Modernizing Assessment
Devin Vodicka
Competency-based learning is the foundation of a learner-centered approach to assessment and incorporates principles of effective feedback, including self-reflection, qualitative responses, timeliness, and social-emotional learning coupled with academic outcomes.
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Modernizing Assessment
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Article originally appeared January 28, 2020 on

As the world continues to evolve and change, our education system must adapt and improve as well. I believe that measuring learning is a key lever for systemic change and that we are long overdue to make meaningful shifts in this critical area of need. Seat time, grade point averages, and standardized testing have historically served as the foundations of our industrial model of education, but we need to modernize the ways in which we think about student success. 

Seat time requirements and grade averages are both metrics that emerged at the turn of the 20th century. Neither are based on any modern understandings of learning science and both of which have garnered strong adoption inertia due to their simplicity and familiarity. Even without a review of research, we know from common sense that students have unique background experiences and learn at individual rates in such a way that the contradictions of seat time requirements are clear. We also know that averaging performance on assignments, quizzes, and tests does not accurately reflect what a student actually knows at a given point. 

Standardized testing is an intrusive way of attempting to measure learning, and its use in accountability systems has resulted in a number of side effects, such as a narrowing of the curriculum, elimination of the arts, reductions in physical activity, and incentives to manipulate outcomes. I previously argued that we now have the ability to use data platforms throughout the learning experience in such a way that standardized testing would not be necessary.

Reimagining Assessment to Fit Present Day

Now is the time to think about new and better models of assessment. Competency-based learning is the foundation of a learner-centered approach to assessment. As defined by Education Reimagined, “in competency-based learning, each learner works toward competency and strives for mastery in defined domains of knowledge, skills, and dispositions … Assessments, both formative and summative, are utilized on a continuous basis to inform the learning and instructional strategy for each learner.”

Competency-based assessment also incorporates principles of effective feedback, including self-reflection, qualitative responses, timeliness, and social-emotional learning coupled with academic outcomes. In contrast to traditional approaches that are often used for sorting, selecting, and ranking, the focus of competency-based learning is deeper learning.

With these guiding principles in mind, we need a way to summarize and share outcomes through whole-child, competency-based assessment. In a system that includes both academic and social-emotional objectives, we can track each objective in a granular manner, which is helpful in informing learning, but overwhelming in terms of the sheer volume of information.

At Altitude Learning, we support modernizing assessment by helping our partners define methods to measure what matters in and out of the classroom. Odyssey STEM Academy, in Paramount (California), is an innovative school paving the way by orienting to milestones that are more descriptive and holistic.

Odyssey Academic Milestones: To earn an A, B, or C letter grade on your coursework, you must demonstrate Advanced or Meeting on all milestones by the end of the year.

Supporting the Charge for the Future

Given advancements in research, practice, and the development of technology tools and data platforms that support shifts to more effective assessment practices, the challenge ahead for school leaders and educators is adaptive. Through our work with Odyssey and other school and district partners, we’ve seen the greatest success when school leaders are diligent in aligning their assessment strategy with broader aspirations such as their unique vision, mission, values, and goals. Even better is when leaders orient to learner profiles and learning models that have been developed based on those aspirations. Finally, the work of making these shifts requires the support of a community engaged in mutual learning. For these reasons, we support our partners in establishing guiding coalitions that create a safe space to share, reflect, adjust, and scale effective practices. 

While the changes are difficult, the benefits for our students when we make the shift to research-based assessment practices and a model of whole-child, competency-based education are clear. As an example, the students at Odyssey STEM are demonstrating high levels of achievement on multiple metrics such as college readiness rates and PSAT results. Unsurprisingly, when we incorporate what we know from research into our practice, the students are the beneficiaries.

As school leaders, it’s our responsibility to ensure that we tackle these adaptive challenges to do what is right for our students. At Altitude Learning, we’re working to lead the charge of embracing competency-based assessment as one of the key ways to empower all learners.

Additional Research:

Competency-Based Research (