School Administrative Unit #9

Frequently Asked Questions

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ently Asked Questions

Many people have questions about competency-based education.  We have tried to answer some of the most common ones here.  If you have others, please contact Kadie Wilson, Assistant Superintendent of Schools for SAU#9. 

What is competency-based education?
In a competency-based education system students demonstrate the ability to apply and transfer their learning to new situations.  Learning is personalized to meet the needs of each and every individual student.  Achievement is no longer a variable, instead it is an expectation.  Learning experiences, the time it takes to master skills and content, and the types of support may vary from student to student.  Specific learning targets are established, and students have voice and choice as to how they will get there.  The focus is really on equity, making sure each and every student gets what he or she needs in order to achieve.

How is competency-based education different from traditional approaches?
The traditional form of education was based upon the needs of an industrial age.  Students were grouped by age and moved through school at a relatively similar pace regardless of what they needed.  The system was designed to be efficient; not necessarily to be the most effective.  The needs of today's students are quite different.  Take a look at this graphic from KnowledgeWorks for a comparison of the two models:


Why are we making this change?  
During our strategic planning process, we asked the community about what issues were facing our students and what we wanted our schools to provide.  The core values that came out of that process indicated that our community believed that learning takes places both inside and outside of our schools.  They believe that there must be collaboration between the community and the schools.  They believe that students must learn to think critically, solve problems, and apply skills across content areas by engaging in hands-on experiences that are relevant to the real world.  They also believe learning must be differentiated in process, location, and pace' embracing the arts, community, and diverse learning styles.  

Being successful today means being able to use the knowledge you have in new and different ways.  A traditional educational system is not designed to provide that to students.  Check out this video clip from the team who produced the film Most Likely to Succeed.


 What are the benefits of competency-based education for students?

There are many advantages to students who are part of a competency-based education system.  Educators are expected to meet individual students where they are, focusing on individual strengths and needs.  Learning is an expectation.  If a student misses a concept or skill, he or she is provided additional time and opportunity to learn it.    Students are more motivated and engaged as they have voice in choice in what and how they are learning.  Having clearly defined competencies adds to transparency, as students, parents, and community members have a clear picture of what is expected.  Competency-based education is designed to ensure each and every student makes progress and develops the skills necessary to achieve.  

What is the difference between standards and competencies?  
Standards describe what students should know and be able to do in relation to established criteria.  They are distinct statements and provide the building blocks for competencies.  Competencies describe how students apply and transfer their learning to new contexts and situations.  They encompass multiple standards, are assessed at multiple times, and allow for the transfer of knowledge and skills across content areas.  

Will transitioning to competency-based education decrease the level of rigor in our schools?
No!  Ensuring each and every student learns doesn't mean lowering our expectations.  It means that as educators have a responsibility to meet each individual student where he or she is, and provide what each student needs.  It means holding students accountable for learning.  No longer is it okay to learn just some of the material and then move on to something new.  Competency-based education means that each student will be held to a high standard and be required to demonstrate competency before earning credit. 

For a competency-based system to be effective, there needs to be a clearly established, well-structured curriculum in place.  Learning progressions must be established.  At the same time, that curriculum must be flexible and responsive to student needs.  It must also address so called "soft skills" that are often not included in a traditional curriculum.  

How does personalized learning fit into competency-based education?  What is the difference between personalization, differentiation, and individualization?
Personalization is a large piece of moving to a student-centered, competency-based system.  In personalized learning environments, students have a say in day to day decisions about learning (Colby, 2017). They have a voice in how they wish to learn and how they will demonstrate their learning (Colby, 2017).  This chart created by Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey, national experts in personalization, helps clarify the differences.  

personalization chart

How will grading work in a competency-based system?  Will this impact my student's chances of getting into college?
In a competency-based system, grades are intended to specifically communicate what students have learned.  Students earn credit when they demonstrate competency, the ability to apply their knowledge.  Attempts at learning are not averaged to create a grade.  We don't average in efforts in a practice for a sporting event into the score at the beginning of a game.  Why then should we average in early attempts at learning when students are practicing new skills and concepts?  In a competency-based system, student achievement is measured using a variety of tools, including performance assessments and high quality rubrics.  We track student performance with rolling grades, not at arbitrary times.  Students continually provide evidence of their learning, and that evidence is compared to established proficiency scales. 

Another component of competency-based grading is that student behaviors are reported separately from student academic achievement.  For example, what do you know about a student who receives a "C" in math?  Did that student learn 75% of the material?  Did the student learn 100% of the material but not turn in some of his assignments?  Did the student only learn 60% of the material but complete extra credit assignments to bring up his grade?  A traditional system that mixes behaviors, averaging, and achievement makes it impossible to answer the question.  What is worse is that the answer can change from teacher to teacher.  A competency-based system attempts to clearly communicate exactly what was learned and what kinds of behaviors are being demonstrated.  

Our goal is to provide parents with more, not less, information about how students are performing.  While we have implemented standards-based grading practices, which are similar to competency-based practices, at the K-8 level, we are just beginning this work at the high school.  Students will continue to receive traditional grades and transcripts until we have designed a system that we know will meet the needs of each student, whether he or she going on to college, the military, or into the work force.  

Does moving to competency-based grading practices mean there will be no more class rank or GPA?
Both GPA and class rank can be computed in competency-based grading systems.  While it might look a little different, there are many different ways schools are engaging in this work.  Philosophically, class rank isn't part of a competency-based system.  However it is still required by many colleges so it will continue to be reported.  

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