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Aurora Institute

Where Do End-of-Course Exams Fit In?

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

Ready for the exam

Anyone deep in competency education is probably getting a lot of calls from around the country asking for briefings, and advice about how to move forward. So we are going to start a new category of posts aimed at making sense of competency education. We’ll just call it Understanding Competency Education, and it is designed for people who are just diving into the topic. Quite honestly, it is probably for all of us as our understanding deepens.


The first topic is something we are asked about frequently: What is the relationship between competency education and “end-of-course” exams? Does using an end-of-course exam mean that you have implemented competency education? Do you have to use end-of-course exams in a competency education system?

Let’s take this step by step. We are all working together to sharpen our thinking, so please jump in if you think I don’t have this quite right.

System of Assessments: Competency education considers assessment to be part of the learning process. The assessments, formative and summative alike, need to be designed around the specific learning objectives that the students are focused on. Most important for ensuring that students are progressing and “pacing” is for teachers and students to use the formative assessment process to guide student learning. Thus, an end-of-course exam could be part of the system of assessments but certainly not the only one.

Demonstration of Mastery: The design of the end-of–course exam makes a difference. Competencies are designed so that students demonstrate mastery based on the higher levels of Depth of Knowledge or Bloom’s Taxonomy. For an end-of-course exam to be valuable in a competency-based system, it needs to be designed to assess mastery. An end-of-course exam could be a bubble test and/or it could focus on lower-level skills without the capacity to be used to assess mastery. So perhaps we should think about language to differentiate – course-mastery exams and end-of-course exams. Certainly an end-of-course exam might be a performance-based assessment contributing to students’ portfolios.

Learning Progressions: Competency education assumes that students are building skills (mastering learning objectives) throughout a course. So “grading” means that we are monitoring student progress in mastering skills and content. If an end-of-course exam is used, students would still need the opportunity to get instructional help if they didn’t “pass” or demonstrate proficiency on the exam. The idea that there would be a one-time end-of-course exam with a letter grade is anathema to competency education. Remember:  “…failure or poor performance may be part of the student’s learning curve, but it is not an outcome.”

Quality Control: End-of-course exams, such as AP exams, certainly could be a component of a quality control system.  We have been using an awkward, top-down, NCLB-driven accountability system to address quality issues in the education system.  CompeWe are always going to have to be vigilant in ensuring that: 1) consistency in the understanding across states, districts, schools and classrooms about what is proficiency (thank goodness for the Common core) and, 2)  we avoid being entrapped in the cultural demand for sorting students by differentiating what proficiency means.

In summary, an end-of-course exam is useful in competency education if 1) it is one of many assessments, designed specifically around the competencies and learning objectives; 2) it allows students to demonstrate the application of knowledge, and 3) students who are not yet proficient have opportunities to get instructional help and multiple chances to demonstrate mastery.

Please be sure to comment, to further clarify, and even to disagree if you don’t think these explanations are accurate. It’s most important that we build understanding and not confusion! If we get a lot of comments, I’ll rewrite this post to better reflect your expertise!




Chris Sturgis is Principal of MetisNet, a consulting firm that specializes in supporting foundations and special initiatives in strategy development, coaching and rapid research. She is strategic advisor to the Youth Transition Funders Group and manages the Connected by 25 blog.