Highlights from the Innovation Lab Network: How Competency Based Education is Transforming Assessment and Accountability Systems in Schools

What is an effective way for schools to assess students in competency based education (CBE) that is effective and equitable?  This question was explored in the third installment of a three-part webinar series hosted by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning  (iNACOL) and the Council of Chief State School Officials (CCSSO) that took place on April 10, 2014 entitled  “How Competency Based Education is Transforming Assessment and Accountability Systems in Schools.” 

Beth Colby, Senior Program Associate at CCSSO, returned as a speaker to provide context surrounding the Innovation Lab Network  (ILN). ILN was created in 2009 by CCSSO as a response to the idea that the public education system needed to be transformed though system-level change.  Colby reviewed the Six Critical Attributes and their importance in defining CBE for the ILN.

Carmen Coleman, Superintendent of Danville Public Schools (DPS) in Kentucky, discussed the decision-making process and implementation strategies to change the way students were learning so that they were college and career ready. Inspired by the lessons in Tony Wagner’s book The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need – and What We Can Do About It — DPS’s school board arranged for visits by teachers from High Tech High School in San Diego, CA, and made several visits to High Tech High and schools in the iZone district in New York, NY. From these interactions, DPS realized that there were four common instructional strategies that they wanted to incorporate into their education system:

  • Project-Based Learning (PBL). A rigorous way of teaching students content and skills by having them explore a question, solve an authentic problem, or meet a challenge.
  • Design Thinking. A process or tool to help students approach tasks and problems.
  • Performance-Based Assessments. A way to assess the application and transference of content and skills.
  • Blended Learning. Using technology as a tool for differentiating and individualizing for students’ learning needs.

DPS used these strategies to plan the CBE-inspired Danville Diploma which outlines the skills and competencies that students are expected to achieve between preschool and twelfth grade. The Danville Diploma is making sure that students learn life skills in conjunction with Common Core content, and students and their families can track progress using their Digital Portfolios.

DPS’s performance-based assessments provide a way to assess higher-order cognitive skills that can’t be measured well through traditional standardized tests. Students are also assessed at the end of the school year through presentations of their work and progress against skills and competencies of the Danville Diploma in front of community panels (i.e. superintendent, community leader). These presentations take place in seventh grade (Defenses), fifth, eighth, and tenth grade (Gateways), and twelfth grade (Capstone).

Erica Stofanak summarized the assessment and accountability systems of the Rochester School District (RSD) in Rochester, NH.  Stofanak is one of the two Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment Coaches in RSD who assist the district and teachers plan for CBE-based instruction and assessment. CBE was in place for the third year in the RSD high school and the first year for grades K-8. Stofanak gave an overview of how RSD grades their students’ competencies:

  • Advanced (A). Effectively synthesizes, analyzes, evaluates, and reformulates content knowledge and skills.
  • Beyond Competent (B). Applies content and skills with greater depth of knowledge.
  • Competent (C). Baseline competency mastery; effectively demonstrates comprehension of defined objects.
  • Not Yet Competent (NYC). Does not meet mastery; demonstrates an incomplete and/or inaccurate comprehension or objectives. Content knowledge and skills are not secure and are not applied with consistency. Teachers focus on ‘closing the gap’ and content recovery with these students.
  • Insufficient Work Submitted (IWS). Does not submit sufficient evidence to measure competence. Teachers focus on course recovery with these students.

Competency rubrics were written for students based off the above grading scale by teachers and district leaders using the Common Core State Standards to outline the curriculum. Summative assessments were then derived from the competency rubric to determine what grade level a student earned. RSD was very intentional in creating their assessments to ensure that competencies could be measured no matter what way students chose to demonstrate mastery.  All teachers use a uniform scoring rubric to ensure that every student is being assessed in the same way. In order to derive overall competency grades, the district has instructed teachers to use one of the three methods described below, all of which allow teachers to override the computed grades if they feel it does not reflect their students accurately:

  • Allow a program to “do the math.” Each department of teachers should weigh the course’s Competency Statements, weigh the categories of assessment (formative and summative), and create a grading scale (i.e. an A grade should have a minimum of 3.4, a B grade should have a minimum of 2.7).
  • Find the mode of the data set. Teachers are instructed to examine the summative assessment grades, determine the mode, and build confidence* that the mode is accurate.
  • Apply the power law. Teachers apply the power law (an algorithm that assigns additional weight to more recent grades with less focus on earlier grades), examine the proficiency estimate, review the summative assessment grades, and build confidence.

RSD has created a year-long assessment Competency Matrix* by unit for each school subject in every grade fourth through twelfth. The matrices contain all of the competencies for each grade-level course and divides them into performance indicators which are measured during different units of instruction. Students earn a letter grade (A, B, C, NYC, or IWS) for each performance indicator of every competency. At the end of each progress reporting period, students earn an overall grade for their classes based off the components of the competencies. For example, in fourth grade math class there are five competencies and to earn an A grade the majority of competency statements must be an A and there cannot be any Cs, NYCs, or IWSs.  These progress reports are thought of as ‘snapshots’ while the final report is considered the final grade for the students.  Students are informed about the grading process by teachers who indicate on each assignment which competency and grading rubric is being used.

To access full webinar content and information click here.

This is the third and final installment of this series. Previous blogs in this series include Transforming Systems Through Policy, Practice, and Structure; Transforming Teaching and Learning Through Competency Based Education, Part 1; and Transforming Teaching and Learning Through Competency Based Education, Part 2.

*Please note that some links only open correctly in Mozilla FireFox.

Garet Fryar is a policy research assistant at the American Youth Policy Forum.


Photo Credit: Flickr 


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