprehensive when they provide a variety of evidentiary sources to inform educational decision-making. In other words, students need multiple opportunities and ways to demonstrate their learning.
  • Continuity is the degree to which the assessments provide information that allows for monitoring and evaluating progress over time.
  • Utility is the degree to which the assessment system provides the information necessary to support its multiple and often diverse purposes.
  • Efficiency means getting the most out of assessment resources and eliminating redundant, unused, and untimely assessments.

The report uses the new, field-informed definition of competency-based education to position student-centered learning systems as a natural context for balanced assessment systems. And both form a two-pronged approach toward achieving educational equity. The report encourages state leaders to align assessments with broadened definitions of student success and graduation outcomes by ensuring assessments measure and enable the breadth of knowledge, skills, and dispositions that communities expect students to master. In addition, a balanced assessment system in a competency-based system should be designed so that decisions regarding learners’ competence are consistent. “In other words, while we care how well students perform on a single assessment, we care much more about whether the assessment provides credible evidence that the student really knows and can do what is being claimed about the full domain.”

In addition to offering design guidance for building balanced assessments, the report offers solutions to five major challenges to implementing them in competency-based K-12 systems. One barrier is the influence of politics, policy, and political boundaries on decisions related to assessments. State policy leaders can aid the design and implementation of balanced assessment systems by supporting districts in developing balanced assessment systems, supporting coherence where possible, and attending to the unintended negative effects of assessment and accountability policies.

Another barrier is the commercialization and proliferation of assessments. Commercially developed assessments range in quality but rarely do they align with the curriculum in place. This means they can be a distraction from the deeper learning goals of competency-based education. District and state leaders should rigorously evaluate the extent to which a considered assessment will support or detract from the objectives of competency-based education and work to eliminate or at least minimize the use of assessments that do not support the main goals of the education system.

Re-imagining assessment is a critical step toward realizing the possibilities of competency-based education. District and state leaders can increase the likelihood that competency-based education strategies will enhance the equality of student outcomes by supporting the development of balanced assessment systems, ensuring coherence, and attending to the unintended negative effects of assessment and accountability policies. Crucial levers include innovative assessment pilots, policies and initiatives that promote and build educator and leader assessment literacy, and better connecting curriculum, learning, and assessment.

When aligned with a competency-based approach, balanced systems of assessments can play an important role as part of a coherent system of teaching and learning that advances equity.

School, district, and state leaders must work together to develop balanced assessment systems that are coherent with the target competencies and learning progressions, that comprehensively provide a range of evidence for each student and to serve multiple stakeholders, and continuously monitor students’ progress over time.

Download the full issue brief to explore these ideas in detail.

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Scott Marion is the Executive Director of the Center for Assessment. Maria Worthen is Vice President for Federal and State Policy at the Aurora Institute. Carla Evans is an Associate at the Center for Assessment.