A major component of competency-based education revolves around the idea of measuring student achievement by mastery of a skill, not how long they’ve spent in a classroom. So, if seat time, or even number grades, are not being used, how is a student’s success actually measured in competency-based education? The key is in competencies.

In the five part working definition of competency-based education, the first two tenets are:

  • Students advance upon demonstrated mastery.
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.

Students in a competency ed environment will not move on until they have demonstrated mastery. In this system of learning, students do not get to move on if they have a ‘passing’ grade. They need to show that they truly understand and have mastered the material. To do so, they need to have met competencies.

What are Competencies?

“These competencies become building blocks for the entire model, they’re the currency,”

–Brian Stack, Principal of Sanborn Regional High School

They are, in a sense, the unit of measurement for learning in competency ed. Competencies represent what a students needs to learn, and why. They are not as simple as the correct answer on a multiple choice test question, but rather require a deeper level of knowledge.

Within each competency, there are various learning progressions. An example could be that of someone learning to ride a bike:

For a child who has never ridden a bike before, the first step is usually riding with training wheels. Then, a child might work up to riding without training wheels, if their parent is there helping them, maybe holding the seat. Eventually, the child will be able to ride the bike by themselves. They will be competent at bike riding.

Similarly, when getting a student to a level of competency, there will be learning progressions. These may begin with assistance from the teacher, even ongoing support, but the student should be progressing in their learning to the point where they meet that competency.

As tenet 2 of the competency definition mentioned at the outsets states, these competencies should be transferrable to other areas of learning, and they should empower students. But they should also be clear, and measurable. How are competencies measured? This may differ from school to school. But again, the idea revolves are mastery, not just a passing grade.

Why Competency?

What makes competencies such a good unit of measurement, compared to more traditional methods? When a student is graded on an assignment, and receives a 90, they move on. A 90 is usually considered very good. The student gets an A. But what does this really show about their level of proficiency, about what they have learned?

“90 represents that you get it right 90% of the time. And in our traditional model, what we’re saying is ‘That’s really good, we’re going to call that an A,’…well I don’t know about you, but if I’m sitting on an airplane, and I know that my pilot was only able to land that plane in flight school 90% of the time, I want off that plane. To me, being an expert at something means more than just you can do it 90% of the time. So with grading practices…that we have in traditional schools, you have to look at and really question, ‘Are these going to help us represent what students learn versus points that they’ve accumulated or earned.'”

— Brian Stack, Principal of Sanborn Regional High School

This is complex issue for many schools. It’s hard to push past the traditional grading method. But it comes down to what is best for the students. How can it be ensured that they are prepared for their future?

“In a competency model, it’s about students and student learning. And the traditional practices that we had around grading, have really been about…the accumulation of points…so it’s really important to start to think about grading practices, and how they can become truly about what students learn, rather than what they earn.”

Deeper learning will benefit students in a way that simply passing a class because you’ve accumulated a certain number of points never will. Students will be equipped with skills they can transfer into the real world. They learn how to learn. Reaching competencies, instead of a passing grade, will ultimately ensure that students have truly learned.

For a more in depth look at competencies, standards, grading in a competency-ed system and more, check out this two part podcast episode featuring Brian Stack and Jonathon Vander Els. Also, be sure to check out their book Breaking With Tradition, to learn even more about competency-based education from their first hand experience.

Let’s build a path to close the learning gap and enrich students’ futures.