Competency-Based Assessment Strategies

For CBL to work, teachers must rethink assessment.
"Your students will probably assume that they are competent and have the foundational skills/knowledge they need, but as a teacher/coach in a CBL environment, you must provide them with a realistic view of where they really are and how they need to improve."

Embracing competency-based learning requires a major redesign of the assessment framework that’s currently used in most public schools. Many educators find this shift intimidating because it diverges from the way they’ve done things for much of their careers, but the competency-based mindset actually helps teachers plan and assess more efficiently than ever.

Here are some guideposts and strategies that teachers can use to ensure they are truly planning and assessing in a competency-based manner:

Deconstruct Large, Conceptual Learning Targets
In order to become an effective teacher/coach in a CBL environment, it’s important to begin thinking about content and classroom takeaways in terms of functional skills and actionable strategies. Before you can assess with a competency-based mindset, you need to plan with a competency-based mindset, and that means thinking about your content and curriculum by asking, “What exactly am I teaching students to do, and what existing skills or knowledge do they need to accomplish that?”

That simple question will probably lead you down a rabbit hole of skills, knowledge pieces and work habits that each student needs to master before they can construct an understanding of the “big ideas” of your class or unit. Once you’re armed with that knowledge, you can start considering how you’ll present and assess those building block skills.

Determine what Competency & Mastery Look Like for Each Target
Of course, you can’t start assessing in a competency-based manner until you’ve established for yourself and your students what competency looks like. Consider the hierarchy of skills and knowledge pieces you created during your competency-based brainstorm and take time to determine what competency in each one of those building block skills looks like. What level of skill is necessary to serve the larger objective? How can students demonstrate their skill level? What coaching can you provide students for whom achieving competency is challenging? How will you push already-competent students toward mastery?

Once you’ve established what competency and mastery of those foundational skills look like, it’s time to turn the process over to your students.

Use Meaningful, Authentic Formative Assessments
Thanks to your thoughtful planning and clear directions, you and your students should know what competencies each learner requires in order to gain the core knowledge and perform the overarching skills of your class. Now, it’s time to figure out who is where in terms of existing skill level. This is where the process becomes decidedly heterogeneous, as all teachers know that a classroom contains a spectrum of ability and comfort levels when it comes to any skill, standard or content piece. Your students will probably assume that they are competent and have the foundational skills/knowledge they need, but as a teacher/coach in a CBL environment, you must provide them with a realistic view of where they really are and how they need to improve.

That means implementing formative assessments that provide both you and your students with clear, actionable feedback. One of the biggest obstacles to competency-based learning is a lack of self-assessment skills by students, and you must remove that stumbling block by allowing learners to engage in authentic real-world situations that help them understand what skills and knowledge they already have and what areas they need to work on.

Provide the Best Possible Access Points & Pathways to Mastery
Given that your students will be at a variety of places in terms of competency, knowledge and skill, it makes very little sense to assume they’ll all arrive at the exact same endpoint. The beauty of competency-based learning is that it allows students to reach any number of acceptable endpoints, as long as the fundamental skills and standards are accessed in the process. That means that CBL teachers and coaches can integrate principles of personalized learning to help each individual student achieve competency.

Ensuring each and every student is competent in both foundational and constructed skills means finding the texts, supports and access points that will help them engage in and make sure they understand the process. The more strong, developed pathways to competency and mastery you can construct, the more students you’re likely to impact.

Encourage a Variety of Artifacts & Practical Demonstrations of Learning
Now for the traditional “meat” of assessment: scoring student work and providing actionable feedback. Traditionally, teachers have worked to standardize summative assessments to simplify benchmarking and comparing student achievement. CBL, on the other hand, simply call for a demonstration of functional skill and knowledge, which opens up a world of endless possibilities. As a competency-based educator, you must learn to view a variety of materials and products (essays, presentations, community-based service projects, websites, etc.) through the lens of skill and be able to identify how students are using their foundational skills to construct high-level understandings and create a toolbox for navigating and thriving in the real world.

If you encourage students to brainstorm new ways to demonstrate their learning, you’ll be blown away by the enthusiasm for growth that you see and the quality of the products you receive.