NCSA: Innovations in Assessment with Competency-Based Learning

Thursday, July 30, 2015 -- Lilly Flores

Could the end be near for traditional standardized testing? While it might be difficult to envision a future without #2 pencils and multiple-choice questions, this reality is not as far off as it may seem. Growing dissatisfaction with the shortcomings of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policy and anticipation of its rewrite have left the door open for states to move on in favor of using other innovative assessment tools as a potential replacement.1

This year’s National Conference on Student Assessment (NCSA), detailed in last week's blog post, included multiple sessions focused around the theme of innovative assessment.  State officials, psychometricians, and assessment developers shared their experiences around creating and implementing their own innovative assessment tools, all of which aim to move students away from traditional pencil-and-paper multiple-choice formats to assessments that meet one or more of the following criteria:2

  • Incorporation of alternative items/prompts that require more rigor than multiple choice and include various types of hands-on or interactive material
  • Incorporation of items that require multiple options of response, such as creation of a portfolio, as well as written responses, which require more of an in-depth evaluation process
  • Innovative or computer-based delivery

While innovative assessments can refer to a variety of assessment tools, competency-based learning (CBL) systems, are one of the ways innovative assessments can become a precursor to the end of the standardized assessment era.1  Here, we will dig in to what Competency Based Education is and why it is something worth keeping an eye on.

Competency-based learning (CBL) refers to an educational system reform where the focus is shifted away from a time-based system (Carnegie Unit or ”seat time”) to one of a learning-based system, where mastery of learning topics is the focus.3 In traditional time-based systems, after a week of lessons on a topic, instruction will move forward on a set schedule, whether or not all students have reached mastery of the concept. This creates the potential for some students to be left with severe gaps in their understanding. In contrast, CBL systems require that students progress forward with instruction only after they have demonstrated mastery of the current concept in a variety of ways, including application and creation of knowledge. Implementation of this model ensures that students are not left with learning gaps by allowing them to progress at their own rate of learning and build the foundational knowledge needed to be successful.

Competency-based assessments (CBA) continue to build off of this personalized model by providing students with a variety of innovative ways to demonstrate their mastery. This approach uses more formative assessment rather than the standardized summative assessments that students are used to, and provides them with meaningful information about the depth of their competency.  The primary differentiators between standardized and CBAs are as follows:4

  • Students are allowed to demonstrate their learning at their own point of readiness in CBAs
  • CBAs contribute to student learning by encouraging students to apply and extend their knowledge
  • Students are required to actually demonstrate their learning in CBAs
  • Where possible, CBAs provide flexibility in how students demonstrate that learning (e.g., through a presentation, research paper, or video)

While some may see this paradigm shift toward competency-based learning and assessment as a drastic and daunting change, states like New Hampshire have already begun pioneering the trail and proving that a statewide integration of CBL systems is feasible and effective5. Iowa, Ohio, and North Carolina have also begun to establish complete CBL systems, and in total, 42 states are using competency-based measures in some form or fashion within their schools.5 While a full overhaul of the standardized testing system may still be some time away, CBL has gained significant traction in a short amount of time and has some pretty strong proponents rallying support behind its innovative approach to education. As the assessment landscape continues to evolve, CBL is sure to remain an important part of the conversation.

Interested in learning how to set up a CBL system in your school or classroom? Explore this roadmap resource from the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). Want more information on how Edmentum can be a partner in your CBL program? Check out our formative assessment solutions!  

  1. The End of the Big Test: Moving to Competency-Based Policy. Education Week.
  2. State Assessment Systems: Exploring Best Practices and Innovations: Summary of Two Workshops. The National Academies Press.
  3. What Is Competency Education? CompetencyWorks.
  4. Designing Assessments for Competency-Based Learning. Education Week.
  5. Competency-Based Education is Working. Education Week.