Welcome to our From the Field series, featuring interviews with Competency-Based experts and students! This week, we spoke with Sam, a college Freshman, whose high school transitioned to competency-based education, and how that helped him prepare for higher education.
Recent Graduate from Nashua High School South, in Nashua, NH; currently a Freshman at the College of William & Mary pursuing a major in either English, Spanish or Economics. Bilingual money management is his forte.
What makes him awesome:
Sam spent his high school career engaging in academic, athletic and service activities. He left an indelible legacy of kindness and compassion working with Special Olympics and leading his school to the State Championship in both the Knowledge Bowl and Tennis. Sam is the very definition of a well-rounded student..
Sam recently sat down with us at Motivis Learning to discuss his experience as a student moving from a traditional grading and educational model to a competency-based model. He lends a balanced perspective and insight into the benefits and impact on students in schools transitioning to CBE.
What was it like going from a traditional high school model to competency-based model?
Day-to-day I don’t think the changes were all that noticeable. There was definitely movement away from constant assessments. You didn’t feel like you were always studying for quizzes. There was more of a cohesive build up. The kind of assessments changed. Certain subjects such as math classes stayed the same, but other tests became research papers and debates. It seemed to go well but the teachers tried to force certain topics. Overall, it didn’t feel like things changed that much.
Things became difficult in the transition for some people. I think there could have been more of an explanation as to what the shifts were and why they were important. There was a general confusion about the model. No one was sure how the grading was going to be released. If we were going to get grades every quarter or if they would all be grouped together.
For me, the most important aspect of learning throughout my K-12 experience was really about the relationships I established with my instructors. Good teaching is good teaching no matter what model is used. Learning is likely to take place for any learner, myself included when they feel comfortable in their learning environment and understand the learning expectations and objectives.
How did competencies impact grading?
I think students are concerned about the report card in college. With competencies it is much harder to compare it to the traditional way of grading. Students are worried how they are going to differentiate themselves, if you go into a peer competency grading system, all grading is turning to merit comments. People are worried how that will distinguish themselves from each other. How will you determine class rank? People are afraid of what will happen if the traditional A-F system is going to go away.
We get caught up in the competencies. This is proving you are doing what you are supposed to be doing. I am supposed to be competent in this, but how will I determine which assignments will be weighted? What do I need to spend more time learning? What will be more important in my overall mastery? Courses in some cases, have 4 competencies, if a teacher wants something to be weighted more, a teacher can count it for competencies that it does not directly address. If they want it to be heavily graded, they would have to add the assignment to different competencies that may not necessarily have that skill.
When change leadership does a good job establishing expectations that a competency-based system will not be mishandled in this way at the whim of an instructor or attaching competencies that are not measured in this vein, then there would be significantly less pushback from stakeholders (parents and students). Until the measures are held to a higher standard and there is transparency and validity to the use of competencies and calibrated evaluation, there will continue to be competency models that fall short.
In my opinion there have been many positives when it comes to learning in a competency-based model. It has become harder to come though with an A. I don’t know what the percentages of students are finishing with those higher grades, but pushing yourself to get the highest grades are feeling that it is harder to achieve the top tier. If students don’t get the grades that they feel they deserve they feel they are being punished. Students agree with the recovery initiative. I don’t want to say that system has been taken advantage of, but there are circumstances where students do feel punished. If a student prepares for a deadline and puts forth their best effort to meet expectations and submits work that required a lot of effort, they often feel it is unfair that their peer, who may not have put forth the same amount of effort in their initial submission can continue to resubmit until they are able to demonstrate mastery.
This is not reflective of how I feel, personally. I make a decision every day to be the best student I can be and establish my own work ethic and patterns that help me succeed both in and out of the classroom.
Working with Special Olympics, I know that not every athlete performs at the same level because of their age or grade. My big take-away from that experience is that we are all individuals we learn at our own pace and in our own way. It may take a few more attempts for some of us to master anything — hurdles in a track meet or competencies in the classroom. Why wouldn’t we give every opportunity for students to learn and demonstrate their ability regardless of how long it may take — it’s still learning, at worst, it encourages people to persevere. The last time I checked, that is a pretty great life-skill to have.
How have competencies impacted assessment?
Since the transition to CBE, it has changed the types of assessment we are asked to perform. I have definitely done less multiple choice questions. Some of the Advanced Placement classes are sticking to the more traditional way of testing. Sometimes I feel it works, such as biology, for that particular subject.
There was a shift in how my high school approached assessment — and it is my understanding that educators and school leaders at my school began talking about “authentic assessment” and inquiry before the state mandated the removal of the Carnegie Unit to measure student performance. It naturally evolved into CBE — it makes sense that students are asked to demonstrate the knowledge and skills they have learned in a meaningful, real-world way through individual and collaborative projects.
I presented a binder that had some of the writing and work I had done over the semester. I made a presentation 30 min, I talked about some of the connections I had.
Where is my report card?
The grading system the school used seemed to be somewhat problematic – it (the LMS) was focused on the algorithms to find our grades. I don’t know what is better. I think if we are trying to figure out the grades on a scale that is not quantities, not a 100% scale, then I think it is impossible to be plugging in grades and averages all the time. If you get an “A” then it goes into the system as a 3.75- then it goes back to an A. The system is confusing. One thing to do may be if the class has 4 competencies, then you should get 4 grades. This way you know how you did in each competency. I do not think those 4 grades should be averaged together to spit out one grade. If they are being taught and evaluated separately then I don’t know what good it will be to sum them all up.
Right now there is a perceived notion that for college, one grade per course can help because they will see overall how you did. But for CBE I would like to see how I performed in each competency. That is the whole point in doing this system. To average them all together doesn’t make sense.
Overall do you feel your CBE experience in high school prepared you for college?
Yes. There were many factors that have influenced my preparedness for college. The transition to CBE opened up an important dialogue and awareness between educators and students about assessment, grades and learning. Because of how competency-based education worked for me as well as the 3 Advanced Placement courses I took, I was confident and prepared to go to college.
In truly student centered learning, we must consider the entire lifecycle of the student. What’s happening in K-12 needs to align with and meet the demands of higher education and lifelong learning. Competency-based learning ensures that students have mastered the skills necessary to succeed at every point in their learning continuum. As schools design and implement competency-based models, we are able to conduct in-depth analysis to ensure every student has access to the best learning experience possible. Listening to stakeholders, especially the voice of our students, results in increased engagement and personalized learning in any model, especially CBE.