Is traditional assessment getting in the way of learning?
Katie Martin
There’s a place for evaluation and it needs to happen, but it shouldn’t be a substitute for the learning process.
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Originally published: on February 12, 2020

How do I get an A? Did I do this activity right? Is this what you wanted me to do?

These questions commonly plague students even though they are rarely a sign of whether a student is owning their learning. These indicators are generally a function of a performance orientation—getting the task done to get the grade—rather than a learning orientation—developing skills and improving. While there are definitely times when we need to do things a certain way and not everything we learn is intrinsically motivating, if these experiences consume the majority of the learning experience, what are we really teaching?

Teaching and Learning for the Future

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report describes the urgency to prepare for the not-so-distant future: “For a talent revolution to take place, governments and businesses will need to profoundly change their approach to education, skills, employment, and their approach to working with each other.”

According to the report, the skills that will be in high demand by 2020 are:

  • Complex Problem Solving
  • Critical Thinking
  • Creativity
  • People Management
  • Coordinating with Others
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Judgment and Decision Making
  • Service Orientation
  • Negotiation
  • Cognitive Flexibility

At a time when the world of work demands individuals who embody these skills many schools still focus on covering isolated content and standards. We must move beyond grades and test scores and identify the competencies learners need to develop. Then, we have to understand what learning experiences are critical, what our classrooms should look like, and what practices align with our goals.

Defining Competencies to Measure What Matters

In a learner-centered environment, the system is designed to recognize and leverage the unique strengths, interests, and goals of each learner. With effective learning structures, authentic learning experiences and agency, learners are empowered to achieve the desired competencies and strive to reach their full potential. Competencies include measurable and transferable learning objectives that provide clear targets for learners.

Learner agency and transferable competencies require learners to develop and demonstrate knowledge, skills, and habits. At Altitude Learning, we support our partner schools and districts in measuring these domains through milestones that define the specific knowledge, skills, and habits a learner must achieve within specific grade bands and by the time they graduate in order to thrive. Drawn from fundamental learning standards and leading scientific research about how children learn best, competency-based models ensure that all students achieve academic mastery and acquire the social-emotional skills and critical thinking strategies they need to be successful citizens in an ever-changing world. 

A competency-based approach oriented around achieving mastery, not just a high GPA, helps connect broader learning concepts to granular knowledge that is a part of a student’s day-to-day experiences. Defining clear learning targets aids in the development of student agency by allowing students to see their learning targets, own it and ultimately navigate their own path.

Making Competency-Based Learning Visible

Mount Vernon School (Atlanta, GA) has focused on designing a learning experience that aligns to the skillsets, mindsets, and competencies that are most important to thriving in the real world. They are developing a proactive, problem-solving mindset that engages learners in real-world work, and prepares them for college and their futures beyond the classroom. We worked with them to develop a prototype that allows educators and students to collaborate on setting goals, measuring progress, and providing and receiving support toward mastering competencies.

Because Mount Vernon’s competency library is cross-curricular, students receive feedback on a single competency from a variety of educators. This is a marked shift from the more common siloed approach to assessment, where humanities teachers assess language arts standards and science teachers assess science standards. Working with Altitude Learning, the Mount Vernon team created a collaborative assessment model that provided a 360-degree view of mastery. With student groups simultaneously working on different competencies, teachers were able to keep a finger on the pulse of the group’s overall progress.

Assessment That’s Empowering, Not Impeding

There’s a place for evaluation and it needs to happen, but it shouldn’t be a substitute for the learning process. We have this notion that work needs to be perfect when it’s turned in. When we organize learning experiences this way, we communicate that intelligence is fixed, not that we can improve with effort and a growth mindset. This negatively impacts learners’ confidence, creativity, and investment in their own learning and growth. We fail to communicate that learning is a process. It takes time and it’s important to share ideas early, get feedback, and revise to improve.