Building 21’s Competency Dashboard

March 14, 2016 by
Thomas Gaffey

Thomas Gaffey

This is the second post about my site visit to Building 21 in Philadelphia. Read the first here.

I had a fascinating conversation with members of Building 21’s design and instructional coaching team, Sydney Schaef, Sandra Moumoutjis, Thomas Gaffey, Angela Stewart, Laura Shubilla, and Chip Linehan. At times I started to explode in giggles of excitement as we spoke about their insights and information management system. B21’s work is invaluable for us to tackle the elephant (i.e., respond to students who have multi-year gaps in their skills). Part of their solution is one of the most student-centered information management systems to support their personalized, competency-based process I have seen.

As described in the first blog, B21 is highly personalized, with students working in their zone along the continua of performance levels for each competency. In order to both monitor progress and measure grade-level performance, they knew they needed an information system that would fully support students and teachers. They visited a number of schools across the country and looked at many of the best information management systems designed for competency-based education. Even those that were the most interesting didn’t reflect their values or design. Most were still course-based, and often with a feel of checklist after checklist. Furthermore, the costs were high, and most weren’t open-source. Thus, despite all the advice to never build your own, they found a partner in Jarvus and their product Slate. (FYI, Ed Surge has a nice piece about the product. Matchbook Learning has used Slate as the platform for their information system Spark, and the U School (sharing space with B21) and the Science Leadership Academy also are using it.)

Designing a Powerful Student-Centric Information System

I wondered aloud how they were able to find a company that seemed to “get CBE” when so many of the vendors keep reproducing courses as the center of their architecture. Gaffey offered, “Get a bunch of twenty-two to twenty-six-year olds and they can do anything. The problem is the folks over thirty think they know what a student information system is.” His statement gets to the heart of the issue – what does a student information system look like in a student-centric, personalized, competency-based system?

Gaffey explained, “There were several things we wanted that traditional SIS and grade reporting systems have been unable to do. First, we want to make sure that learning across the school can be tracked. Second, we focus on mastery. This means we want students submitting multiple pieces of evidence of their learning in multiple contexts. Third, we want to be less course-oriented, more performance-oriented. Fourth, we want to make sure that students can see their growth and progress. Finally, we want everything to feed into a meta-profile for students.”

Here are some of the very cool things that B21 is working toward using a combination of Slate and robust Google Docs:

Competency Dashboard: Students can see their progress on any competency, with different colors indicating the performance/grade level they have met. When students click on a competency, they go deeper to see all the evidence requirements for each skill within the competency. At the top, there are three important pieces of information.

  • The level the student wants to achieve.
  • The progress toward showing mastery shown as a percentage based on the number of evidence required.
  • The Average Performance Level on tasks submitted to date. If too low, students won’t meet the Minimum Average Performance Level to be awarded credit. If above a certain level, the student will be earning advanced or honors credit.

Again, with color coding, they can see their performance level with the specific rating. (Remember: B21 has performance indicators for every other level. If you meet all of level 8 and some of 10, then you are at level 9.)


Building 21 has been adding functions in response to teachers and students. For example, as students became accustomed to the competency-based structure the first year, it was often hard to get them to submit their work. In the traditional system, the power of an F would be used as the stick. In competency-based education, the goal is to focus more intensely on habits of work so that students build the intrinsic motivation and skills to be self-directed learners. Thus, assignment trackers with three color codes were created to provide feedback to students on how they were doing.

Competency Progress Report: Although many people describe competency education as being about self-paced, the fact of the matter is that one of the core functions of the school, teacher, and student is to stay very focused on pace and progress. B21’s progress report provides several different sets of information. The two big questions are whether the student is on track to earn credit and if they are on track to being college and career ready by the end of four years in high school. Think of it as short-term and long-term progress tracking.

At first, the progress reports had substantially more information on them, including bars to track course progress. However, after getting feedback from parents and students, B21 changed the progress report to only show the domains. They are finding that the reports generate conversation among students as they discuss how they are doing.

Managing Assessments and Tracking Progress: Teachers can easily get a snapshot of their class in terms of student progress as well as dive deeper into exactly which pieces of evidence a student needs to submit or to rate a performance task. The goal is to have an easy-to-use slider so teachers can quickly indicate the rating for any piece of evidence. The principal or leadership team can also select students in a grade or across the entire school to monitor progress. Below are three screen shots that help you see the different capacities:

Teacher Dashboard

Teachers can glance to look at student progress (student names have been removed) with colors indicating performance levels and percentages indicating progress toward goal of completing performance tasks.


Scoring Student Evidence

Teachers select the student, learning experience, and performance task and then can rate it based on performance levels. Teachers have the capacity to add any competency to a performance task and rate it.



Different Teachers Rating Same Skill

B21 knows that some performance tasks can be used to assess different skills. A lab report or a research paper on the Civil Rights Movement in Philadelphia will provide the opportunity for students to demonstrate their knowledge in science or social studies as well as writing. Thus, the information system has been designed to be easy for teachers to score performance tasks regardless of whether the student is in their course or not. With the evidence uploaded, it is easy for an English teacher to look at artifacts developed in other courses. This is an incredibly important function for students who are under-skilled, providing them the opportunity to show evidence for more than one competency to help accelerate the process of getting back on track.


B21 has found that that for some teachers, it takes a bit of time for them to be comfortable with the focus on performance. Schaef explained, “A teacher may rate an assignment at a nine but want to give them a seven because they didn’t do any practice problems. We are trying to create an environment that is always focused on learning and making progress. As long as students are doing that, they shouldn’t be penalized.”

Competency to Course Conversions

As described in the first part of the series on Building 21, students can build credits through performance-based assessments at the grade level or, for those who have substantial gaps, through growth. The information system has been designed to make the conversions so students can see grades (A-C with weights for advanced and honors) and credit accumulation. Perhaps one day we will be able to operate without these conversions to the traditional system, but for now this is a requirement of any information system.

Building 21 has been smart about how they manage these conversions with absolute transparency in their handbook. I’ve seen high schools implode when the algorithms that do the conversations are not absolutely transparent to students and parents.

Moving Forward

The second version of B21’s system will be released early this year. It will include personal learning plans and a project management system to support teachers. Teachers requested more support for staying on top of managing performance tasks, such as indicating whether it is submitted, in revision, needs a grade, completed, or past due. In addition, B21 wants to eventually build the capacity in their digital platform to manage portfolios and support consistency across rating performance tasks.

My Reflection on Building 21’s Information System

I think I remained in a state of wide-eyed wonder as the B21 team introduced me to their information system. The more I have studied their model and the information system, the more I have come to realize how important it is that districts develop systems that are student-centered rather than course-based. Certainly being located in North Philadelphia in an old elementary school was shaping my thinking. With the high mobility of students from low-income families, it will make a huge difference if their profile can just move with them so that students can continue to work in their zone. Imagine a child in foster care moving to a new school and just being able to keep learning exactly where they were last week. Imagine if disciplinary schools and schools in detention centers used the same system as the school district. Could we reduce the amount of time students lose from interruptions in their education?

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  1. Comment by Ken O'Connor 7:36 pm, March 28, 2016

    I an absolutely astounded and dismayed that this system uses averages – determination of mastery should be based on the more recent evidence. I do like the focus on standards/competencies not courses or assignments. I also like the ability of a teacher to see “where” his students are on the progress /achievement continuum.

  2. Comment by Sam Abrams 2:13 am, March 31, 2016

    AMAZING! I want to learn more. How can I contact someone directly involved with this Competency Dashboard? Is it for use by others? Can we purchase a subscription? I am currently creating the first Personalized Learning School in the country of Qatar and my resources are thin and I need all the help I can get. I agree with Ken on the above comment, I was surprised it may be based on averages, but I think focus on standards and not courses are the way to go. The ability to “see” a students progress is powerful and I am looking for ways to make this available to the native students in Qatar.

  3. Comment by Betty Jo Malchesky 8:02 am, June 1, 2016

    Please respond to O’Connor’s comment regarding averaging scores rather than the body of evidence collected over time.

  4. Comment by Chris Sturgis 7:38 pm, June 1, 2016

    Hi — I’m going to ask someone from Building 21 to respond to why they decided to include an averaging process within their process.

    I also want to be upfront. There is no perfect competency-based model yet. And there may never be. As much as educators want to have a system perfectly aligned with learning sciences and meeting students needs there are always lots of trade-offs. Knowing the B21 folks they probably tried a lot of different ideas out and found that averaging was helpful without being perfect.

    There are several important things to think about in understanding why they selected averaging. First they are using a continuum of performance levels. Students scores aren’t being averaged — they are averaging the performance levels. Second, B21 has organized themselves around students having incentives to do their best work and to put their best effort in to advance rapidly given so many students have skills gaps. So they want students to always think about doing their best. This is a big step for students that have only experienced failure for years. The averaging of the performance levels give students an understanding of where they are in reaching the next level.

    I don’t know if that will be helpful — but I’ll ask B21 as well. Writing them right now.

  5. Comment by Chris Sturgis 7:43 pm, June 1, 2016

    HI Sam — You can contact Slate for more information about their platform and their work with competency-based schools. Try Christian Kunkel: christian (at) slate (dot) is

    We’d love to hear more about your school in Qatar!

    Also I’m finishing up a piece about the Young Women’s Leadership School in NYC that also pushes the boundaries of how we think about organizing schools so there is much more flexibility. Stay tuned.

  6. Comment by Chris Sturgis 9:07 am, June 2, 2016

    hi — Building 21 team are working on a response to your concern about the use of averages. A couple of things have become clear just in the early conversations that I think you will find helpful or at least interesting:

    a) Some of the decision to average is being driven by the demand to meet state requirements for traditional grades. All districts have conversion processes. B21 is just transparent about theirs. (I’ve been at schools where the conversion is an algorithm in a computer program which no one seems to know how the conversions are made — students were very frustrated rightfully so.)
    b) One of the big distinctions is between average points given on assignments in the traditional system as compared to a way to signal to students how they are doing in reaching the competencies given that each competency is based on a number of skills. B21 tracks the skills but communicates based on the competencies. So the question is given this scenario — is an average an acceptable signal to students. Does it tell them enough and adequately accurately about how they are doing? Students can go into the information system to see exactly how they are doing on each of the skills. (I need to find out how they determine proficiency on each skill)

    Anyway, thanks for asking. You’ve opened up a great conversation.

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