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Aurora Institute

Systematic Measurement of Progress Toward Competency

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Bob Sornson

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction


systematic jan24Our growing national commitment to early childhood learning success will probably continue to produce mediocre results.  Despite a greater awareness of the importance of early learning success, we still offer preschool and K-3 programs that are substantially the same as the programs which have led to present outcomes.  Most schools have not yet learned to use systematic measurement of progress toward competency in the essential outcomes which are the foundation of learning success for life.

Amazingly most schools don’t even try.  Schools were designed to deliver content, test kids, give grades, and allow less successful learners to choose to leave school for other pursuits.  We’ve increased the quantity of content we deliver (way too much).  We argue about the list of standards that we should “cover” (a huge distraction from more pressing issues).  We push forward with the delivery of content whether students are successful or not, without assuring that key competencies are achieved. Then we wonder and complain when students disengage from learning.

In a January, 2013 Wall Street Journal article, Bill Gates argued for the power of systematic measurement of progress: “Setting clear goals, choosing an approach, measuring results, and then using those measurements to continually refine our approach—helps us to deliver tools and services to everybody who will benefit, be they students in the U.S. or mothers in Africa.”

A poor rural school in Mississippi began implementation of systematic assessment toward essential early learning outcomes in 2008-09.  Using the Essential Skill Inventories they learned to:

  1. Clearly identify essential learning outcomes
  2. Use systematic measurement to determine the readiness levels of your students in relation to essential outcomes
  3. Offer responsive instruction and carefully monitor progress until these skills/objectives are deeply understood (competency)
  4. Allow students to move on to more advanced learning as soon as they are ready

In their first years of implementation at Simpson Central School, teachers reported struggling with knowing how to embed assessment opportunities into instructional design, and questioned their ability to use observational assessment to help measure progress.  They had difficulty staying on the schedule for updating their classroom skills inventory.  Some teachers reported that “covering lessons” was more comfortable than planning instruction around the complex learning needs of their students.  But with good leadership, they persisted.

In one of the poorest and historically lowest performing parts of this country teachers have learned to identify essential learning and behavior outcomes, and are systematically measuring progress towards competency in these outcomes.   The set of essential competencies include crucial aspects of language, literacy, numeracy, motor skills, social and behavior skills.  But rather than developing a long and complex set of skills for which it is impossible to track progress, a small set of crucial variables in each domain has been identified which are the best predictors of long-term success.

For example, in kindergarten math there are four essential skills for which every student should achieve competency.  Instruction should include “coverage” of many interesting math topics, projects and activities.  But these four essential skills are the manageable set of outcomes that can be well tracked toward competency, and which are great predictors for future success.

Kindergarten Numeracy Essential Skills

• Demonstrates counting to 100

• Has one-to-one correspondence for numbers 1-30

• Understands combinations to 10 (adding and subtracting using manipulatives to 10)

• Recognizes number groups without counting (2 to 10)


With the recognition that certain skills are essential, and need to be carefully developed to complete competency, teachers are more effective assessing progress, planning instruction, differentiating instruction, and responding to the development of the whole child.   The Simpson County teachers using the Essential Skill Inventories (K-3) with fidelity report significant improvements in teaching skills and behaviors associated with early learning success, including systematic assessment, instructional design, differentiated instruction, understanding the whole child, and building relationships with students.

Systematic Measurement of Progress

Teachers described significant improvements in their skills and behaviors supporting systematic assessment, with the largest gain reported in their ability to embed assessment into the design of instruction.  Over the last few decades, many school districts have used learning programs with a standardized instructional design which discouraged teachers from varying instruction based on the response of the students.  Teachers were expected to teach a lesson, give the test, give grades, and continue to the next unit or lesson.  With non-viable curriculum expectations, and without clear expectations for essential learning outcomes, instruction became a race in which taking time to carefully measure each student’s learning for the purpose of adapting instruction was not a priority.  Many teachers in this project reported that they have had to learn or relearn how to use observational assessment and to embed assessment into the design of instruction.


High Quality Instructional Design

Teachers described significant improvements in their skills and behaviors supporting high quality instructional design, with the largest gains reported in giving some students more time to learn essential skills and re-teaching essential skills until students reach deep understanding.  Scripted and rigidly paced instruction usually does not allow sufficient time for re-teaching, or for the additional learning time or practice time some students need to develop deep understanding of essential content or skills.  By using a viable curriculum and clarifying crucial learning outcomes, teachers report give priority to ensuring a deeper level of understanding.


Differentiated instruction

Teachers described significant improvements in their skills and behaviors supporting differentiated instruction, with an almost two point improvement on all measures.  Having the data which comes from systematic measurement of progress supported the need to try new strategies if a student had not yet responded to instruction by developing skill proficiency.  Teachers reported using a more diverse set of strategies to achieve student learning outcomes.


 Understanding the Whole Child

Teachers described significant improvements in their ability to understand the whole child.  The largest gains were in understanding why students need each essential skill, and in the relationship between the developmental domains.   While understanding and teaching the whole child are among the educational jargon often used in educational discussions, the prevailing teaching systems usually leave little time for understanding how language, motor skills, social skills, and academic development are inter-connected.


Teacher perception of changes in their skills and behaviors is supported by changes in student outcomes at Simpson Central School.  In May of 2012, the first class of students who benefitted from the Early Learning Success Initiative at Simpson Central School since Kindergarten took the MCT2 at the end of their third grade year.  In May of 2013 the second class of students who participated in this process during the K-2 years took the MCT2.



In Simpson County the percentage of third grade students scoring proficient and above in Language Arts has more than doubled.  More than 80% of students are fully proficient or better in Mathematics.

Systematic measurement of progress toward competency in essential early learning skills is a departure from standard practice in American schools.  By identifying the skills and behaviors crucial for school success we can ensure that for these outcomes teachers don’t just cover them and then move on.  We can ensure competency in these skills for life.

Bob Sornson, Ph.D. is the founder of the Early Learning Foundation. His implementation of programs and strategies for early learning success, the Early Learning Success Initiative, serves as a model for districts around the country. He is committed to the belief that practically every child can have a successful early learning experience. Dr. Sornson can be contacted at [email protected]