Historical Perspective: From Old School to New Competencies

Topics: Education Policy, ESSA

There was a time in education when content was locally-driven and generally textbook-based. Assessments were teacher or textbook created and measured the degree to which the students had learned (generally memorized) the content. Old-school traditional grading practices were focused on the results of assessments and assignments – generally teacher created assessments. Grades communicated to parents not only student accomplishment but also implied abilities and effort. It was acceptable that some students were labeled “average” or “below average” based on outcomes of undefined standards and expectations. Students moved forward through the school years based on age and minimum acceptable performance – they “passed”

Standards-based approaches ushered in a new focus on common expectations and outcomes. Content standards pushed the curriculum away from a textbook or locally-driven approach to one based a on a set of uniform content standards established by teams of content experts. Content standards pushed for more higher-order thinking in learning and assessment – and moved away from the memorization of facts only. When we moved to a standards-based approach to assessment and grading, the focus was on demonstrating mastery of a defined set of content standards and learning objectives within a specified grade. Students met standards designated for specific grade levels and moved grade to grade by age. Yet assessment and grading still reflected the degree to which mastery had been achieved and students advanced by age with varying degrees of performance and understanding.

Competency-based grading challenges the notion of age-related progression through school programs. Competency-based education shifts learning to an individualized pace and approach. Students meet competencies in a variety of ways and are able to explore in a variety of learning environments including workplace and community learning. Students are free to meet competencies and earn credit at their own pace. This allows students to take extra time on a challenging area but eliminates wasted time when the competency is one that the student can meet easily. This is not possible in traditional “seat time” credits. Competencies met and those not yet achieved are communicated through meaningful feedback that can be used to design opportunities for mastery as necessary. Simple letter grades of unclear meaning and standard are a thing of the past.

Competency-based approaches to instruction and mastery demand that we think about instruction and assessment in very different ways. Clear and well communicated competencies in content, process and disposition are necessary. Instruction becomes collaboration and the classroom is the community. Assessment can no longer be an event but a system of ongoing formative feedback that supports student learning rather than judging the degree to which a student has learned. Full implementation of competency-based assessment systems requires us to reassess everything we think about the structures and outcomes of schools. It changes the very nature of our education system – new thinking, new methods, new technologies for a new generation of learners.

Learn more about competency education in a report co-written by Lillian Pace at KnowledgeWorks: A K-12 Federal Policy Framework for Competency Education: Building Capacity for Systems Change 

Guest post by Sharon Brown, PhD, Director of the Greater Cleveland Education Development Center (GCEDC) and formerly KnowledgeWorks’ Director of Research, Evaluation and Accountability.