What Does Competency-Based Education Mean for Assessment in the Classroom?

By Ms. Alice Gyton, Vice Principal of Learning, Senior School 

Last week’s Howl article, Reporting on Learning is Changing in BC, outlined shifts in reporting that are happening across the province, as grades JK to 9 move away from percentages and letter grades to a proficiency scale. The Proficiency Scale, which is applied to individual Learning Standards in each subject, will allow teachers to share where a student is currently at in their learning as well as where they are going next.

How is assessment changing?
Report cards are changing and so is the way students are assessed and receive feedback in their classes. The renewed BC curriculum (2018) is competency-driven. Curricular competencies are the skills, strategies and processes that students develop within each area of learning. In this model, curriculum, instruction and assessment are refocused on “doing.”
The traditional model of learning many of us grew up with focused on memorization and comprehension, with the goal of passing tests to demonstrate understanding. In competency-based learning, the focus is on deep understanding demonstrated through application of information, not simple regurgitation.
Traditional grading methods typically use a points-based model: work you complete is graded and assigned a certain number of points. Those points are processed by a formula to generate your final grade. If, for example, you are tested on a new skill in September and that assessment doesn’t go very well, in the traditional model, that mark still factors into your final grade at the end of the year (even if you have since mastered it!). 
The use of competency-based assessment refocuses attention on the progress you are making in your development of skills instead of the weighted average of your marks over a period of time. Our attention moves from marks and numbers to the actual skill or competency that was the original aim of learning. In a competency-based model, students begin to stop asking, “What’s my mark?” and begin asking “What can I do, demonstrate or know?”
What is a Learning Standard?
Learning Standards for a course are a manageable number of important learning goals derived from the curriculum. Taken together, the standards cover the BC Ministry’s curricular competencies and content for each course in a student’s timetable. Learning standards are typically “know or do” descriptors related to a subject and assessed on a four-point proficiency scale. Look at this sample of a learning standard from the science classroom:
Applying: Applying science and mathematical concepts to projects and new situations and justifying decisions using key concepts and theories.
Teachers would then assess a student in relation to this learning standard and assign one of four possible levels of proficiency:
  • Emerging - only initial understanding
  • Developing - partial understanding
  • Proficient - complete understanding
  • Extending - sophisticated understanding
Remember, these new proficiency indicators are not letter grades. Currently our grades 8/9 teachers are creating learning standards and assessment rubrics to inform how they determine the learning descriptors: emerging, developing, proficient or extending.
If you are interested in the details of our work, check out what is underway in our STEM 8, Science 8 and 9 classes.
In summary, competency-based assessment represents a paradigm shift in the way we think about learning and its measurement. Every school in the province, public or private, is on this path. Most adults are accustomed to letter grades and percentages. So, the shift to understanding a new method will take time. The aim is that we shift students away from numbers and reorient them toward more meaningful assessments of their learning. Although past conversations may have sounded like, “What do I need to get an A?” future discussions will move toward “What do I need to do to develop proficiency in this skill?”

Parent Information Session November 29 
We are hosting a virtual information session on Tuesday, November 29, 5:30pm-6:15pm, for grades 8/9 parents to learn more about these changes. Click here for the Zoom link.

Stay tuned to the Howl for more articles relating to competency-based education, assessment and learning.