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Aurora Institute

Exceeding Is More Complicated Than Adding Glitter and Flash

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Courtney Belolan

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Create Balanced Systems of Assessments

There are different ideas about the best way to report student progress towards targets, or competencies.  One of the most popular methods is to use a 4 point scale with levels described similarly to the example below:

4 = Exceeds
3 = Meets
2 = Partially Meets or Developing
1 = Does Not Meet or Emerging

In the book Making Standards Useful In The Classroom, Marzano lays out the following scale:

4 = In addition to score 3, in-depth inferences and applications beyond what was taught
3 = No major errors or omissions regarding any simple and complex information/skills that were explicitly taught
2 = No major errors or omissions regarding the simpler information/skills
1 = With help, a partial understanding of some of the simpler information/skills and some of the more complex ideas and processes

In our school, we are beginning to use the following descriptions for performance levels, based on the Marzano scale:

4: Advanced (I can use what I learned in a new way)
3: Proficient (I learned the foundational and complex parts and can apply them)
2: Foundational (I know the foundational parts)
1: Dependent (I can show what I learned with help)

If you are in a school or district that uses a scale like any of the ones above, then sooner or later you and your colleagues need to figure out what it means for students at your particular grade level and in your particular content area to “exceed” on the targets.

I know, I know, someone out there is thinking that in a truly competency-based system a student would never be “partially meeting” or even “exceeding” because as soon as a student demonstrates proficiency for a target they would move on the next level of difficulty in a learning progression.  Unfortunately many of us are not yet working in a truly competency-based system where this is possible. Further, in many cases it is more appropriate to encourage and push students to go deeper with knowledge and applications rather than moving them along to the next target.

It helps to take a step back and consider what it actually means to exceed a learning target.  Exceeding is about using or interacting with skills and knowledge in a new, more sophisticated way; it is about going above and beyond what was taught in class, primarily on one’s own.

Actually, let’s pause and consider what it does not mean. Generally the characteristics listed below are not ones that could be used to measure a learning target.

– Quantity
– Aesthetic Quality
– Creativity
– Punctuality
– Number of Attempts

There is certainly room to report on these qualities in addition to your content area targets; in my school we regularly report on work habits separately from content skills and knowledge.  But there isn’t one thing on that list above that would show a more advanced level of skill or understanding of content area targets. So what does going deeper look like?  There are really only two routes available:

Option 1:  Go to a higher reasoning level. The best way to create opportunities for advanced work, tasks that are a more in-depth application of expected skills or knowledge, is to write an assessment task at a higher level on the taxonomy chart. In an earlier post I described a process for defining the proficient level for targets using the reasoning levels from Marzano’s New Taxonomy.  Once the proficient level is defined, use the same process to write an assessment task for the advanced, or exceeds, level. This is not always easy, and I find we typically spend more time thinking and talking through defining the advanced level than the proficient level.  Below is an example using a target from grade 7 Health in our school:

Target:  Understands the health impacts of stress
Proficient = Comprehension (Integration)
Advanced = Knowledge Utilization (Problem Solving)

Target (Reasoning Level) Proficient Level Assessment Advanced Level Assessment
Understands the relationship between stress and health (Comprehension: Integration) Summarize the possible health impacts of poorly managed stress. Given a case study detailing an individuals health issues, weekly home/work schedule, and self-reported stressors develop a plan for reducing stress and explain the potential health benefits of following the proposed plan.


Option 2:  Teach someone else. You don’t want this one to be the go-to for demonstrating an advanced understanding or ability, and  it should be reserved for when it is nearly impossible to create higher reasoning level tasks.  Then there is the quality of the teaching to take into account.  Did the student being helped actually learn anything? How do you, as the actual teacher, now that this is the case? What did the “teaching” student get out of the experience? Here is how many English teachers in our school have used this method successfully:

Serve as a writing mentor for a fellow student.  Document the help you have given this student and show how you have helped them to grow as a writer.


Courtney Belolan works at RSU 2 in Maine where she supports K-12 teachers with performance-based, individualized learning. Courtney works closely with teams and teachers as a coach, and with the school and district leadership teams as an instructional strategist. Courtney has worked as a 6-12 literacy and instructional coach, a middle level ELA teacher, an environmental educator, and a digital literacy coach. Her core beliefs include the idea that the best education is one centered on student passions and rooted in interdisciplinary applications, and that enjoying learning is just as important as the learning itself.