“We started along the path toward mastery-based learning when we began to ask ourselves: Why do we assess? Why do we grade? We realized that every teacher did it differently. The transparency and intentionality of mastery-based learning makes a huge difference for our teachers and our students. Our teachers are much more intentional about what they want to achieve in their classrooms. It has also opened up the door to rich conversations about what is important for students to learn, pedagogy, and the instructional strategies we are using. For students, the transparency is empowering and motivating. They are more engaged in taking responsibility for their own education than ever before.”
– Lara Evangelista, Principal, Flushing International High School, New York City Department of Education, 2016
The common learning framework of student learning objectives is transparent to all. Students know where they are on their learner continuum, their progress and growth. Transparency of the teaching and learning philosophy also facilitates student ownership and builds intrinsic motivation for students. Distributed leadership depends on access to guiding principles and data to support collaborative decision-making. As a result, everyone can be actively engaged in the process of continuous improvement. Transparency isn’t only about information. It is also relational in creating open, honest and when needed dialogue that addresses problems and challenges bias. Trust builds as understanding of different perspectives deepen.
- Common learning framework. A common learning framework or continuum of learning has been agreed upon and shared among teachers, students and families about what knowledge and skills students are expected to learn. The framework includes learning targets along with rubrics and examples of proficient student work. In early stage competency-based schools, this tends to be similar to grade-level state standards. Districts and schools may choose to organize around competencies that describe the core sets of skills students are expected to know upon graduation that are then organized to communicate specific performance or grade levels. The most developed districts and schools use a “learner continuum” that includes multiple performance or grade levels to indicate student progression based on where they are rather than where they should be based on their age.
- Student progress. Information is available and accessible to students, educators and families on where students are in terms of advancing upon targeted learning objectives including grade level targets and personal growth based on a learner continuum.
- Assessment for learning. Students receive feedback so that they understand exactly what they need to learn and do to reach proficiency. Teachers are skilled in assessment for learning to provide effective feedback for students to address misconceptions and successfully reach proficiency.
- Instructional and assessment level of knowledge. Teachers are aware of and align the instruction and assessment to the appropriate depth of knowledge called for by the learning target.
- Grading is an indicator of progress, not judgment or comparison. Schoolwide grading policies provide feedback on how students are progressing toward mastering learning objectives with transparency about performance level of student.
- Timeliness. Information on student data is available in a timely fashion that supports instructional decision-making.
- Student-centered. Students and educators can monitor learning across a variety of domains and performance levels.
- Responsive supports. Data on student learning supports educators to provide students with targeted supports to help them advance.
- Decision-making criteria. District and school leadership and teams have shared purpose and agreed upon criteria to help guide decision-making.
- Investing in quality of relationships. The culture of the school is nurtured to support strong relationships that can look honestly and deeply at individual, group or systemic issues related to student learning.
How Is Establishing Transparency Related to Quality?
The traditional education system is highly opaque and demonstrates significant variability in defining what it means to be proficient. Traditional mechanisms like grades and transcripts do not accurately reflect how well a student actually knows content or demonstrates skills. This inaccuracy makes it harder for students to drive their own learning and for educators to meet students where they are. Trust and confidence in the schools is shaken when students and families receive false signals and mixed messages about student progress.
Competency-based systems ensure that goals, learning targets, exemplars of proficiency and student progress are fully transparent and available to students and educators on a timely basis. They build capacity for comparability, validity and reliability in assessments and grading practices to ensure that data is meaningful, and that students are truly mastering content and skills.
Transparency plays multiple roles in creating high-quality and more equitable systems. First and foremost, it eliminates the practice of signaling that a student is doing fine with an A, B, or C grade even though they may be performing at two, three or more years below grade level. When schools fail to help students master content and skill, students move forward with holes in their learning that limit and impair future learning. These gaps compound over time, becoming harder and harder to mitigate as students advance and making it increasingly challenging for students to progress toward college and career readiness. When learning is transparent, however, educators and students know where gaps are and can address them proactively with timely and differentiated supports. Students advance with confidence that they have skills to tackle more advanced challenges. Furthermore, when transparency leads to honest conversations between teachers, students and families about how to help students become successful in their learning, trust blossoms. Trust rooted in relationships fosters support for students to be persistent in spite of challenges. Awareness, trust, effort and persistence are catalytic: they empower students to take ownership and continually move toward mastery.
Transparency is particularly essential in competency-based systems that include personalized pathways. Transparency ensures educators can monitor whether students on different pathways are progressing toward common rigorous outcomes. Additionally, transparency helps students and educators integrate learning that occurs across a variety of learning environments: in the classroom, in the community and online. This can be an important part of helping students to make connections and co-design learning experiences that are relevant to their lives. There are several aspects of transparency that are critically important for operationalizing competency-based education: common learning framework, student agency, grades and information management/reporting.
Common Learning Framework and Learning Targets
The common learning framework is the structure to which all other aspects of the competency-based systems align. When the learning framework is transparent, teachers can build a shared understanding of proficiency, align instruction and assessment to the appropriate depth of knowledge, and share knowledge of instructional strategies. Students can understand learning targets and what proficiency looks like, which helps them to take more ownership of their learning, seek and use feedback to reach proficiency and use different ways of learning and demonstrate their learning.
In the early stages of creating transparency about the learning goals and aligning assessments, teachers may recognize that they are teaching and assessing at lower levels of depth of knowledge than what is called for by the standards. This may cause frustration, disappointment and even a hint of shame. This is an important opportunity to instill the culture of learning—helping teachers to recognize the value of a transparency system, collaboration and learning from mistakes. This can also be a place to develop teacher leaders who embrace the mantra of “doing right for our kids” to help move past the frustration, turning it into a drive to do better.
In addition to the building blocks of learning, students need information about the learning process, the learning targets and their own progress to take ownership of their learning. In competency-based schools, students know the specific learning targets they are working on, what proficiency looks like and the options they have for learning, practice and demonstrating learning. They learn to set and reflect on goals for learning with their teachers.
Transparency is a powerful aspect of the learning cycle. Assessments for learning make it clear to students what they need to continue to work on. They know exactly what they need to learn and demonstrate to reach proficiency. Similarly, effective use of assessments enable teachers to tailor instruction and supports so students reach their learning targets. Schools often turn to learning progressions, research on how students best move from concept to concept, to better understand how students are developing understanding and solving problems.
Grading and Transcripts
Once the common learning framework, moderation and calibration mechanisms and system of supports for students are in place, districts and schools can replace traditional grading practices with ones based around the learning targets. Competency-based schools use rubrics for each learning target. Grading provides feedback on the progress toward reaching proficiency. Progress reports or report cards provide feedback to students and parents about student growth as well as where students are in terms of grade-level expectations. Students value the competency-based grading practices as they provide specific feedback on what students need to learn or improve to reach mastery. Transcripts are beginning to change as well to show what students know and can do. To date, many admissions offers at colleges and universities say that they value proficiency-based transcripts as long as there is an accompanying letter of explanation.
In competency-based education, pace is based on student mastery of the learning targets, not the teacher pacing guide to deliver the curriculum. It allows us to think of pace differently, based on student learning and progress. Pace is a ratio of individual student growth and time, and it is an important indicator in personalized, competency-based systems as it indicates whether students are adequately progressing along their trajectory and receiving timely, responsive additional supports. If a student entering school with significant gaps in academic knowledge and skills is progressing two grade levels over one year, it is a pace of 2.0 whereas a student at grade level may be learning at a pace of 1.0. It is easier to think of the student at grade level as being “faster” but in fact that student is covering less distance on the learning continua. With transparency about pace, teachers, students and families are able to work together to ensure student progress.
Schools monitor student learning to ensure that students are progressing at a pace that puts them on a pathway to graduation, always seeking to balance accelerated learning with opportunities for deeper learning. Monitoring pace is an important function in driving toward quality and equity. As districts and schools monitor growth, other questions arise. Are students receiving effective instructional strategies that take into consideration what they know and don’t know? Are they receiving supports they need when they need them? Do they have opportunities for deeper learning? Are students learning at a rate that is moving them forward and not leaving them behind? These discussions form the crux of the continuous improvement processes that include instructional strategies, effectiveness of structures and resource allocation.
Given the current accountability policy environment, most competency-based schools are trying to meet students where they are while still covering the standards. This tension may lend itself to innovating more effective instructional strategies. However, there is tremendous risk in continuing to turn our backs on the learning sciences that clearly guide us to meet students where they are. We need to address the misalignment in the traditional system that forces teaching at one grade level and pace instead of meeting students where they are. Instead, a competency-based education system would allow us to measure both pace and depth of learning as key indicators for quality and equity. If we fail to address the issue of meeting students where they are and holding them to the same high expectations with criteria for deeper learning, this is going to result in students continuing to receive a lower quality of education.
Transparency becomes an even more powerful design principle when data on student progress is made available to students, teachers, families, and school and district leadership. Districts and schools are still handicapped by information technology products that continue to be grounded in grade-level standards rather than student-centered approaches. Information management systems will need to be designed to aggregate data for accountability purposes, or what might be thought of as quality control. This would include the effectiveness of schools in producing student growth and helping every student get on track for graduation. Finally, with the goal of helping students discover their potential, student information systems will need to be designed to allow for tracking information on the personal pursuits of students beyond common outcomes. The hope is that eventually transcripts become meaningful tools for students to tell the story of who they are, what they know and what they want to achieve in the future.
Policies and Practices to Look For
- The learning objectives such as competencies and standards are explicit and transparent. Examples of student work at proficiency for each performance level are easily accessible. Learner continua are student-centered to reflect where students are in their learning journey.
- Assessment criteria is transparent so that students can bring evidence of learning from other classes and from activities beyond the walls of the classroom.
- Districts are open and honest in all communication. Clarity of intentions, expectations, learning targets and feedback ensures everyone has the information to advance their goals.
- Students and parents understand that there is a difference between age-based grade level and personalized performance level and where students are in each academic domain.
- Grading practices and policies are clear, fair and communicate student progress in their learning.
- Students understand where they are in their personalized pathway and the cycle of learning. When asked, students can tell you what they are working on, how it relates to competencies they will need in their future and how they are going to demonstrate their learning.
- Students are using the learning targets to co-design projects with community partners where they will be able to apply their knowledge and skills. Students can demonstrate their learning as it relates to their passions, interests and goals by partnering with local and global community members to create service learning or entrepreneurial experiences that contribute toward graduation requirements.
- There is a high-functioning system in place to track students’ progress, to capture and store the evidence that demonstrates their progress and communicate their progress. Students use the reporting systems to identify goals, store their body of evidence and reflect upon their lifelong learning skills.
Examples of Red Flags
Schools create rigid linear paths for learning that all students must follow. Transparency should enable flexibility. When students have access to the common learning framework that defines what they should know and be able to do, they should also have input on how they advance. Students may bring ideas of demonstrating mastery in after school programs, church activities or their summer job. Advancement upon mastery implies ensuring every student learns but not exactly in the same pathway. Professional judgment should always be used so that advancing upon mastery does not become a bureaucratic checklist that confines students to rigid linear pathways. Some academic domains, such as math, have prerequisite skills, and students may need to learn some before doing others. However, it is possible that doing the higher-level studies may actually help students to make connections and see how other lower-level skills are applied.
The common learning framework or continuum is only available for age-based grade level. In many schools, the focus is still on covering grade-level standards. It is expected that all students start at the same place in the curriculum at the beginning of the semester and expected to finish by the end. Grade books only include grade-level learning targets. The problem is that many students need to repair gaps that require them to focus on targets at lower levels. Or they may have already mastered the grade-level standards and are ready to work at the next level. Neither students or teachers are recognized for repairing gaps or learning beyond grade level. Therefore, more student-centered approaches to the learning framework are needed by creating learner continua that represent multiple grade levels within which students are learning. Learning continua create transparency about where students are working in terms of level and growth. This can also help reduce the linearity of only focusing on grade level standards. Once teachers have organized the learning continuua, be prepared for frustration that curriculum isn’t designed well for the competency-based classroom. Publishers create curricular resources on specific grade levels, with different products for elementary, middle and high school. Thus, a teacher in seventh grade trying to teach students with gaps at the fourth- or fifth-grade level may not have appropriate resources or be familiar with the elementary school curriculum.
Source: Sturgis, C. & Casey K. (2018). Quality principles for competency-based education. Vienna, VA: iNACOL. Content in this book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 international license.