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Aurora Institute

CBE Starter Pack 2: Meaningful Assessment

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Laurie Gagnon

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started, Create Balanced Systems of Assessments

When educators begin to explore competency-based education (CBE), the CompetencyWorks Initiative is a key place to find information and ideas. It can be overwhelming to know where to start. This post is the second of a series of “CBE Starter Packs” focused on each of the seven elements of the Aurora Institute’s 2019 CBE Definition

CBE definition element 2: meaningful assessment

Competency-based education supports students to not only learn academic content, but also to apply it in different contexts and build higher-order skills. Performance assessment—grounded in tasks that measure how well students apply their knowledge, skills, and dispositions to authentic problems to produce an original product or solution which is scored against specific criteria—is a key process for producing both formative and summative evidence of student ability to apply their learning. Clear criteria for what students need to know and be able to do lay a foundation for student learning and performance of those knowledge and skills. CBE Definition with all elements

In a CBE system, assessment is integrated as part of the learning process. Assessment for learning provides students with low-stakes opportunities to practice and self-assess what they know throughout the learning cycle. Meaningful assessment also provides students and educators with feedback they can use to improve and continue learning. 

Shared, valid, and reliable definitions of proficiency come to life through meaningful systems of assessment. Competency-based systems demand assessment literacy: the ability to use meaningful assessment to design and drive powerful learning that leads toward common outcomes. Systems of assessment are intentionally developed to balance the breadth of content with enduring understanding of and the ability to apply key concepts and higher-order skills. 

Like other elements of the CBE definition, assessment connects to and aligns with the other elements. While performance assessments can be implemented within a traditional system, as performance assessment practice deepens it can prompt a desire to align other parts of the learning system. For example, as assessment systems are developed to include capstone projects and portfolios with evidence of student work, the process naturally leads to rethinking traditional approaches to curriculum, pedagogy, grading, promotion and graduation, data on progress, and reporting. 

As we think about what learning outcomes we care about most for all students—and what kinds of assessments will allow students to demonstrate those outcomes—we can align other practices to design equitable access to learning. In order for students to meaningfully apply their knowledge and skills, they will be exercising agency, they will need feedback and timely support along the way, and they will take different pathways to learn and create. Building relationships to get to know students gives educators insights into the funds of knowledge students bring to their learning and how to activate student assets in the learning and assessment process. 

A middle school student explains the inspiration for his art project to classmates.
Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

Meaningful assessment also prompts us to examine how we report on progress (whether at the individual, classroom, or system level) and how students and educators have access to and use that information in learner records, in personalized learning plans, or for planning future learning opportunities. In order for the learning and assessment system to lead to actionable, valid, and reliable evidence, assessment-literate teachers will need to calibrate their understanding of student performance through examining student work and curricular artifacts. Systems that track and show student progress will need to be operational and transparent, both for practical reasons and to ensure and monitor for equity.

Even though meaningful assessment can feel like (and is!) a big topic, there are many ways to get started. 

What does meaningful assessment look like? 

Example: Del Lago Academy

At Del Lago Academy of Applied Science, one of three public high schools in Escondido, CA, opportunities for meaningful assessment are integrated throughout the learning process and grading practices are aligned to communicate student achievement. Interdisciplinary projects are at the heart of instruction and assessment, supported by the organization of students into “villages” of about 100 students who move together throughout the school day to the same group of shared teachers. With a focus on science and connections to the local biotechnology industry, students have multiple opportunities to work on and demonstrate key science and engineering competencies and can deepen their skills and work readiness by earning badges for industry-level skills.

Example badges
Example student badges

Professional learning has consistently included a focus on designing quality performance assessments and collaborative Professional Learning Community (PLC) structures. The school also implements other competency-based assessment practices, such as providing assessments when students are ready and opportunities for retaking assessments to meet expectations.

Learn more: Interdisciplinary Projects and Assessment Practices at Del Lago Academy, Del Lago Academy Learning Journey in the Assessment for Learning Project 


Example: Parker Charter Essential School

At the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devens, MA, teachers regularly meet to offer feedback on units of study and assessments and calibrate to ensure consistency and high expectations. Learning within each unit of study is designed around Parker’s Criteria for Excellence. Students meet the criteria for excellence through their coursework and performance assessments. When they have sufficient evidence in their portfolio, they are ready for a gateway. A gateway is a milestone marking when a learner has proven that they have demonstrated the learning expectations for one division and have the necessary Habits of Learning to take on more challenging coursework in the next division (typically, but not always, corresponding to grades 7-8, 9-10, and 11-12), or for 12th-graders, their post-secondary path. Through a portfolio of work, a presentation of learning, and in the high school years, an independent research project on a topic of interest, the gateway and promotion by portfolio system supports each student to meet high expectations including how to be a reflective, self-directed learner.

Learn more: Celebrating Readiness for the Next Challenge: Gateway at the Parker School, Multiage Classrooms May Improve Learning, Student Experience, Inside Mastery Based High Schools: Profiles and Conversations 

Student Experience “Look Fors”

Can you see these student experience “look fors” in the examples above?

Students constructing solar house models
Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages
  • Students are involved in projects that make connections to the real-world and are assessed on student work that is meaningful and relevant to them.
  • All students have opportunities to apply learning and build higher-order skills and to demonstrate mastery by showing what they know by submitting evidence of transferring knowledge and skills through performance-based assessment.
  • Students know the learning goals and how they will be assessed. Definitions of proficiency are transparent and available. 
  • Rubrics and examples of proficient student work are used to communicate proficiency. Grades communicate student proficiency and progress.  
  • Students have opportunities to reflect, revise, and use assessment as part of the learning process. Feedback and data is used to improve performance and deepen understanding.

What school policies and practices support meaningful assessment? 

  • Structures and processes are in place to ensure that the instruction and assessments are fully aligned with the learning objectives and offer rich and frequent opportunities for students to perform at the highest possible depth of knowledge.
  • Assessment literacy is developed and prioritized. Teachers are supported in using different types of assessments and providing productive feedback to students. 
  • Teachers build capacity in assessing both the building blocks of learning and transferable skills through performance-based assessments.Teacher-generated performance assessments are strengthened by engaging in task validation protocols.

    Educators at Conference Table in Library
    Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages
  • Teachers engage in calibration or joint scoring of student work to ensure inter-rater reliability and that levels of proficiency are aligned to the learning goals of the system (including state standards as applicable) and shared among teachers.
  • Transparency in grading provides feedback on student progress and is designed to recognize and monitor growth with consistency and reliability.

Learn More

Dig into the research and background information

Explore Examples and Resources

Local assessment system overview

Images of performance task themes

Supporting Design and Equity Principles

The information above is synthesized from key Aurora and CompetencyWorks publications. In particular, Designing for Equity: Leveraging Competency-Based Education to Ensure All Students Succeed and Quality Principles for Competency-Based Education

Key Principles for Meaningful Assessment: 

Get Started

Reflecting on your own or with your team, school, district, and/or community is a great way to identify current assets to build on. Use these questions in your work to develop an assessment system that is a meaningful, positive, and empowering learning experience for students and that yields timely, relevant, and actionable evidence.

A student shares her research results during a class presentation.
Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages
  • Does assessment promote a positive experience for students, including timely and accurate feedback that supports their learning?
  • How do students share their work with each other through collaborative work, peer review, etc? Are there portfolio reviews, exhibitions, or other opportunities where students present to authentic audiences, such as members of the community, parents, or other students?
  • What types of processes are in place to support educators in building a shared understanding of proficiency of academic skills, social emotional skills, and habits of success?
  • How do teachers share their work together through designing and validating tasks, calibrating student work scoring, revising tasks, sharing instructional strategies, etc.?

Once you have an idea of strengths to build on or areas in need of new ideas, what will you do next, both in the short term (think: trying one new thing) and in the longer term (think: strategic planning and systems change)? Hopefully the resources above give you models, tools, and ideas to adapt to your context or inspire new approaches that work for your community. 

Good luck! If you are looking for additional resources, try browsing past posts on the CompetencyWorks Blog with its many stories of lessons learned by innovators and early adopters from across the field of K-12 competency-based education.  

Read the Other Posts in the Starter Pack Series

Laurie Gagnon is the Aurora Institute’s CompetencyWorks Program Director.

Follow @LaurieGagnon98 


Laurie Gagnon

Program Director, CompetencyWorks

All blog posts from Laurie Gagnon