FAQ: Are graduate aims the same as competencies?

by Chris Sturgis

Do you see graduate aims as roughly the same thing as competencies? Is it a nomenclature issue or a conceptual difference?

What a good question! The answer is it depends.

Graduate aims are the set of knowledge and skills that describe what we want students to know and be able to do upon graduation. Transcend also include social-emotional factors and transferable skills (the combination of skills, mindsets and behaviors we need to learn to learn). There is a trend right now for districts and schools to create a graduate profile or portrait that usually includes a number of high level skills such as communication, collaboration, problem-solving and creativity that are needed for real-world learning and problem-solving. The graduate profiles might also include character traits such as persistence or resourcefulness. Some include terms that embrace a way of being in the world, perhaps it could be described as a role or capacity, such as a global citizen or a leader. (What’s interesting to note is that graduation requirements also include all the state requirements that are about completing a number of courses except for a few leading states such as Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire. These are often left off the graduate profiles but the system continues to be aligned with the state requirements for graduation.)

Now let’s think about whether these are competencies. To be competent means to have demonstrated the ability to apply knowledge and skills to a new and challenging context. Thus competencies should be set at this level with specific performance levels. I can be competent in designing science experiments at the 8th grade level, a 12th grade level or a masters degree level. The emphasis on application is why you’ll see discussion about performance tasks and performance-based assessment among district shifting to competency-based education. Students need the chance to apply what they are learning.

Most of the concepts included in graduate aims can be written as a competency …but not all. Traits are really tricky and we can find our selves in situations where there is tension or nuance that isn’t easy to measure. For example, persistence is an important trait but in terms of creativity it is often better to take a break and come back later. Being an independent learner is important but creativity is often maximized through collaboration. Furthermore, the core academic areas don’t fit entirely into that definition of a competency because they are a combination of knowledge and skills.  You know about something and then you use your skills to apply the knowledge to a problem.  The core academics are often described as content in the traditional system. A graduate aim might be defined as being knowledgeable about civics, or American history, or biology. Or you might write a graduate aim for core academics as skills. Take history for example. Rather than thinking about knowing about American history as a competency you can focus on the skills such as using original sources to analyze a historical event. However, there is often push back from certain groups of parents if we only talk about skills — it’s best to keep a focus on knowledge and skills. So we might want to either use the term competency more generally to talk about content knowledge we expect every student to know or simply say there are a combination of knowledge, skills (competencies), traits and capacities (roles) that all students need to be prepared.

Now even though this sounds tricky, the real tricky part is in the redesign and implementation. If a district or school wants to make sure that every student is going to develop a common set of knowledge, skills, traits and capacities and define then they have to think about what it will take to help every student be successful. Otherwise we just keep on reproducing inequity as the traditional system does. In addition, if at least some of the graduate aims are written as competencies then schools will need to make sure they are transparent and measurable. For example, if skills such as communication and collaboration are described as competencies then there has to be a calibrated understanding of what it means to reach graduation level skills in those skills. And then you have to back it out to lower levels (grade level is too granular for these types of skills) so that you can determine if students are making progress towards the graduation competencies.  Finally, schools will need to organize the learning experiences, instruction/coaching, assessment and opportunity for more practice, relearning and revision to do so.

However, creating an equitable system has to be more than creating a minimum level of expectations for graduate aims. We want students to be able to discover their potential. The minute we mention potential we dive deep into the inequity waters. We want to make sure the system provides adequate, not just equal, amounts of learning experiences, instruction, feedback and opportunities. I thought Maine was on to something when they said that some areas would be common for everyone and that students could then pick some additional areas that they would demonstrate their proficiency at graduate levels. What if we did say here are minimum levels and we expect students to pick at least three areas where they meet a higher level. We could call it college ready but of course that always privileges colleges over other avenues of post-secondary learning and career development. Perhaps “advanced” would be better. New Zealand has established three tiers with calibrated assessments through sampling and external examinations.

To sum this up: Graduate aims can include a wide range of outcomes. Some can be written as competencies but don’t have to be. If written as a competency then we should take advantage of it and create some transparent, measurable progressions so that students and teachers can work together to make sure every student is successful.

PS:  After having taken some time to write this, I am not 100% sure this is a great answer. I retain the right to modify this response.

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