Validating Competence with Wild Pigs in the Woods…

July 3, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-07-03 at 10.19.09 AMWith the school year coming to an end, I have begun the yearly practice of reflecting upon all that has occurred in and out of the classroom. This past week, I have been following along with the conversation around Iowa’s Competency-based workshop through Twitter. Although I was not able to attend, it was great to see the conversations as well as the feedback on the presentations helping to push competency-based education further in active environments.

As I continue to see this grow in both my home state of New Hampshire as well as other forward thinking states, I have begun to think more about the structures of these systems and how we can show student competence. If the ultimate goal is to have our students both college and career ready, then how is it we can validate that student learning has occurred?

In the process of reflection, I was brought back to a statement that my high school math teacher, Mr. Restuccia, used to consistently say. When confronted with a problem, and we could spit out the answer, he would state the claim, “Even a wild pig will find strawberries in the woods sometimes.” Although frustrating as a student, his statement was true to the fact that, just because we had the answer, didn’t mean that we truly understood the concepts or how to use the information.

Fast forward to the present, and I see this as one of the statements that should be remembered as we look at how we assess and validate competence for our current students. Below are a couple of ideas that I would like to offer up for discussion, as we look further into this in the near futur

1. How many assessments can validate competence? If we have a competency that a student is being assessed in, is there a magic number that can be used in order to help validate that a student’s mastery understanding is there? Can it be universal for all students?

2. How many different assessors should there be for a competency? Similar to the first point, I have been brainstorming: Should we want a wide array of experts assessing in each competency so that the validation of competence has a “360” view of the students mastery?

3. When we assess a student’s competence, what is the best way to show the understanding a student has attained? Do educators allow retakes after feedback so that students can achieve mastery on a case-by-case basis? Do you average the consistencies in reporting student understanding that paints a picture of the student’s mastery? An example of this would be using four assessments with a grade of 3, 4, 4, and 3, (on a 4-point scale, which, depending upon how you grade, equals an 87.5%, [14/16]), or the same reporting back that gives you an average of 3.5 on the 4-point scale.

As we progress down the road to competency-based education, I am hopeful that we will start to see some of the questions above answered. It is the only way that we can make sure that our students thrive (as opposed to just survive) in the environments that they are progressing toward!

About the Author

Justin Ballou is a high-school social studies teacher in New Hampshire. Besides teaching, he is active building/running an education startup called Socrademy, several business ventures, and enjoys spending time with his beautiful wife. With competency-based systems, edtech, and authentic learning as his go-to topics, you can reach him at to ask questions or leave comments, and follow him on twitter (@socrademy).

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  1. Comment by Chris Sturgis 11:48 pm, July 3, 2013

    Thanks for a great post Justin. On your first question, I have seen some teachers or schools set a policy of three assessments on every measurable standard. That seems to be a bureaucratic approach rather than relying on the teacher’s professional assessment that the student has learned something at levels 3 (analysis) or 4 (utilization of knowledge). It also doesn’t discriminate from super-important concepts (power standards) and every single standard.

    I’ve heard concerns that without easy access to an information system designed to track student progress this also becomes difficult for teachers to manage if they have three assessments for every standard.

    Schools with a strong culture of collaboration and professional development seem to have a more flexible approach to this aspect of knowing when students are proficient.

    Finally, I’ve also heard the question raised, “How long should a student be proficient in something? Sure they may be able to demonstrate their learning one, two weeks after learning the material. But do we expect students to be absolutely proficient at the end of the semester at the end of the year? Are we then getting into refreshing the learning…or test prep.

    I think Diploma Plus has an interesting way of managing some of this — students are expected to reach the level of 3 (analysis) on all the content in a class. Then apply it or reach level 4 in a larger project. They may not be using every specific standard…but they are demonstrating that they know how to apply the larger concepts in new situations.

    I think we’ll always see some variation in how schools answer these questions — at some level they are design choices. And some really may be preferences on the part of teachers in how they want to shape the culture of their classroom.

  2. Comment by Justin Ballou 10:20 pm, July 5, 2013

    Thanks for the input, Chris!

    I definitely agree with the additional points you provide! There are many factors that play into the transition…..and the need for an easy to use information system as well as an open and collaborative environment are two VERY important parts to helping the transition to competence.

    I am very interested to see how others are helping to mitigate the issues that are emerging!

  3. Comment by Rose Colby 6:43 pm, July 6, 2013

    I agree with the Diploma Plus approach. With every competency, there should be performance indicators that are identified. These PI’s should include Level 3 or 4 demonstrations of content and skill. When that is reached, a student has met the mastery required by the competency for the unit or work (or extended learning opportunity). Good competency design generally has the same competency addressed many times over the course of a learning experience. It is for that reason that the Performance Indicators are a critical part of the design process. If you look at the K-12 College and Career-Ready CCSS Aligned competencies in both ELA and Math, you will see a relatively small number of competencies that would be used across the K-12 continuum. Here is the link for the competencies:

  4. Comment by Bill Zima 7:22 pm, July 9, 2013

    Thanks Justin for getting the conversation started around this very important topic. I have seen districts, schools and teachers spend a great deal of time pondering this question. At my school, teachers have the professional authority to make the decision on when a student has demonstrated they understand a concept or can use a skill. We defined and described what proficiency means and then let the educator gather evidence. The teacher then makes a decision based on the preponderance of evidence gathered. For each student, the amount of evidence needed to make a decision is different. Even after a teacher makes the decision, they wonder if the student is truly ready. That feeling has existed since the first teacher and will continue long into the future. We are humans judging humans on their readiness to face what comes next. You cannot remove bias nor be guaranteed of accuracy in judgement. We can simply increase the probability based on the strength of the evidence.

    I Love the wild pig statement. Will use that often.

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