Three students in Jen Haviland's class working and smiling

Have you ever taken a test and then promptly forgotten everything about the topic? Studying to get through a test or for a grade is not uncommon, and while it is reality sometimes, it doesn’t often lead to learning a student is able to apply in life. Competency-based learning is an approach that aims to deliver the grade AND the skills students can authentically apply to real situations. 

Think about the teen learning to drive a car. Essential concepts are taught in a classroom setting. Students take a written test to get a permit. Then, students learn from a teacher behind the wheel. After that, comes practice – in Minnesota 50 hours of practice. Finally, the student takes a behind-the-wheel test to demonstrate what they can do. Proficient drivers get a license.

The process of learning to safely drive a car is a competency-based approach – learn, practice, show what you can do. Then, repeat until you master the concept and skill. We’re taking a competency-based approach to learning in grades K-6 throughout Spring Lake Park Schools to help students build strong foundations in reading, math and other areas in order to successfully access future learning.

At grades 7-12, a few teachers and courses are slowly making a transition to a competency-based approach. As with any change, there are questions. What is this exactly? Why? How is progress tracked? What about grades? (Spoiler: Grades are here to stay).

“I think, as parents, we believe grades tell us how much and how well our child is learning,” says Melissa Olson, director of curriculum and instruction. “This approach is really about providing more accountability to a student’s learning so the grade really reflects what a student has learned and can do – and hopefully learning in a way they can transfer and apply in their future lives.” 

English example

English Language Arts 11 is one of a few courses using a competency-based approach to learning. The goal is for students to show proficiency on seven different competencies with 20 different criteria, aligned to state standards, by the end of the school year. For each competency, there are several opportunities to learn and practice throughout the year.

High school students in Language Arts class in a circle discussing

We found that many students need a lot of time to become better readers and writers, in particular,” says Jen Haviland, English 11 teacher. “Thankfully, Language Arts is a very cyclical course. We always come back to reading, writing, and speaking. As a result, students get multiple teaching, practice, and assessment opportunities throughout the year on every competency.”

Students read The Scarlet Letter this fall and focused on Literary Elements, one element, or criteria, within the Literature and Literary Nonfiction competency. Students had a description of what they needed to show, and it was broken down into student-friendly checklists. 

Students had three opportunities to learn and practice through three different written responses. For each, they received feedback, revised their work, set a goal, and reflected on their learning. The fourth opportunity was an assessment.

“While we hope students demonstrate proficiency when we get to that assessment, the assessment is a snapshot of where they are at in their learning in October," says Jen. "The next time we come back to Literary Elements is in December when students have additional teaching, practice, and assessment opportunities.”

As students move through the year, they are all at different levels of proficiency with different competencies. By the end of the year, the goal is for all to reach proficiency in each of the competencies.

“Because we cycle back through the competencies, students learn things better,” says Jen. “Argumentative Writing wasn't something we just hit once back in October; we cycle back to it in February and April. If students need more time, there are also opportunities in May and June. Learning becomes very personalized in the last couple months of school depending on what competencies a student still needs to work on.” 

Skills not just content

Competency-based learning focuses on skills more than specific pieces of content. While content is important, content can be googled. Studying for the test and forgetting everything afterward is much different than being asked to show what you can do.

“Competency-based learning establishes the book [content] as simply a vehicle to teach, practice, and assess on the competencies,” says Jen. “The text is interchangeable because the unit of learning isn't about that particular text.”

If a student does poorly on The Scarlet Letter, for example, they don't need to go back and redo that novel, assignments, or assessments. Students will cover the same competencies with other texts and have multiple opportunities to engage with teaching, practice, and assessment opportunities on the same competencies. Learning and improving the skills is the focus.

“In Language Arts, sometimes it's possible for students to submit work, but they never actually get any better,” says Jen. “Since they turned in something, they earn points, and those points may end up enough to pass the class. A competency-based approach requires that students demonstrate proficiency. Students are held to a standard, and they need to learn how to do it.”

For academically gifted students, this model also stretches students. They are going for not only proficiency but the descriptions for extending their proficiency further and earn honors credit.

Getting the grade

One thing that’s different, and uncomfortable to some, is how a competency-based approach deemphasizes grades. During the learning process, more focus is placed on the skills students are developing and where students are in their learning at any given moment . . . on the way to the grade.

Grades are important AND we want students to learn deeply enough to effectively apply what they know. While the education system may have trained many of us to care most about a grade, we want to students to care about that grade and be equally confident they have learned what they need, and are able to do something with that learning. Melissa Olson, director of curriculum and instruction

Students in grades 7-12 continue to get letter grades. Grades aren’t going away. Grades and transcripts are important for things like car insurance, college apps, and other aspects of life.

“This model isn’t anti-grade,” says Melissa. “And, it is definitely pro-skills. We don’t want students to get an “F” and the result is they just don’t learn. We want students to actually learn to a point where they can successfully apply their learning.”

For English 11, each competency has criteria that students are assessed on that ultimately result in a grade.

“Most students, if not all, understand that we are collecting evidence of their learning on these 20 criteria over the course of the entire year,” says Jen. “Students have to demonstrate proficiency to earn the correlating point for each piece of criteria that will result in their final grade.”

Ultimately, Jen hopes students and families start talking less about points and grades and start talking more about skills, what you can do.

“Yes, grades matter, but grades don't necessarily reflect where a student is at in their learning,” says Jen. “If we want better readers, if we want better writers, if we want better speakers, then we have to start focusing on the skills students need to be proficient in those areas. This approach does that.”

Three kinds of experiences

At grades 7-12, there are three potential experiences students and families are or will have with this approach to learning:

  1. A handful of teachers – like the English Language Arts 11 example – are using a competency-based approach supported by a technology platform called LiFT Learning that tracks competencies and progress toward proficiency.
  2. A few teachers have done work to align to the competency-based approach and are using the Mastery feature of Schoology to track learning progress.
  3. A majority of teachers are working to align their assessments to the competencies and using the Schoology most students and families are used to seeing.

Most education technologies are course-based rather than student-based. At the end of the trimester or the year, course-based systems are reset. A course starts over with new students and old student data is archived. Course-based approaches make it harder for educators to understand what students come into their courses being able to do and where there may be gaps in learning.

Student-based systems follow a student’s progress over time and across grade levels and courses. Seeing a student’s progress over time helps identify and fill gaps and extend learning.

“A helpful analogy someone shared recently is the medical record at your doctor’s office. The doctor can see your health history, visits and events over time,” says Melissa. “That’s what we’re aiming for with a student-based learning system – seeing and tracking a student’s learning over time not just by course or episode.”

LiFT Learning and the Mastery feature of Schoology are technologies the district is testing for a more student-based approach to tracking learning progress.

“Right now, we have teachers working in both systems so we can learn the pros and cons of each,” says Melissa. “Eventually, with feedback from teachers, students and families, we'll be making a choice for the long-term. It’s exciting to be at this point, and we know having different technologies can be frustrating. We’re grateful for the feedback and patience as we build this together."

Competency-based learning is one of the four core components of personalized learning at Spring Lake Park Schools. The competencies for each academic subject area aligned to Minnesota State standards can be found on the Curriculum page.