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Designing Assessments for Competency-Based Learning

What would the testing experience be like if schools allowed students to show what they know whenever they're ready, in a variety of ways that suit them, and in ways that are instructionally useful?

That vision is the subject of a new report that explores assessment for competency-based pathways. The study, by Achieve and the Center for Assessment, paints a picture of a testing system that looks radically different from the one that dominates schools now, and offers guidelines to those who want to design such a system.

Here's how the report sums up the difference between traditional tests and those used in a competency-based setting. Competency-based tests:

  • Allow students to demonstrate their learning at their own point of readiness; 
  • Contribute to student learning by encouraging students to apply and extend their knowledge;
  • Require students to actually demonstrate their learning; and
  • Where possible, they provide flexibility in how students demonstrate their learning (e.g., through a presentation, research paper, or video.

And here are a trio of key differences between the tests most states use and the ones that educators envision for competency-based learning: The competency-based tests should be "a meaningful learning experience for students, provide rich information to educators so they can provide targeted support to students, and send students and parents clear signals about students' readiness for next steps."

Vision is one thing, though, and building a sound assessment system that reflects those principles is another. Achieve and the Center for Assessment identify some of the tricky decision points educators will likely face in trying to build a competency-based testing system, and offer profiles of three school districts that have navigated—and are continuing to navigate—those waters.

Which knowledge and skills should be assessed, for instance, and how granular, or specific, do the assessments need to get in order to gauge those skills and knowledge? To what extent should a competency-based assessment focus on non-academic skills (a host of things including persistence, self advocacy, and working with others)?

Competency-based assessments typically must be created at the school or district level to reflect the individualized pathways created for each student. But that inevitably raises questions about scoring methods that can be consistent across students. The report dives into those questions, too, as well as how competency-based tests dovetail with a state's accountability tests.

It's all a work in progress, but one that's drawing increasing interest as educators try to define the best ways to gauge student learning.

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