Some Bay Area schools, such as Summit Schools and San Jose Unified’s Burnett Middle School, are grading students based on “competency.” What does that mean?

Traditionally, students earn grades and credits for “seat time” — taking a course — and earn a grade from A through F. Some students don’t understand the material very well, but they move on anyhow. Their grade in the class depends partly on whether they’ve shown mastery on tests, but also on completing homework and other tasks.

In competency-based learning, students must show mastery of concepts, knowledge and skills in order to move on. Some students may move quickly, while others have to spend more time to demonstrate they fully understand the material.

Competency-based learning is still a very recent innovation that is just starting to be piloted in some schools around the country. It is referred to by various names including proficiency-based, mastery-based, outcome-based or performance-based learning.

Because students are moving at different paces, competency-based education is often paired with “blended learning,” an approach that combines computer-based and in-person learning (read more about blended learning here). For instance, Summit Schools has developed an entire custom software platform with support from developers at Facebook that supports their approach to learning, measuring and grading.

What does it mean for my school and my child?

Moving to a competency-based system changes lots of different things across the school. It changes the way teachers assess and grade students and what information students and parents have about their progress, including report cards. It also means a change in the teacher-student relationship – challenging students to become independent, self-motivated learners, but also figuring out how to adjust systems and the roles of the teacher and other staff so they have support to meet their objectives.

Students are graded on specific learning standards. Instead of getting a B in biology, a student might be given credit for mastering 15 objectives. Burnett Middle School in San Jose has eliminated letter grades and now has “criterion-based grading.” In addition to assessing students on their actual level of performance (instead of seat time and completion), it’s intended to provide a multi-dimensional view of a student’s strengths and areas of growth.

What does competency-based education look like in practice?

Summit Denali in Sunnyvale is one Silicon Valley school that has been implementing a competency-based approach.

Teachers collaborate on designing “learning pathways” — a sequence of measurable objectives — in all subjects, so students know just what they’re supposed to learn. Students learn from a teacher, online, by doing projects with classmates or — in some schools — through internships, community service or independent study.

Students see their current progress every single day and have a block of time to work independently on the areas where they need to advance. Most of their day is spent working collaboratively on projects with other students. They check in each week with a coach to stay on track and their parents can also log in at any time and track their progress.

When Summit students log on to the platform, they have access to all their coursework and collaborative projects, their tests, and learning playlists with resources and videos selected by their teachers. They make progress on each of these at their own pace. This platform tells them how much information they should have mastered by a certain time in the school year, letting the students know it they need to put in more time to catch up or whether they’re moving past their mastery goals.

Summit Schools Personalized Learning Plan Screenshot

Summit Schools Personalized Learning Plan View


Which schools and districts are doing competency-based learning?

There are currently a small number of schools and districts across the country starting to pilot this approach, including the state of New Hampshire, which is moving to a competency-based system. With federal approval, four districts are replacing state tests with “locally designed measures of student learning” in some grades, reports the Christian Science Monitor.

At two New Hampshire high schools, student engagement and learning improved with the switch to a competency-based model, a 2013 study found. There were significant declines in the dropout rate, school failures, and disciplinary problems. “Students said their work was more challenging and their interactions with teachers more rewarding,” notes Ronald Volk in Education Week.

This approach to learning is also starting to be explored at the university level. A small number of colleges are looking at giving students credits for directly demonstrating learning rather than completing credit hours. At the far end of the curve, Western Governors University’s entire program is competency-based with all students working at their own pace. There isn’t enough data to see yet whether this approach is effective for students and how employers will view the degrees.

Top Resources to Learn More

Competency Works: This is a one-stop shop for the latest news and resource on competency-based learning.

Edsurge: A Peek Inside Summit’s Personalized Learning Software

Rand Corporation: Competency-Based Education in Three Pilot Programs

Christian Science Monitor (March 6,2015), In first, four N.H. schools shake up testing with feds’ approval

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