Competency Craziness

Upon turning in their first papers for Anatomy and Physiology this year, students were presented with three different grades: ‘Structure and Function,’ ‘Systems and Interactions,’ and ‘Nature of Science.’ There was no mistake, however. Teachers had begun changing how they report grades. 

     Beginning this year, some teachers at Oyster River High School (ORHS) have begun reporting grades by competency. This shift to reporting percentage grades on assignments by competency, rather than in summative or formative categories, is an option for teachers but is not required. In previous years, teachers were not able to report by competency, even though most had been using competencies in their teaching well before now. This has allowed teachers to experiment with reporting by competency in their classrooms if they feel comfortable making that change this year. 

     Competencies in education are general areas of understanding that students show competence in through assignments. For example, ‘Structure and Function’ and ‘Patterns’ could be competencies in a science class, ‘Decision-Making’ and ‘Economic Models’ in an economics class, or ‘Organization’ and ‘Voice and Audience’ in an English class. These competencies can be and have been used as standards for teachers to address when grading students’ work, as feedback tools, or as goals for students to work towards. This year, though, teachers now have the option to use these competencies to express their grades, too. 

     The usage of competencies in curriculum is not novel, however. Competency-based education was implemented throughout New Hampshire in 2013 when a change to the state policy “Ed 306.27” enforced a move towards individualized education for students, which included the usage of competencies in all schools in the state. All teachers at ORHS have identified competencies within their curriculum since the implementation of this policy, and many use them to grade student work. However, that was not required in that policy change, and neither was reporting by those competencies. This year is the first year that ORHS is allowing teachers to begin reporting their grades by competency, rather than limiting them just to using competencies within a traditional grade reporting system, if teachers want to make that change. 

     For teachers at that time, the change to competency-based education meant a fundamental change to how they taught classes. Marjke Yatsevitch, an English teacher, has found the change to competencies beneficial for providing clear feedback to students. “The conversation’s gotten easier, at least for me,” she says. “It’s made it easier to [say], ‘I know exactly what I’m asking of you,’ and we can clarify that language and then move forward.” 

     Yatsevitch also added that this helps in her classes, saying, “I have sort of a clear north star for what we’re aiming for. Say I teach a writing course. The key competencies that I’m trying to get kids to reach are, you know, writing for the real world. That’s the way it’s written into our competency system for the English department. I broke that down into 6 standards: […] meaning, evidence, audience, order, voice, and the writing process. So those are sort of the areas that I’m looking for evidence in.” These grades are not reported in PowerSchool, but they are an integral part of the process behind forming the overall assignment grades that teachers do report. 

     The change to competency-based education has allowed teachers to focus more on students providing evidence of proficiency. “I’m shifting from you thinking you’re earning points [on assignments] to you now understanding that you’re giving me evidence,” says Yatsevitch. 

     Further, shifting to reporting by competency allows students to see their grades in terms of the competencies they are already working with and approach assignments knowing that they will be graded on their competence in skills and course content, rather than just their overall quality of and completion of a given assignment. 

     However, these benefits change from course to course. Some classes don’t translate well into competencies simply due to their nature, and thus reporting by those same competencies isn’t effective. David Hawley, a social studies teacher, has found that some classes he teaches, such as Psychology, don’t align well with the competencies used throughout the Social Studies department. This is likely due to the curriculum of these classes being developed before competencies were even a possibility at ORHS. Altering entire curriculums to allow for competencies to be implemented effectively is tedious. 

     Additionally, drastically changing course content and assignments to align with competencies that were not designed for that specific course could harm students more than help them, as it would result in additional material that isn’t relevant to the scope of the course. Celeste Best, a science teacher, teaches a Forensics course. That course only addresses three of the five competencies used by the science department: Nature of Science, Structure and Function, and Patterns. The remaining two competencies, Energy and Matter, and Systems and Interactions, don’t get addressed by the content in the class, so Best doesn’t grade using them. “In Competency Craziness Forensics, […] although I would love to crash cars into buildings and figure out how fast they were going, the energy portion is not as important as [being able to] go out and look at the tire tracks for the patterns.” 

     Further, not every class needs to address every competency. For example, not all science classes need to cover all five science competencies. “The picture is four years. At the end of four years, have students been exposed to all these competencies multiple times in different ways?” says Best. Students should be able to take any combination of classes they want while still gaining competence in those competencies by the end of their high school careers. 

     Because of the differences between course content, competencies cannot be standardized across departments. “The way [the competencies] were framed for social studies is gonna be inherently different than how they are framed for a more objective class like a science or world language,” says Hawley. 

     Sometimes, however, courses can benefit from changes due to competencies. For example, Best has shortened the skin unit test in her Anatomy and Physiology course to be only five free-response questions, rather than eight or nine, as those five would provide evidence for her in all five competencies. The extra questions were redundant, as all the concepts and competencies that needed to be covered were addressed already elsewhere in the assessment. 

     Adam Lacasse, a business and economics teacher, has made similar changes to his assessments since moving to reporting by competency. “I’ll ask myself after every assessment that I give, ‘Does this actually measure what the purpose was? Does it directly tie to a competency? How does this help in the future?’” says Lacasse. If those questions don’t have an answer, or if the answer is ‘no,’ then, “it’s probably time that you remove that from your curriculum and find something else that does work.” 

     However, these changes don’t come easy for every class and every teacher. This is often due to teachers feeling uncomfortable with the shift to such a new and experimental grading system, or because the teacher simply doesn’t see a reason for the change. Having multiple systems in place at once that overlap with each other creates confusion among teachers and students alike. 

     For many teachers that confusion is only a speed bump, not a blockade. “If you want to make everyone happy, don’t be a leader. Go sell ice cream. You’re bound to create some unrest or conflict or struggles every time you try to shift anything with everyone. It’s not an easy process,” says Lacasse. As more and more teachers begin reporting grades by competency, both teachers and students will become more familiar and comfortable with the new system, and the confusion surrounding reporting by competency will ease. 

     For now, though, teachers will continue making the shift to reporting by competency when and if they see fit. As teachers continue experimenting with this new system, only time will tell if future students will continue seeing assignments reported by competencies in PowerSchool. 

-Justin Partis