Considering competency-based education? Reconsider how you assess


Oct 7, 2014

This blog originally appeared here on The World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE)’s edudebate series on assessment titled “What Alternatives to Standardized Testing?”

Testing reimagined: How and when we should be assessing competency

We can all remember the cycle of emotions involved in taking tests: trying to cram as much into our heads, sitting the test, and eventually receiving a grade, weeks later, already immersed in new subject matter. Our grades may have clearly communicated what we knew on the day of that test. But opportunities to go back and learn what we’d missed rarely presented themselves.

Competency-based education presents an alternative philosophy of when and on what terms students take tests and move on to new material. In competency-based models, students advance upon mastery. A different spirit of assessment sits at the fulcrum of competency-based approaches: students only move on to new or more challenging material once they can show that they’ve mastered more basic skills and concepts. This means that students will often advance at different paces, and sometimes along different pathways. This also means that a competency-based system requires paradigm shifts in both how and when we assess students’ mastery.

How are students assessed for mastery?

Competency-based high schools in the US use a variety of modalities to assess students. A number of these approaches are being used in the state of New Hampshire, which has mandated that all high schools measure credit in terms of competency rather than time. Some schools like Sanborn Regional High School still use many traditional pen and paper exams, but with one key difference: they offer “reassessment without penalty” for students scoring below an 80%. Therefore students do not fail, but rather revisit material until they are able to retake tests to demonstrate mastery.

Other competency-based schools, particularly those using blended learning curricula such as North Country Charter Academy rely heavily on online assessment. In such schools, students engage primarily in self-paced online curriculum and receive face-to-face support from teachers on an as-needed basis. As such, the school relies heavily on online assessments to gauge gaps in students’ understanding and determine when individual students are ready to move on to the next online lesson or module.

Still other competency-based models, like Next Charter School assess mastery through student projects rather than on pen-and-paper or online tests at the end of a lesson or unit. For example, the students in a social studies course might be asked to write a letter to the President Obama proposing foreign policy strategies. The letter might have to include both an historical account of previous foreign policy strategies, a proposed action, and a rationale and justification for why that proposed action was the best option. To assess these projects in a competency-based rather than a time-based manner, the school adds in additional supports and opportunities to revisit material. Leading up to final projects like this one, teachers use various formative assessments, like short quizzes or less formal inquiry, to gauge students’ progress toward mastering various competencies and readiness for their final project. This helps to ensure that students are not assessed until they appear ready, rather than on a fixed schedule regardless of their mastery or lack thereof. Additionally, if a student fails to demonstrate mastery in his final project, he has the option to revise his final project, or he can move on and design a new project to address the competency or competencies that he failed to master.

As schools design systems and processes to assess mastery and growth on an ongoing basis, they are also increasingly incorporating performance assessments in their curricula. Performance assessments are tests that aim to assess students’ abilities to demonstrate competencies across various disciplines and focus on the “application” of competencies, rather than on the rote memorization of facts. For example, a student may be able to answer multiple choice math questions, but a performance assessment would test his ability to calculate change in dollars and cents in a sales transaction.

Some schools like Sanborn are designing performance tasks that can be administered through traditional pen-and-paper exams, but test concepts in the context of real-world examples. Other schools have incorporated performance-based assessment into projects, such as letter to the president described above, through which students are expected to apply their understanding of U.S. history and foreign policy to a real-world persuasive writing task. At still other schools, such as MC2 , students are expected to ultimately defend their learning in front of a panel of teachers, much like doctoral students are expected to defend their dissertations in front of a committee of scholars.

When are students being assessed?

Shifting assessments to create a competency-based model not only requires new modes of testing student mastery, but also more flexible, on-demand opportunities for students to take tests. Without fundamentally shifting its assessment schedule to allow students to take assessments when they are ready, and has providing opportunities for students to revisit material that they have not mastered, schools cannot pursue a truly competency-based model.

On-demand assessment is challenging because it contradicts schools’ traditional approaches to verifying student learning on a fixed academic calendar. Schools must reconceive of their calendar and schedule in a far more individualized light if they are to imagine assessing students when students are ready to be assessed, rather than on a fixed day, at a fixed time. Some smaller schools may manage to assess students on this as-needed basis. But to scale such a system likely requires the adoption of new technology platforms. These platforms will need to track student progress, help to calculate when students are ready to be assessed, and in some cases provide appropriate assessment items on-demand. Without such capabilities, tracking each student’s progress and appropriate assessment schedule would prove overwhelming to any one educator.

Government accountability systems, such as annual exams, likewise pose obstacles to creating on-demand assessment systems. To ultimately square top down accountability regimes with ambitions for more personalized learning systems, these national or state tests will likely need to be administered on a more flexible schedule.

For a complete look at how 13 schools are transitioning to competency-based learning in New Hampshire, United States, see: From policy to practice: How competency-based education is evolving in New Hampshire



Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres.