New Teacher Tips · NGSS · Project Based Learning

Grading Competencies

Okay in my last post I said I would talk a little bit more on how me and my teaching partner are writing and grading assessments for our competencies so here goes.

I have struggled a lot with how to define and assess competencies. There were so many questions. What is a competency? What is the best way to assess competency? What represents the different levels of competency? What role does DOK play in evidence of competency?

My first year, the assessments given were almost exclusively tests and if a scholar did not meet competency (a grade of 2.5 on a scale of 4), then they would have to retake a second version of the test after completing revision procedures. From a teacher standpoint it was easy to manage (test are easy to grade compared to other assessments) but never quite sit right with me as I find tests to be restrictive in the amount of creative thinking and problem solving they allow.

When I got a new teaching partner last year we went full swing in the opposite direction, trading in tests for more creative and engaging projects. A little bit more to grade from the teacher side but the richness of learning was worth it. However, we ran into the problem where it was difficult to assess and maintain competency on some of the more basic skills of the content.

If you don’t know, I teach chemistry and learning chemistry is akin to learning a new language. There is a whole new alphabet (the elements), writing (chemical symbols), combining letters to make words (chemical compounds), and combining words to tell stories (chemical reactions). It’s great to have creative projects but can you really consider a scholar competent if they aren’t fluent in the basics of the language?

To address both the basics skills and creative problem solving, we have moved towards two-part assessments of each competency: a basic skills test and an investigation.

First we outlined the core competencies of our course as a competency statement. These were based on NGSS as well as our professional judgement based on our course content and the 4-year context of our science curriculum.

Then, we wrote 20 question basic skills tests around the low DOK (1 & 2) learning goals of the competency. Finally, we designed investigations to get at the heart of the competencies. These investigations necessarily include the Science and Engineering Practices. This might be creating and explaining a model via screencast or writing a lab report around an experiment that they planned and carried out or creating an infographic to share information about nuclear technology.

These assessments are then graded and the scholar receives a grade on a 4 point scale based on our Bump It Up board, which I adapted from Madly Learning. The levels on the board are roughly based on DOK levels. If a scholar passes the Basic Skills Test then they are at a level 2. To earn a higher competency level they must complete the investigation to the specified criteria. A level 3 shows integration of science and engineering practices with the content. A level 4 goes beyond with more challenging subject matter and a deeper dive to find the real world connections to the content.


New Teacher Tips · NGSS · Project Based Learning

Our Take on Competency Based Grading

When I was interviewing for my current position, I was provided with a copy of the school-wide grading policy and asked what I thought about it and what challenges I might foresee in adopting this grading policy in my class. Our school has adopted competency-based grading, similar but not the same as standards-based grading. Here are some highlights of our grading policy:

  • Grades are based only on summative assessments. Formative quizzes, drafts, quick-writes, homework, etc. do not affect grades. Work habits do not affect grades. No deductions for late work and no extra credit. Grades are strictly based on what you know not how you get there.
  • If you don’t pass the first time, you just don’t know it yet. You can attempt to pass a summative assessment as many times as you need. Until you pass you receive no grade, entered as a No Mark (NM). Passing is considered a 2.5 on a scale of 4.
  • You have a total of 3 grading terms to pass all assessments (current term and 2 following terms), basically an additional 6 months after the term has ended. If ALL summatives have not been passed by then, you receive an F.
  • Grades are not calculated. We give grades based on trends in performance rather than percentages.

Competency Based Grading in Practice

Here’s how that philosophy has played out at our school. Teachers design summative assessments, which we call competencies, for their course. Competencies take many forms: tests, essays, presentations, projects, etc. Most classes end up having 10-12 throughout the year. Students complete the competencies, usually at the end of a unit. They are graded on a 4 point scale, usually based on a rubric of some sort. All students that get below a 2.5 receive a NM and have to re-do the competency, whether than is revising an essay or retaking a test or whatever.

Challenges and Concerns

When I was sitting in that interview, I voiced my concern over the nature of competencies. I was fresh out of a Universal Design for Learning course and was very concerned that this grading policy, while positive in progressive in many ways, could fall down a slippery slope if not executed right. What if a teacher only assessed using tests? Students like me who were good test takers would excel but another student with test anxiety would perpetually struggle. I flashed back to high school where we had “Standards,” tests in each class we could retake that, if passed, guaranteed at least a C in the course but if failed, guaranteed an F. Or what about lowering standards to make sure everyone passed. The benefits of our grading policy were great, but in my 4 years living in this system, there have definitely been some pitfalls and learning experiences.

What is a competency?

Over the past 4 years using competency based grading, I keep coming back to the same question: What is a competency? If you asked the students, they would probably tell you a competency is a test or essay or project. And therein lies my biggest concern about how we think about competencies. When I think of a competency, I think of it as a clearly defined bundle of knowledge and skills related to the content. However, the line between the competency and the assessment has become blurred. A display of competency shouldn’t be tied to whether a student passes a particular test. Is there another way to show competency? Honestly by talking to a student you can generally tell if they are competent or not. What if I have a conference with a student and they clearly understand the main ideas and skills but struggle to convey that on a paper-and-pencil test? Should they get a 2.5? Or is the bar held at whether a student can do it on a test? If that’s the case what is really being assessed: the knowledge or the ability to take a test? To quote Alfie Kohn,

“Tests mostly test how good you are at tests.”

Some Parting Words for Pursuing Competency Based Grading

For those interested in competency based grading, I’d like to offer some advice.

  • It’s best to have the support of the school. One of the key pieces of this system is the extension of time. Sometimes it takes a particular student takes longer for the content to click. They just don’t get it yet. Being able to extent beyond the current grading period is crucial.
  • Clearly define your competencies, and make sure the assessments line up with those competencies. Maybe it’s a bundle of learning objectives, or maybe it is one overarching statement (I prefer the latter).
  • Consider multiple ways of assessment. Be careful that the competency doesn’t become about the assessment. Keep the focus on the competency.
  • Have good retake/revision procedures. Give good feedback but also have ways for students to monitor themselves and each other.
  • Have a good rubric. Generic for use across multiple assessments or specific for each competency. I’ll write more on this later.

So there’s an overview of my experiences with competency based grading. I will share more specifics on how any why competencies have evolved in my class in a future post.


The Crosscutting Concepts

When I first started digging into NGSS so much of it made sense to me. The science and engineering practices were clearly things my students should be doing in class and they all fit together. The science and engineering practices clearly rely on each other. To engage in argument from evidence you must be able to analyze and interpret data and to get data you need to conduct investigations. The disciplinary core ideas were the big enduring understandings that we keep coming back to throughout the course. Those things that kids will remember for the rest of their lives when they have forgotten all the details.

The crosscutting concepts were a bit fuzzier. I get structure and function. When I was in college that was a huge epiphany for me: that almost every behavior of an atom or molecule could be predicted by knowing its shape and electronegativity. Cause and effect: obvious. But energy and matter? Patterns? What do they mean by patterns? I asked my students what a pattern was and they all gave me blank stares until one of them pointed at the stripes on the American flag. These seemed like a random assortment of big ideas; obvious or sometimes intuitive ideas with many possible interpretations. I mean, I guess that’s why they are called crosscutting.  But how to teach them? And are they really that random?

So after struggling to reconcile with the crosscutting concepts for far too long I finally did what a good researcher does and went to the source material. After digging in and doing a close read of Appendix G, I had another epiphany. I strongly recommend all science teachers take the time to read Appendix G. It’s really helpful. Here’s a link so you don’t even have to google it.

The crosscutting concepts do rely on each other and science and engineering practices to make sense of phenomena. In our math curriculum they have Mathematical Habits of Mind and Interaction and they have instructional strategies for addressing these.The crosscutting concepts are our habits of mind and I’m still working on how to be more explicit about teaching the crosscutting concepts. I want to learn what that might look like from our math department, but I do know that they have the Habits on their walls as anchor charts so now I have this hanging on my wall.

Scientists observe and ask questions about PATTERNS to find CAUSE AND EFFECT relationships, a special case of which is STRUCTURE AND FUNCTION. This helps us understand SYSTEMS and develop SYSTEM MODELS to explain the relationships between STABILITY AND CHANGE; ENERGY AND MATTER; and SCALE, PROPORTION, AND QUANTITY.