This is the twelfth article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders. In this article, we continue to explore questions that districts consider when creating their instruction and assessment model.
How will you know students are learning and what they need to reach proficiency?
As districts are designing the structure of learning, they are also thinking about assessment. Doug Penn, district principal at Chugach School District, points out, “We need to always know the purpose of assessment. It is to help students and the teacher understand what students know and what they don’t know, and to provide insights into the steps that are needed to learn it. Too often, assessment is used as a hammer and a gateway. For us, we see it as a process of helping students get from don’t know to knowing.”
Thus, as teachers develop the learning objectives, they also consider how they will structure rubrics to provide meaningful feedback as well as determine that students have met appropriate levels of knowledge. The process of creating norms about what proficiency means at each unit of learning and determining when students should advance to the next academic level depends on four things: clear criteria or rubrics, calibration, assessment literacy, and quality control mechanisms. In the initial years, the primary focus tends to be on rubrics and calibration. Districts and schools invest in strengthening assessment literacy, specifically building capacity for formative and performance-based assessment, and design quality control mechanisms at a later date.
In the early days of the transition to competency-based education, many schools continue to rely on students taking tests and getting a number of the answers right. Over time, however, they increasingly turn to rubrics that provide more in-depth insight into how students are advancing toward proficiency. There are many ways these are structured—some indicate progress (emerging, proficient, beyond proficiency), while others are highly aligned with the knowledge taxonomy (recall, comprehension, analysis, knowledge utilization). Teachers may also take the language and create their own variations with student-friendly language or engage their students in creatively naming the levels of the rubric.
Given that grading systems are often developed on the backs of the rubrics, it is important to think about how parents will understand the language, as well. At Memorial Elementary School in the Sanborn Regional School District, they found the process of developing a system of grading and assessing was best described by the Goldilocks story, in which they had to search to find the perfect fit. At first, they moved from the 100-point scale to a four-point rubric, which included E (Exceeding), M (Meeting), IP (Inconsistent Progress), and LP (Limited Progress). However, some of the terms carried negative connotations, and most parents made a mental link between an E and the traditional A grade, even though the school considered M to be the goal and E to be a demonstration of rare and exceptional work. Over time, they had to adjust the letters to align better with what parents were able to understand and accept. They now rely on E (Exemplary), P (Proficient), IP (In Progress), and LP (Limited Progress).
Calibration is one of the core processes to ensure that competency education consistently produces higher achievement while also addressing achievement gaps. Without calibration, it is unlikely that your I&A model will be effective in ensuring all students are reaching proficiency.
The process of calibration (also referred to as norming, moderation, or tuning) is a conversation among teachers about student work and building agreement about proficiency. This is often done within PLCs. Over time, principals will want to organize opportunities for vertical and horizontal alignment within their schools while districts seek to build consistency across schools. This is an ongoing process, and larger districts will need to think more deeply about how to create ongoing mechanisms to ensure consistency and rigor across the district.
At Memorial Elementary School, a “writing wall” has been developed to enable teachers to develop a shared understanding of what grade-level writing looks like. Over a three-year process, the teachers at Memorial have devised a system to analyze student writing as a cohesive staff and with a focus on all grade levels at once. By making a large table that contains every student’s writing and progress and placing it in a school-wide continuum, they are able to cluster data by grade level, by classroom, and by individual child growth. In this way, the entire staff can dissect results and come up with vertical teams to address strengths and weaknesses and share best practices. Currently, Memorial is also working to strengthen assessment literacy, specifically related to performance assessment, as part of its participation in New Hampshire’s PACE initiative to design a statewide performance assessment system.
For more information, explore this whole blog series:
Blog #2 What Is Competency Education?
Blog #3 Investing in Shared Leadership
Blog #5 Engaging the Community
Blog #6 Creating the Shared Purpose
Blog #7 Investing in Student Agency