Competency-Based Assessment: What It Is and Its Benefits

Kelly Brouse
Kelly Brouse
Elementary School Principal; M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction
Girl sitting at a desk writing a piece of paper in a classroom.

As educators, we are constantly striving to ensure what we are teaching our students is preparing them for the real world that lies ahead, but how can we know for sure? Assessment can have different meanings depending on who you ask, but ultimately it is a measure to ensure that you are on track towards, or meeting, your goals. So, how do you measure if the broad goal of preparing students for the world ahead of them is being met with the skills we are teaching in our day-to-day lessons? Competency-based assessment is one viable answer.

What is Competency-Based Assessment?

Everyone remembers the “fast facts” math tests or lengthy multiple choice exams that quizzed learners on remembering content that has been committed to memory. Competency-Based Assessment (CBA) is definitely not that! CBAs are opportunities created for students to apply the skills and methods they have learned in their lessons to real world problems and situations to determine if students can synthesize, apply, and evaluate their learning in a purposeful way. The skills in focus should be transferable, that is, skills that are related to being “thinkers” or “contributors” to the world around us, like collaborating with a group or communicating their reasoning. As you can see, the focus is on skills rather than content, and you can understand why. Content is readily accessible at the touch of a finger these days, but skills take time to develop, nurture, and finesse.

Competency-based assessment in education typically begins with a self-assessment, where students reflect on their abilities and goals and create a profile for what they feel are strengths and what are areas to develop. It may surprise many to hear that students can do this as young as kindergarten! Simply identifying on a scale of 1-4 how comfortable they are with a new skill initiates the self-assessment process. After this step, teachers will provide students with learning opportunities aligned with the goals that are by and large collaboratively-designed and provide authentic formative assessments for students to assess their progress along the way.

What are the Benefits of Competency-Based Assessment?

Competency-based assessment provides myriad benefits, starting with the involvement and engagement of the learner. Students are both motivated by authentic tasks and also become involved in reflecting on their own learning and leading their own goal setting when competency-based assessment is meaningfully embedded into classroom practice. When students see purpose in the assessment at hand, like a performance task that requires students to utilize math skills to navigate a multi-step real world problem, student engagement increases and in turn provides a truer picture of what students are able to do because of their desire to demonstrate their abilities.

Further, competency-based assessment affords opportunities for teachers to naturally involve students in the cycle of continuous improvement, bringing students back to analyze and discuss their work, track progress over time, and set new goals for themselves as learners and thinkers that they can measure with future CBAs. To learn more about the benefits of student involvement in the assessment cycle, consider Ron Berger’s Leaders of their own Learning (2013), as a professional text you will reference alongside your district curriculum for years to come.

Competency-Based Assessment Methods to Use in Your Classroom

As mentioned, one easy entry point is just beginning with a rating scale where students become familiar with (and frequently reference) a four point scale to assess their comfort and ability with certain skills in focus. Under the Growth Mindset Model (Dweck, 2006), you could use the four terms “novice”, “apprentice”, “practitioner”, and “expert”. You could also create your own ratings like (1) I am not sure where to start, (2) I remember this but need practice, (3) I can do this on my own, (4) I can teach someone else. As learners get older, the complexity of such a self-assessment can become far more sophisticated but will still be grounded in those basic competency levels.

The assessment process is interwoven with the learning process to create a continuous cycle for improvement where assessment guides and informs the new learning activities. Formative assessments become a critical component to CBA where intermittent checks are taken of student progress to inform if the skills they are learning are developing to a level where students can utilize them independently and in authentic ways. Teachers will collaborate with students after a formative CBA to engage the student in discourse around where they found success and what challenges remain.

Rubrics with skill competencies are easy to utilize (once developed) across content areas, so that students are continuing to assess these “life skills” as they develop across various learning experiences. For example, a student may be required to assess their collaborative skills using a four point collaboration scale for math group work, writing conferences, scientific inquiry, and social studies research. As you can see, CBA can be used across any content area, as long as the focus is on skills and the authentic use of them.

Another critical element to competency-based assessment is engaging students in the design of what mastery will look like. Having students grapple with what a learning outcome will look like, identifying criteria, and then reflecting on their learning with that self-designed criteria, are all meaningful steps in CBA that can be applied across any content area.

Looking for one easy starting point? Consider adjusting your student objectives to “learning targets” that start with the phrase, “I can…” This model, proposed by Berger, sets students out on a learning path that they contribute to, take ownership of, and have clear vision for mastery.

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