I worked for a school district and high school that made the transition from a traditional to a competency-based grading and reporting system about five years ago. As one of the early adopters of what has now become a national educational reform movement, my fellow administrators and I often get inquiries from colleagues around the nation who are looking for advice as they make a similar transition in their own school or district. One of the biggest categories of questions we field from other administrators is on communication with parents about the competency education model. In this article, I will share with you some of the most frequently asked questions that we get from our parents and how we typically respond.
How is a competency education model different from a traditional one?
Competency education is based on the principle that the grades a student receives measure what the student knows and is able to do. Courses are organized into competencies that measure a student’s ability to transfer content and skills in and across content areas. Students are assessed on these competencies through performance assessments—multistep assignments with clear criteria, expectations, and processes that measure how well a student transfers knowledge and applies complex skills to create or refine an original product. Teachers use rubrics to measure student learning on these assessments and report that learning on report cards and transcripts by skill or competency.
Competency education diverges powerfully from the traditional “one size fits all” approach. In the best examples, students are given many opportunities and many pathways to demonstrate that they have reached competency. They are able to progress at their own pace. Their teachers provide individualized instruction and coach them through their learning progression. Teachers collaboratively develop the assessments that will measure how well students have performed. The result is a more rigorous education that identifies exactly what students know, are able to do, and to what degree.
Can you explain how competency-based grading practices, like allowing for reassessment, will help prepare my child for college?
As adults, we consider ourselves to be lifelong learners. We don’t confine ourselves to the limits of a time schedule when charting our growth as a learner. Most of us, for example, would consider ourselves to be better at driving today than when we were sixteen and taking a driving test for the first time. We are better writers. We are better speakers. We have a better understanding of politics and the world around us. As adults, we acknowledge that learning happens all the time, and it only makes sense that when we believe we have acquired new skills we should have an opportunity to show what we know. When a lawyer doesn’t pass the bar exam, they are told to reassess. When a teacher doesn’t pass a certification exam, they have an opportunity to try again. Unless you are an Olympic athlete in the gold medal competition, reassessment is a naturally accepted part of life.
This same philosophy has to transcend to our grading practices at the classroom level. If students are not proficient on a particular assignment, they should have an opportunity to reassess for a new grade. Doing so means that their final grade will be a more accurate representation of what they know and are able to do.
Is it true that in a competency education system, deadlines don’t matter?
In a true competency education model, academic grades are separated from academic behaviors like meeting deadlines. Both are considered important, and both are assessed regularly by all teachers. In our school-wide system, meeting a deadline is a behavior expectation just like any other school rule. Our school does not punish academic student misbehavior with low grades but rather motivates students by considering their work as incomplete and then requiring additional effort. As a school, we address this student academic misbehavior through the same tiered approach that we use for any other act of student misbehavior. It starts at the classroom level, with the teacher working with the student and his or her family to address the behavior. For students who require additional intervention, guidance counselors and case managers can step in. For those who still need additional intervention, a referral to an administrator is made.
Why did you switch from a 100-point grading scale to a 4-point letter scale?
In a competency education system, a 4-point rubric letter scale is far more accurate and reliable than a traditional 100-point scale. With a traditional 100-point scale, all grades typically start at 100 percent and deductions are taken by the teacher for missing or incorrect components to arrive at a final percentage score. These deductions can vary from assignment to assignment and teacher to teacher, and depend on the expectations that are set for each assignment. Many students think of this system as one in which they must accumulate a certain number of points over time to reach a passing grade.
A rubric is a chart that lists the criteria and a variety of levels that describe proficiency over the length of a course. With a rubric scale, a teacher determines a grade by first looking at the student work and determining which level of the rubric is the most appropriate match for that work. Teachers generally develop rubrics that are specific to the course, competency, or skill they are assessing. Students are provided with these rubrics when an assignment or task is given so they have a clear expectation of what they need to do in order to complete the assignment or task at a proficient or higher level.
Will this system hurt my child’s chances of getting into a good college?
The competency education model is quickly becoming recognized by higher education institutions as a far more reliable and rigorous assessment model than the traditional model our schools have used for centuries. Through our conversion from a traditional to a competency education model, little has changed on our actual transcript report. Our transcript still lists each course a student took, their final course grade, and how many credits the student earned. We still list other information such as class rank, grade point average, attendance, and diploma type.
We regularly meet with colleges and universities to explain to them that in our school, the biggest difference between the students we used to send them and the students we now send them is that our students today have been measured against a higher standard of rigor. We are confident that their grades are a more accurate representation of what it is they know and are able to do. Our system teaches our students to become critical thinkers and problem solvers. Our students can analyze situations and adapt to new ones. School must mimic real life. It is not enough anymore to simply memorize facts and figures. A competency education model promotes a more rigorous learning environment that prepares our students to better interact with our ever-changing world in college and beyond.
For our implementation, communication with our parents has been a key to our early success. We have a theory that when people don’t have the correct information to make a judgment or decision, they are forced to assume or draw their own conclusions based on the information (or lack of information) that they have about a topic. We know that competency education is a far better assessment system than the traditional ones our schools have used for centuries, and we have worked hard in the past five years to sell this idea to our school community.
Brian M. Stack is the National Association of Secondary School Principals 2017 New Hampshire Secondary School Principal of the Year. He is Principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH, an author for Solution Tree, and also serves as an expert for Understood.org, a division of the National Center for Learning Disabilities in Washington, DC. He lives with his wife Erica and his five children Brady, Cameron, Liam, Owen, and Zoey on the New Hampshire seacoast. You can follow Brian on Twitter @bstackbu or visit his blog.