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Aurora Institute

The Role of Assessment Instruments in a Competency-Based System

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Caroline Messenger

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

Screen Shot 2014-11-05 at 7.01.11 AMNo matter how you approach it, you cannot mitigate the massive change agent that is competency-based education. It does not leave much room for “old school” notions of teaching and learning. It does not tolerate anything less than a committed belief that all students can achieve at high levels.

It certainly demands a philosophical and ideological shift in thinking about “best practice” in education.

When I had first embarked on this journey, I had prepared myself for these shifts as they pertained to my practice. How can I become more student-centered? What does that look like? How will I know if my students are ready?

The question I never asked: How will I assess it and grade it?

Recently, I was sitting with a colleague who couldn’t understand why her students weren’t doing well on major benchmark assessments in her science class. She followed her curriculum and designed performance tasks that would challenge them by asking for synthesis and evaluation.

As she handed me her performance task, I was impressed with its design and its rigor – students really did need to build off of their newfound scientific knowledge in order to create something new that they would test – either mathematically or through experimentation. They would then present their findings and their implications, both for future research and its impact on the environment.

It seemed comprehensive, according to Larry Ainsworth’s (2010) model for rigorous curriculum design. She had purposefully planned her assessment to align with her curriculum. It was authentic; she had prioritized which standards she would track. It wasn’t the assessment that was problematic – it was her assessment instrument.

The rubric specified no measurable standards. Instead, it looked at superficial elements of the students’ work. For example, the first two criteria in her rubric stated: “The students’ poster can be clearly read from three feet away” and “The students’ presentation was between 2 and 3 minutes long.” According to Ainsworth, a rigorous curriculum provides not only a detailed road map, but also a “high-quality delivery system” that insures attainment of standards. Rigor is essential in the work that students do. But when you examined her rubric, it didn’t seem rigorous at all.

This teacher certainly had rigor in her task, but it didn’t translate to her assessment instrument. This misalignment between task and learning outcome also revealed a misconception about rubrics and their varied purposes.

According to Susan Brookhart (2013), rubrics are not directions nor should they become task definers. The purpose of a rubric is to determine student learning. Rubrics, when well-designed and aligned with standards, can assist teachers in accurately placing a student’s progress on a continuum and provide valuable information regarding instructional gaps and weaknesses.

What my colleague had done was not uncommon. In working with this teacher – a popular and accomplished professional – I came to understand the role of assessment instruments more clearly. It wasn’t that she couldn’t design a rigorous assessment, it was that she didn’t know how to use standards and knowledge frameworks to develop the assessment instrument. When I asked her about her decision to assess the size of the poster or the length of the presentation, she looked puzzled and said, “I thought the rubric was supposed to help the students follow the presentation directions.”

According to Brookhart (2013), this is not an aberration. This is “a very seductive but poor use for rubrics … to codify the directions for an assignment into a chart that lists the features of the task (for example, ‘cover page’) and the number or kind of required elements for each feature.” This might create compliant students, but it does not create critical thinkers. It is also a “grade-focused” rather than “learning-focused” approach because students only consider what they can earn on the assignment rather than what they can learn.

When students enter my class, they only have one question about any piece of work they hand in: What’s my grade on that? They are busy doing all sorts of creative math in their heads as they try to figure out what they need to pass the course. This is a mindset of minimal standards and accountability. It certainly isn’t creating a culture of success.

This becomes a huge challenge in competency-based education. First and foremost, it destroys an assessment’s connection with and relevancy to the standards for instruction. Second, it mitigates critical thinking and creativity as students are confined to a rote set of low-level expectations that do not address what students should actually do with the knowledge and skills they attain.

It’s also terribly confusing. If I, as their teacher, don’t value the task, why should they? My rubrics speak volumes about what I value – is it the size of their lettering or the quality of their thinking?

These types of rubrics are all about the points and function as checklists rather than assessment instruments. These types of rubrics can be better used as components of a self-reflective activity for students as they consider how they handled an assignment’s directives and expectations.

When I first began my own reflective process in regards to my instruction, I didn’t readily consider assessment. My primary concern focused on “How do I teach?”, not “How do I assess student’s understanding?” But within a competency-based system, assessment will quickly arise as the “sticky wicket,” and it certainly caused me to re-evaluate not only what I was doing, but also why I was doing it.

It caused me to face the big questions of what I wanted my students to learn and how I was going to figure out whether or not they learned it. Rubrics in my classroom are not vastly different from assessment to assessment – in fact, we are currently focused on four primary standards as we deepen and strengthen our understandings – development of theme, use of evidence, language as agents of meaning, and author’s purpose. No assessment has yet measured all four. Why would it? Students are still attempting to understand and explore the critical aspects of the standards – how to think about it and connect it to meaning as well as what it tells us about the world and the people in it.

As I sat with my colleague and explored her standards and the rigorous thinking that students would engage in as they explored her content, I wondered how we can shift our attention away from rubrics as sets of directions and toward meaningful measurement of knowledge and understanding.

It wasn’t until after we explored her outcomes and standards as they could be translated into student act via the Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, that she began to make the connections to the rubric herself. “What was I thinking?” she exclaimed.

I don’t believe it was her thinking that was faulty, but rather our collective focus on the change inherent in competency-based learning. How will we teach? What will we give up? Will it be worth it? But if the fundamental beliefs about assessment do not change, then instruction cannot be transformed in any meaningful, sustainable way.


Ainsworth, L. (2010). Rigorous curriculum design: How to create curricular units of study that align standards, instruction, and assessment. Englewood, CO: Lead Learn Press.

Brookhart, S. M. (n.d.). How to create and use rubrics for formative assessment and grading.

Caroline Gordon Messenger has taught English for grades 6 through 12 for the past 14 years. Before earning her teacher certification, she was a professional journalist. Messenger holds a Master of Arts in Oral Traditions and a research Master of Philosophy in the Sociology of Education from Lancaster University in Lancaster, U.K. She currently teaches English and Journalism at Naugatuck High School in Naugatuck, CT. Reach her on Twitter: @cjmessenger